Four Functions of Behavior - Little Spurs Autism Centers

Four Functions of Behavior

  • January 9, 2023
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All behaviors serve a purpose. Through their behavior, children are communicating something to us, and it is our job to figure out what that is. The four functions of behavior are used by Applied Behavior Analysis professionals to understand WHY. Why is a child throwing their food? Why is a child running away? Why is a child throwing a tantrum? The more you understand why, the more you can help. The predominant four functions of behavior are listed below, these functions of behavior allow us a better understanding to what is going on when these behaviors occur, and how ABA therapy can be a good solution.


  • Function #1: Sensory 

This function is also known as automatic reinforcement. This could include things like biting nails, spinning, fidgeting with an object, jumping up and down, etc. A lot of the time this can happen when a child is overwhelmed or bored with the task at hand. If you notice your child engaging in sensory automatic behaviors, prompt them to interact with you so that you can assess what they need in the situation, prompt communication, or move to a new task.  

  • Function #2: Escape  

Also known as avoidance behavior. When engaging in this behavior, there is a task/activity/stimulus that the child wants to avoid. For example, it is time to clean up a preferred task and a child is avoiding the task of cleaning up by engaging in tantrum behaviors, escaping to another room before the task is done, etc. The reality is, we all have tasks that aren’t our most preferred activity, such as folding laundry, washing the dishes, cleaning out the car, etc. Learning there are positive reinforcements for doing the things that are not preferred can help create a balanced system of rewards for doing the task at hand. For example: doing the dishes allows you to have clean dishes to cook and eat with the next day! We have to change the mentality for our children. Instead of “If I run away, I don’t have to clean up” we need to change the thought to “if I clean up, I get to do another fun activity!” If your child is engaging in escape behavior, you can prompt them to ask for a break from the task, ask for help with the task, or move to another task. 

  • Function #3: Attention 

The function of attention is present when behaviors are attention seeking, or when a child is not being engaged in the way they want to be. For example, if you need to take a phone call while your child is wanting to show you something they made, this can result in tantrum behaviors because your attention is elsewhere at that moment and your child is seeking attention. When your child is engaging in attention seeking behaviors, try modeling asking for attention appropriately. This can include tapping a parent on the shoulder, using verbal communication, learning to wait appropriately by practicing and turn taking, etc.   

  • Function #4: Tangibles  

This is when a behavior occurs with a goal to receive an item. The classic example of a child seeing candy in the store and being told ‘no”, and it is resulting in a tantrum behavior or with crying. If you are struggling in this area you can model asking for access to an item, prompt your child to ask for items, and work on accepting no when the item is simply not available. While accepting no can be a challenge all on its own, remind your child of other options for them that are available when the item they want is unavailable. 

It is important to note that behaviors can occur when a child is seeking one of these categories, or when they do not want something. They could be seeking attention or tangibles or trying to avoid attention and tangibles. The best way that we can understand the functions of behavior for a child is by engaging with them and collecting data on what kind of behaviors they are engaging in and when. To identify the functions of a behavior, behavior analysts collect specific data which can be broken down into a simple acronym of ABC. This data refers to: 

  1. Antecedent: what is happening before the behavior occurs. What does the environment look like, what activities are going on, what demands are being placed on the child, etc.  
  1. Behavior: What is the behavior of the child, what exactly is happening, how long it is happening for, and how often.  
  1. Consequence: Often this word has a negative connotation, however, consequences can be positive and negative in effect. Behavior therapists will collect data on what is going on after the behavior occurs. What was to gain from the behavior that was displayed, or what was taken out of the environment due to the behavior, and what was the result on the child and their behavior.  

Collecting data in this way can point Behavior Analysts to the right direction in identifying the function of the behavior which is the key first step in creating an intervention plan that is suitable for the individual through ABA therapy. Behavior intervention plans can vary depending on many factors, but of all the factors considered, one of the most important is the functions of the behaviors the child is often engaging in because it sheds light on what the child is trying to communicate with the world around them. 


Little Spurs Autism Centers offers collaborative and compassionate ABA Therapy to children 0-21 years old. Offering both center-based and home-based care, LSAC is excited to empower families by providing them with the support they need. For more information, please email us at

Article By: Breanna Vickers, RBT | Reviewed by Sarah Powell, BCBA, LBA

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