Functions of Behavior

“Why did he do that?”

We hear parents ask this question often regarding behavior functions. When assessed, reasons for the behavior become more apparent. This newfound understanding can assist in creating a systematic and personalized behavior therapy plan for your child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

1. Social Attention

A person may engage in a specific type of behavior in order to gain social attention. For example, a child might engage in a behavior to get other people to look at them, laugh at them, play with them, hug them or scold them.

While it may seem strange that a person would engage in a behavior to deliberately have someone scold them, it can occur for because some people it is better to obtain “bad” attention than no attention at all (Cooper, Heron and Heward, 2007).

2. Tangibles or Activities

Some behaviors occur so the person can obtain a tangible item or gain access to a desired activity. For example, someone might scream and shout until their parents buy them a new toy (tangible item) or bring them to the zoo (activity).

3. Escape or Avoidance

Not all behaviors occur so the person can “obtain” something; many behaviors occur because the person wants to get away from something or avoid something altogether (Miltenberger, 2008).

For example, a child might engage in aggressive behavior so his teachers stop running academic tasks with him or another child might engage in self-injury to avoid having to go outside to play with classmates.

4. Sensory Stimulation

The function of some behaviors does not rely on anything external to the person and instead are internally pleasing in some way – they are “self-stimulating” (O’Neill, Horner, Albin, Sprague, Storey, and Newton, 1997).

They function only to give the person some form of internal sensation that is pleasing or to remove and internal sensation that is displeasing (e.g. pain).

For example, a child might rock back and forth because it is enjoyable for them while another child might rub their knee to soothe the pain after accidentally banging it on the corner of the table. In both cases, these children do not engage in either behavior to obtain any attention, any tangible items or to escape any demands placed on them.

Tools For Discovering the Functions of a Behavior- ABC Data

The observer records a descriptive account of the behaviors of interest including what happens before, during and after behaviors are performed.

A- Antecedent

What occurs in the environment immediately before the behavior of interest?

B- Behavior

What the behavior of interest looks like.

Examples of what to record: What the behavior of interest looks like (e.g hitting, kicking, throwing, ripping paper, eating rocks etc) frequency and duration when applicable.

C- Consequence

What occurs in the environment immediately after the behavior of interest? This is the part of the ABC’s that causes the behavior to happen again and again.

Examples of what to record: Who delivered the consequence, what items they were allowed access to pre- and post-consequence, what work they stopped doing as a result of the behavior.


The image above displays the ABCs of functions of behavior but in a helpful chart format.

A tried and true example of the ABCs of functions of behavior in action is the screaming kid in the grocery store. A child in a shopping cart enters the checkout line and sees the shelf full of candy (antecedent), they begin to cry because they want a candy bar (behavior), the parent wants them to stop crying so they buy them the candy bar (consequence). In the child’s mind, they cried once and got the candy bar, most likely they will cry next grocery trip since the behavior worked in the past. Before long, it becomes a perpetual loop of crying and buying. 

By assessing your child’s behaviors based on this technique, you may be able to more accurately understand your child’s behavior and develop a plan that you can implement in your home.

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