Behavior Week: Identifying Target Behaviors and Function

Categories: Resources

If it hasn’t happened already it’s bound to happen any day now. Probably even this week. Maybe tomorrow even. It’s about this time of year for every teacher something potentially disastrous happens. The honeymoon period ends. Kids become comfortable. They maybe get bored. The initial allure of fresh notebooks and new pencils has worn off. Those previously angelic and innocent faces are now replaced with mischievous smirks and rolling eyes. Things could get crazy.

So what a better time for a whole week’s worth of posts on behavior management? As a future BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) and complete ABA nerd, I love thinking, talking, and writing about everything behavior related! So here is the line up for this week:

Monday: Identifying Target Behaviors and Function (you gotta know where to start right?)

Tuesday: Attention Maintained Behaviors (every classroom has some of this… you now who I’m talking about)

Wednesday: Escape Maintained Behaviors (what crafty and clever things are you students doing to get out of work and how can we stop it?)

Thursday: Sensory Behaviors (let’s delve into the whole wonderful world of scripting, stimming, and more)

Friday: Behavior Management Freebies and more!

Saturday: The Ultimate Do’s and Don’ts of a Token Economy Why isn’t your token economy working?


Monday: Identifying Target Behaviors and Function 

So you have to find a place to start first and foremost. You will need to prioritize. You cannot work on all behaviors at one time! I promise you can’t. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What behaviors are potentially dangerous?
  • How long have these issues been a problem?
  • Will changing this behavior provide more opportunities for functional independence, inclusion, or socialization?
  • Will changing this behavior improve the child’s quality of life?
  • Which behavior is the most disruptive to class/other students?
  • What is the cost-benfit of improving this behavior?

Depending on if you work in a classroom or just with one child, choose the most significant behaviors to target first. Behaviors that are the most dangerous, disruptive, or frequent are good starting off points. This means you may have to let some other inappropriate behavior go for a while. It’s okay, you will live. You can work on them later. If a student is hitting other kids you may have to ignore the swearing for a while. If one student is very disruptive you may need to focus on him first before using interventions with other students. Once you get one behavior under control you can work on the next one.

Once you have some ideas of some behaviors you would like to target, I highly recommend writing out a very specific definition. Even if you are the only one taking data, you’d be surprised how much your perception can change of what you are counting as a behavior (what you consider property destruction in September could change by March). If a student slaps another student does that count the same as a punch? What about a poke? How would you define ‘talking back,’ ‘off task,’ or ‘disruptive’? Write a definition that clearly identifies what the inappropriate behavior looks like. Include only what you can see/observe  not what you think the child is doing.

  • Good example: During independent work time, the students gets up and walks away from his desk and begins talking to other students and taking items such as pencils or paper off their desk and throwing it on the floor.
  • Bad example: When the student wants attention, he bugs other students to get a rise out of them.

— don’t make assumptions about why the student is doing what they are doing yet! That student could be bugging his friends because the independent work is too hard!

You have your target behavior and definition – now you need to take some baseline data. Baseline data is data you take before you start an intervention. This will show you where to start and let you know if your intervention has actually been helpful. This will also help determine what the function of the behavior is. Function means what the individual is getting out of doing the behavior. What is the consequence of the behavior? And I don’t mean consequence like a punishment consequence that an adult would give. But what happens after the child does the behavior? The 3 main areas that behaviors fall under are:

  • attention maintained: the student is doing this behavior to get positive or negative attention – I will also be including tangible maintained with this – behavior results in access to food/item/toy/etc.
  • escape maintained: the student is doing this behavior to get out of something (work, socialization, environment…)
  • sensory: this behavior gives some type of internal and natural reinforcement to the individual (ie: the child would do this if they were alone)

Once you figure out what is the function of the behavior, you will know where to start to figure out an intervention that is appropriate. So this big question: how do you figure out what the function is? Take some data! The main type of data taken to figure out function is called ABC data:

  • antecedent: what happened before
  • behavior
  • consequence: what happened after

Tips for taking ABC data:

  • write down what the individual says and does
  • use abbreviations as much as possible since you may be writing a lot
  • don’t write down interpretations
  • include time (what time the behavior happened, how long) if possible
  • note other important things that happened that day – did you have gym? something specific for lunch? did the child take the bus instead of mom or dad driving them?

Oh you don’t have time to be taking detailed ABC data all day long? Yea me neither. You have a whole boatload of kids you need to be teaching as well? Yea same.

  • Figure out what data sheet works best for you. I like data sheets with as little writing as possible. Something I can just check or circle works great for me.
  • Don’t take data all day! Pick a few time period throughout the day (ie. from 9-9:30, 12- 12:45 and 1:30-2 and record during those times the next day do the opposite time periods)
  • If needed ask your principal if you can borrow an extra paraprofessional and have them take data!

Here are some ABC Data sheets. I included a TON some I have used, some I have made, and some I found online. I recommend finding what works for you and is easiest. Because if it’s not easy and too complicated – you won’t do it!

Super detailed: ABC data sheet

Another detailed on: ABC data sheet

Pretty Basic: ABC data sheet  – For this sheet, you could write in consequences or antecedents that frequently happen. For example, under consequences, if usually kids talk back to student, teacher reprimands, or student is ignore you could write abbreviations for each and write them in each box under consquence. Then photocopy the page you wrote on and then when you are taking data you can just circle the consequence that occurred.

Another basic: ABC data sheet

One more: ABC data sheet

Lots of similar behaviors: ABC data sheet I use this one a ton! For a child that has many similar behaviors – such as hitting, biting, kicking, throwing items, etc. you can take data for all behaviors on one form. Write the behaviors in the top row in the gray boxes.

Here are some cool checklists: ABC checklist

Another checklist: ABC Checklist – this looks super complicated but if you found several options that happened frequently you could highlight them and then this could be very quick to fill out in-situ.


You are almost done! Last step: analyze your ABC data!  

  • look for patterns – is the child usually in a certain location or with specific children
  • what tends to happen most often after the behavior – make tallies if needed
  • are there particular subjects/teacher the behavior occurs in more often
  • any patterns related to time of day
This should help determine a function of the behavior. If you are seeing no pattern at all and the behavior is done often when the child is alone – it could be a sensory behavior.
Up tomorrow: interventions and strategies for behaviors that are maintained by attention!





  1. This is amazing!!!!

  2. I needed an easy to understand chart for parents I work with to use to help me best understand their kid’s behavior, and I found EXACTLY what I needed here! Great work!

  3. Great! So happy this helps!

  4. Thank you Sasha,
    you have made it so easy to digest and apply in real life.

  5. Happy this helped!

  6. can you please give me a concreate examples of ABC model please

  7. targets behaviors examples please

  8. Some target behaviors could be:
    – During class time, the student stands up and walks around the room talking loudly to peers and to himself.
    – When given a work task, the student throws his body to the floor and cries and yells.
    – The student bites his hand or arm.

  9. thank you so much

  10. What would you suggest for a replacement behavior for a student who hides under the desk?

  11. Is he hiding under his desk to escape work? Get attention? Escape something in the environment?

  12. Hi! I have one student who bites his hands when excited/frustrated. What can I do to stop/replace this behavior with something that does not harm him?

    I also have a student that loves to slap his hands on desks. I’m not sure if it is for the loud sound it creates or the feeling of his hand but i’m not sure how to stop it. Any suggestions would be great! Thanks.

  13. I have a child that does not want to sit at the table when eating. He comes over to the table, grabs a handful of food and walks away. What could an intervention be?

  14. kindly I need your help please what are some of the conditions that limit the selection of a target behaviour?

  15. I’d try giving smaller portions of food or giving food after he sits at the table for a small time period. Also – allow him to wander after he eats as maybe that is a sensory need!

  16. Great!

  17. The 3 areas behavior falls under was very helpful in itemizing why students act out in class.

  18. Thank you for these! They will certainly help when having conferences with parents or counselors.

    • Thanks for reading 🙂


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