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Understanding the Functions of Behavior in ABA


Behavior plays a significant role in our lives, and understanding the functions of behavior is crucial for parents, teachers, and practitioners alike. In the field of ABA, having a grasp of behavior functions can help identify the reasons behind certain behaviors and develop effective strategies to address them.

What is a Function of Behavior?

Why does a person behave in a certain way at a particular moment? The function of behavior is about the why behind every action.

Every behavior, no matter how perplexing, has a purpose. As ABA practitioners, comprehending these purposes empowers us to guide learners toward meeting their needs in a more suitable manner.

The function of a behavior is akin to the riddle’s answer — steering us toward understanding why it’s occurring. This invaluable insight allows us to introduce alternative methods that are not only effective but also socially acceptable.

Why Does Topography Matter?

Topography describes what a behavior looks like. Picture a boisterous classmate who frequently shouts obscenities. While it’s easy to outline this behavior, stopping at the mere description and overlooking the function means we miss an opportunity to teach appropriate alternative behaviors.

Imagine a situation where, during gym class, this same student shouts obscenities, inciting laughter from peers and a self-satisfied grin on their face. It might seem like teaching the student to tell jokes could be a fitting substitute to gain peer attention.

But what happens in a quieter setting like math class when the student shies away from attention? Without addressing the root cause — the function of the behavior, we fail to provide a truly functional alternative to cater to their needs across contexts.

By comprehending both the function and topography of behavior, we can devise a holistic approach to managing challenging behaviors effectively. Remember, the secret to modifying behavior isn’t just understanding ‘what’ but also unraveling the ‘why’.

Understanding the Main Behavior Functions

Behavior functions refer to the purpose or reason behind a specific behavior. By identifying the function, we can gain insights into what motivates an individual to engage in certain behaviors. These five common behavior functions occur frequently:

1. Escape/Avoidance

Some individuals exhibit behaviors to escape or avoid certain situations, tasks, or demands. This behavior can include tantrums, aggression, or withdrawal.

Example: Throw something across the room to get put in time out or taken to the office, which means they will be removed from lessons or unwanted tasks.

2. Attention-Seeking

Some individuals engage in behaviors to gain attention from others. This behavior could involve disruptive actions, interrupting conversations, or seeking constant validation.

Example: A child may do something silly, like fall out of their chair, to try and get the other children to laugh or focus on them.

3. Tangible Reinforcement

Certain behaviors are motivated by the desire to obtain something tangible, such as toys, food, or access to preferred activities (or control – see below). These behaviors can include demands, whining, or protests.

Example: Hitting another child to get access to the toy they are using.

4. Sensory Stimulation

Some individuals engage in behaviors to seek sensory input or stimulation. This behavior can manifest as repetitive movements, hand-flapping, or rocking. They may also do this as a way to regulate, or when they are feeling dysregulated.

Example: This can be a subtle movement or motion almost without even noticing they are doing it, such as bouncing their knee up and down.

5. Control/ Rigidity 

Okay! You caught us!  This is not really its own separate category.  Control/Rigidity is technically classified as access to tangible – I engage in negative behavior to get what I want – but we love to tease it out a little more because we see it so often.  This behavior is characterized by a strong desire to have things done their own way, often leading to inflexibility and resistance to change. Individuals engaging in this behavior may feel a sense of comfort and security when they are in control or when things adhere to their specific expectations.  

Example: A child may have a tantrum in order to be the one reading the book instead of listening to the teacher or another child.

Identifying Behavior Functions

To effectively address challenging behaviors, it’s essential to identify their functions. Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA) are commonly used to determine the underlying function of a behavior. FBAs involve various methods, including:

1. Direct Observation

Observing the individual in different settings and situations to gather data on the antecedents and consequences associated with the behavior.

2. Interviews

Conducting interviews with parents, teachers, and practitioners to gain insights into the context and triggers of the behavior.

3. Functional Analysis

A more controlled and structured approach that involves antecedents and consequences to determine their impact on behavior.

Applying Behavior Function Knowledge

Once the function of a behavior is determined (note: there may be more than one function), it becomes easier to develop targeted behavior action plans. These plans aim to address the underlying cause of the behavior while teaching alternative skills. Here are four key strategies (simplified) for addressing specific behavior functions:

1. Escape/Avoidance

Instead of engaging in challenging behaviors to escape or avoid certain situations or demands, individuals can be taught alternative coping mechanisms, such as self-advocating, appropriate protesting, utilizing visual schedules, and/or asking for breaks.

2. Attention-Seeking

Individuals can be provided with opportunities for positive attention and reinforcement when engaging in appropriate behaviors to redirect attention-seeking behavior.


3. Tangible Reinforcement

Rather than resorting to demanding or protesting behavior to obtain tangible items, individuals can be taught to use communication skills to request those items or activities. Individuals can also be taught to wait when those tangibles are delayed.

4. Sensory Stimulation

For those seeking sensory input, implementing a predictable sensory routine comprising specific activities or objects can help appropriately meet their sensory needs.

Collaboration is key in understanding and addressing behavior functions. By working together, parents, teachers, and practitioners can share insights, strategies, and progress to create a holistic and consistent approach to behavior management.


Next Steps in Behavior Function

Once we’ve identified the function of a behavior, it becomes crucial to focus on teaching appropriate alternatives to meet the learner’s needs. Understanding the underlying reason behind the behavior allows ABA practitioners to develop targeted interventions that address the root cause and promote more desirable behaviors.

Ultimately, by teaching alternative strategies and skills, we can empower children with more effective ways to fulfill their needs without resorting to challenging behaviors. This process involves providing explicit instruction, modeling, practice opportunities, reinforcement, and ongoing support.

With consistent implementation, learners can develop and utilize desirable behaviors that better meet their needs and lead to positive outcomes.


If a child is hitting others to escape a task, we want to teach them that hitting does not grant them access to what they want (escape – for the task to be removed).

What would the appropriate alternative be?

Functional communication training could be one option – teaching the learner an appropriate way to request help, a break, or to choose a different activity.

Understanding the functions of behavior in ABA is a valuable tool for parents, teachers, and practitioners alike. We can develop effective action plans tailored to individual needs by recognizing and addressing behavior functions. Collaboration and ongoing learning play a vital role in successfully managing challenging behavior and promoting positive outcomes for individuals, so let’s work together to create a supportive and inclusive environment for all!


2 thoughts on “Understanding the Functions of Behavior in ABA”

  1. Pingback: Functional Communication Training (FCT) and Replacement Behavior - How to ABA

  2. Love that the 5th behavior is “control/rigidity”. This is the function of most of my daughter’s tantrums. Thank you for easily explaining this all and providing examples.

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