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What's Your Function? The 4 "Reasons" for all Behavior.

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

“He just does that out of nowhere!”

“She does it for no reason!”

If you haven’t heard one of these phrases, you probably haven’t hung around too many parents. It’s usually easy to point out what a child’s bad, or in ABA-speak "maladaptive", behaviors are but it can be pretty tricky to figure out why they’re engaging in that behavior. For example, you know that Johnny shouldn’t be picking his nose...but you can’t figure out why on earth he’s doing it! (More on this later...)

A common misconception is that behaviors will sometimes happen for no reason, but all behaviors can be boiled down to one (or more than one) of four reasons, or in ABA-speak: "functions of behavior". They are: Attention, Escape, Access, or Automatic. These functions, are important to identify because they can help us determine how we should intervene on a behavior. Once we can identify the function(s), we can stop the behavior from occurring, or on the flip-side, encourage the behavior to continue.

Attention: The person engages in this behavior because it gets them attention--good or bad! Attention can involve vocal communication, eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, and physical interaction. This attention can look like:

- Saying “Great job!” and giving high fives

- Frowning or making an upset face

- Hugs and tickles

- Saying “No! Don’t do that!”

- Talking about the behavior to another person in front of them

- Turning around and facing them.

We can assume the person prefers the nice attention, but when they can’t get that, they’ll often settle for the not-so-nice attention mentioned. Either way, the person is looking to get some type of response from another person, or group of people.

How do we know when a behavior is attention seeking? They are usually looking for your reaction! Check to see if the person is looking at you right after the behavior, or calling your attention to the behavior (eg: “you can’t catch me!” or “haha, I hit you!”).

Escape: The person engages in this behavior because it gets them out of a non-preferred task or demand. These behaviors are can be appropriate, inappropriate, or even helpful.

Saying “I’m all done. Can I leave?”

Pointing at a “break card”

Ripping up the math homework to get out of it.

Running away from the table when you take out their homework

Needing to suddenly use the bathroom before the class

Offering to help with chores to avoid writing a paper

How do we know a behavior is Escape maintained? The behavior happens in the presence of a demand. The behavior does not happen when there is no non-preferred activity or task presented.

Tangible: The person engages in this behavior because it gets them something they want--a preferred item or activity. There are appropriate ways to request things, and inappropriate ways, but both serve the same function.

- Screaming when told “no”

- Saying “my turn please!”

- Snatching toys from other children

- Asking for a raise!

- Robbing a bank

- Crying for a pacifier

How do we know a behavior is Tangible maintained? The behavior happens when the person does not have access to something they want, and can not get it themselves. This may be something they just need to ask for, or it may be when they are told “no”. The person has learned that engaging in these behaviors is an effective way to get access to that item or activity.

Automatic: The person engages in these behaviors because they are internally pleasing, or they feel good ! They may also happen because they stop something that feels bad. Sometimes we even do these things without realizing it, or thinking about it.

- Humming along to a song when you’re alone

- Drumming your fingers or tapping your feet while thinking

- Stretching your legs after a long car ride

- Rocking back and forth

- Cracking your knuckles

How do we know when the function of a behavior is Automatic? The behavior happens across all environments and does not change dependent on attention, demands, or tangibles. They engage in the behavior whether or not someone else is in the room, and whether they are doing a preferred activity or not.

It’s important to remember that the same behavior can have any number of the four functions! By using some of the information above, you can try to identify it! Analysts and ABA Therapists have formal assessments that they can conduct to determine the function(s) of a behavior using data and controlled environments. Once you have the function(s) identified, you can begin modifying the behavior.


Now that you know all about the 4 functions of behavior...lets get back to our nose-picking pal, Johnny.

The original question: Johnny picks his nose, but you can’t figure out why? Well, now you can! Here are some specific examples as it applies to each function:

Attention: Johnny picks his nose in front of his classmates and they giggle. They say “Look at Johnny! He’s silly.” Johnny likes the attention, and continues picking his nose to get more attention!

Escape: Johnny picks his nose at the dinner table, and you say “Johnny! That’s gross. Go wash your hands.” Johnny gets to leave the dinner table for a few minutes and delay eating those Brussels sprouts you put on his plate. Any time johnny doesn’t want to eat, he can pick his nose and get out of it.

Tangible: Johnny picks his nose while playing blocks with his sister and his sister thinks it’s gross. She leaves the room to go do something else. Johnny now has all of the blocks to himself! In the future, he knows that picking his nose is one effective way of getting all of the blocks he wants.

Automatic: Johnny picks his nose all of the time. He does this whether or not there is attention, demands, or preferred activities near-by. Because his behavior is consistent across all environments, we know that he is engaging in the behavior because it gives him internal pleasure--not because it changes the environment around him.

It is important to keep in mind that although every behavior does boil down to one, or a combination of, those 4 is possible to think a certain function is responsible for a certain behavior, when in reality the function is something else. We'll dive into misidentifying functions in a future post...that'll be "What's Your Function 102". For now, you've just graduated "What's Your Function 101"! Until next time, we're off to wash Johnny's hands.

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