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Functions of Behaviour

Do you remember having to go into the office during pre-covid times, with that one annoying co-worker who would just not stop complaining? What about thinking even further back to when you were in school and had a classmate shouting obscenities and getting sent to the office? Don’t forget about the kid at the grocery store throwing a tantrum in the candy aisle. My personal favourite, twirling your hair or rocking back and forth, just because. Sometimes it leaves you thinking “what the function!!?”

These are all different types of behaviour, done for different reasons.

That annoying co-worker absolutely loves the attention, when they could corner you in the break room and complain about their weekend, or how busy their daily to-do list is, and have your attention for a solid 10-minutes while you politely try to back out of the conversation.

For the rowdy classmate who hated the subject and did not want to sit through a lesson and complete the schoolwork – this is when being sent to the office was the best thing they could hope for! No more math work!

We all know that kiddo was throwing a tantrum for access to a preferred item. Most parents would be quick to agree and get the treat to appease their tantrumming child and quietly leave the scene.

But what about those behaviours that seem to happen just because? The hair twirling while seated watching TV, or rocking back and forth while knitting. Sometimes people engage in a behaviour because it feels good – not to escape a demand, or gain access to attention or tangibles.

But can the same behaviour happen for different reasons?

What if the rowdy classmate who shouted obscenities to escape math class, also shouted obscenities to gain attention from peers during gym?

What Does “Functions of Behaviour” Mean?

The function is the why. Why is a person engaging in a particular behaviour at that specific point in time?

All behaviour happens for a reason, knowing what that reason is will help us as practitioners guide the learner on how to get their needs met. It is important to know why a behaviour is happening, so that alternative and more appropriate methods can be taught.

Read more about related communication alternatives!

What Is The Role Of Topography?

Topography is what the behaviour looks like.

With the rowdy classmate who shouts obscenities, it is easy to describe what that behaviour looks like. But if we were to only address what it looks like, and not the reason behind the behaviour (the function/the why), we will not be able to teach appropriate alternative behaviours to meet the students needs in every situation.

If we determined that during gym class, the student shouts obscenities then peers laugh, leaving the rowdy child with a big grin on their face we might think that teaching the student to tell jokes would be an appropriate alternative to gain peer attention. But what happens in math class when the student does not want attention? We have not taught a functional alternative to get their needs met.

What Are The Functions Of Behaviour?

There are common acronyms that can be used to help you remember:

S – Sensory/Automatic
E – Escape/Avoidance
A – Attention
T – Tangibles
A – Automatic/Sensory
A – Avoidance/Escape
A – Attention
A – Access (to Tangibles)

It is important to note, that there is another function which can be considered Control/Rigidity. Some practitioners keep this as a separate function, and some group it with Access (access to having Their Way, for example).


I engage in this behaviour because it feels good for me.

Watch our YouTube video on Sensory/Automatic Strategies!
Don’t forget to read our post about Sensory Behaviour.


I engage in this behaviour because I want to get out of an activity/situation, or because I do not want to participate in the activity/situation.


I engage in this behaviour because I want attention.

Check out our YouTube video on Attention!


I engage in this behaviour because I want to access something.


I engage in this behaviour because I want things done My Way.

What’s Next?

Once we know the function of the behaviour (the reason why the behaviour is occurring), we can teach appropriate alternatives to get the learner’s needs met.


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 – teach the learner an appropriate way to request help, a break, or to choose a different activity.

Download the Cheat Sheet for tips on what to do next for each of the different functions!


1 thought on “Functions of Behaviour”

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

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