The Four Functions of Behavior: Determining What is Maintaining Your Child’s Behavior

The Four Functions of Behavior: Determining What is Maintaining Your Child’s Behavior

When it comes to behavior, both positive behaviors that we are trying to increase, and problem behaviors that we are trying to decrease, there is always a reason behind why the behavior is occurring. This is referred to as the function of the behavior. Every behavior has a specific function that maintains the behavior. To effectively develop an intervention to treat the behavior, the function of the behavior must first be determined. Let's first define the four functions of behavior. 


  1. Attention

The first function of behavior is attention. Attention-seeking behavior occurs when the individual engaging in the behavior is seeking attention from another person. A great example of an attention-seeking behavior is crying or tantrum behavior. A child may engage in tantrum behavior because they are seeking attention for that behavior from another individual. The key here is to not provide attention to problem behaviors that your child is demonstrating because that will further maintain their behavior. 


  1. Escape

The next function of behavior is escape. This typically occurs when a learner wants to “escape” or avoid doing something. This is typically very common in ABA therapy sessions when it comes to instructional time. Children will engage in problem behaviors to escape from the learning activity. For example, if a child does not want to work on completing a puzzle or reading a book, they may run away from the therapist to escape the instructional activity. Token systems can be effective in treating behaviors maintained by escape since there is a designated time for both play and instruction.


  1. Access To Tangibles

Access to tangibles is somewhat self-explanatory, but it is also very important. A child may engage in a certain behavior because they are looking to gain access to something. I often use the example of wanting something to eat like a child wanting a cookie. That cookie is very reinforcing to the child so they will engage in interfering behaviors to gain access to that tangible cookie. While it is beneficial to reinforce your child’s positive behaviors with tangibles, it’s important to recognize the fact that this is a function of behavior and is something to be mindful of. 


  1. Sensory Stimulation

Lastly, sensory stimulation or sensory needs is the last function of behavior. This occurs when the child is looking for sensory input in that part of their body. If your child is frequently engaging in stimulatory behaviors, this is most likely the function. In terms of what this behavior looks like, sensory stimulation can manifest itself in several ways. Just a few examples in children include jumping, skipping, hand-flapping, and other physical behaviors that are very repetitive in nature. 

Photo by Makarios Tang on Unsplash


David DeFranco

David DeFranco is a recent graduate from Seton Hall University. He earned his B.A. in Social and Behavioral Sciences in May of 2020 and is currently enrolled in Seton Hall’s M.A. in ABA program. He is an RBT for the Sunshine Center and is pursuing his BCBA credential.

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