Types of Behavioral Function

Everyone has been there. In line at a crowded grocery store. An exhausted mom. A persistent toddler. The gleaming, shiny perfect candy bar. The toddler starts with whining, then some tears and before you have a chance to flip through the latest issue of US weekly that toddler is in full meltdown mode. He’s on the floor, there is kicking, screaming, yelling, the whole nine yards. The mom is embarrassed, tired, and just wants her kids to shut the heck up. Can you blame her? She grabs the candy bar and desperately hands it over. The crying stops and all is right in the world. The toddler climbs back into the cart with a head full of new knowledge. Tantrum = candy bar. What do you think is going to happen next time they go grocery shopping?

Applied Behavior Analysis is the science of human behavior. ABA improves socially significant behaviors, improves behaviors to a meaningful degree, and proves that change in behavior results from an intervention. I am Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) which means I am clinician of Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA looks at the function of behaviors. Function = why you do something/what you get out of it/reinforcer. Every behavior has a function. Every single one. Think about it. 
Let’s think about all the things I do on my most favorite possession. My iPhone. I engage in a lot of iPhone related behaviors but they have different functions. 
  •  The function of me dialing my phone is talk to someone and get some attention.
  •  The function of me going on facebook is escape doing my work.
  • The function of me pressing ‘decline’ is to avoid talking to someone annoying.
  • The function of me running over my iphone with my car is to crack my screen into a million pieces. Hmm… maybe a consequence but you get my point.
So basically, everything everyone does results in some type of reinforcement or some reason why you do it. A key component of ABA is figuring out what these reinforcers are and manipulating them to cause change. You need to decide one of: 
The Autism Helper
  1. attention/tangible: Behavior is functioning  get positive or negative attention. Or behavior is functioning to gain access to a tangible item.
  2. escape: Behavior is functioning to get out of something (work, socialization, environment…).
  3. sensory: Behavior gives some type of internal and natural reinforcement to the individual (ie: the child would do this if they were alone).




This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!

The Autism Helper - Summer Series




  1. This post is so great, I think we often forget that behaviors that look aggressive to us may actually be sensory motivated. I was wondering if you are planning on addressing this specifically in your series or if you had any offhand suggestions for this type of behavior? I have a student who throws chairs because he enjoys the vibration and the noises they make. I’ve taken months of data on this behavior, implemented an intensive sensory diet with his OT and have written an FBA with the school psychologist but I’m not sure how effective it is because nothing seems to motivate him as much as the chairs. I’ve tried teaching replacement behaviors with loud objects that won’t be dangerous, but so far he is uninterested. Any suggestions at all (or even just commiseration at this point 🙂 ) would be really appreciated!

  2. Love the examples you provided.

  3. Ugh. That’s a tricky one! Obviously not a behavior you can ignore. Some strategies during the sensory week may be helpful or possibly during the attention week. It sounds like a dual function of attention and sensory.

  4. I’m all about examples! I never understand things when people explain it – until I get examples!

  5. Sasha,
    What about a student who refuses to come into the classroom at all? He finally has been given the assistance of a transitional paraeductor to help redirect him. He has been diagnosed with autism but he’s echolalic. He does not respond to questions except with parroting what the person is speaking.

  6. Another function if behavior is Power/Control. Giving as many choices as possible can help!

  7. Sounds like an escape behavior. Trying to escape demands of the classroom/unfamiliarity of classroom. I would try using edible reinforcement to get him into the room and spend some major time making the classroom a reinforcing environment.

  8. Definitely! That is an intervention we will talk about during the escape behaviors week that can be hugely effective!


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