How to Better Understand the Four Functions of Behavior

There’s a reason why we act how we act. Our behaviors make sense and have functions, even if that isn’t always clear.

If a child is behaving in an unfavorable way, it’s because the behavior is meeting a specific need.

Learning about the four functions of behavior is important for teaching children and becoming a better educator. Keep reading to understand what the functions are so that you can learn how to modify the behavior in the future.

Understanding That Behaviors Occur for a Reason

Before we break down the 4 functions of behavior, it’s important to have the context behind it. ABA or Applied Behavior Analysts often use this concept to identify why a person is continuing to engage in a behavior, believing that behavior typically serves a function or purpose for the individual.

This is basically referring to the idea that there’s a reason why a behavior is occurring. It can be difficult to understand why an adult or child is engaging in a behavior, especially if it’s something negative like aggression or self-injury, but the underlying function will help explain it.

Behavior can also serve more than a single function at one time. A child might act out in order to gain attention from a teacher, and out of frustration for being required to complete an academic task.

Understanding the function also helps to guide a treatment plan if problematic behaviors are occurring. So what are the ABA four functions of behavior?

1. Social Attention

The first function is social attention or attention-seeking. The goal of attention-seeking behavior is to gain the attention of a nearby adult or another child.

For example, a child might whine in order to get attention from their parents. They may also engage in certain behaviors to get others to laugh with them or play with them, or they may just want people to look at them.

They may not always be seeking positive attention. The child might be behaving in a certain way to elicit anger or scolding from their parent or teacher.

2. Escape

Not all behaviors seek to gain something like attention-seeking. When a child engages in an escape behavior, he or she is trying to get away from something or avoid it altogether.

For example, in a home setting, a child might run away if they don’t want to take a bath. If a child is misbehaving in the classroom by putting their head down on the desk when presented with an assignment, they are attempting to escape the work.

It’s possible that escape behaviors are a result of lacking motivation for performing the task or that the task is too difficult. When trying to understand why a child might be engaging in escape behaviors, it can be helpful to take a step back and provide easier tasks to help them slowly understand the work.

3. Seeking Access to Tangibles or Activities

The third function of a behavior is seeking access to tangibles or activities. This is referring to the concept that some children engage in behavior so that they can gain access to a desired item or activity.

This behavior is the opposite of escape since the child is doing something in order to get what he or she wants.

For example, the child might scream or cry at a store so that the adult will buy them the toy they want. It can also be seen more positively if a child is getting dressed or doing their chores quickly so that they can go play.

4. Sensory Stimulation

This behavior is referring to stimulating the senses, or self-stimulating. This behavior functions to give the child some kind of internal sensation that pleases them or removes an internal sensation they don’t like.

A simple example of this is scratching. A child might scratch their skin due to bug bites or sunburn to relieve the feeling of itching.

This will certainly vary depending on the child. One child might enjoy and feel sensory stimulation from fast sports, but another child might rock back and forth to de-stimulate his or her senses.

How Function and Reinforcement Work

We’ve already reviewed that behavior occurs because of the function that it’s serving the child. It’s important to also understand how these behaviors serve to reinforce or maintain an outcome. Behavior can be understood in terms of both function and reinforcement.

In general, behaviors serve two functions. A behavior is an attempt to get something or an attempt to get away from something. So when a behavior works to get something for the child, it’s called positive reinforcement.

The opposite is also true. If a behavior works to get the child away from something or have something be taken away, it’s referred to as negative reinforcement.

Understanding Positive and Negative Reinforcement

It’s helpful to break down positive and negative reinforcement further to better understand them. Both types of reinforcement can be understood in terms of social and automatic reinforcement.

Social positive reinforcement happens when behavior gets the child something through the actions of another. For example, a child might ask her mother for a cup of juice. The action is required by the mother for the positive reinforcement of the juice.

Automatic positive reinforcement happens without needing anyone else. So the child is able to get what they want on their own. For example, a child is pouring her own cup of juice.

The opposite of both of these concepts are social negative reinforcement and automatic negative reinforcement. The goal of social negative reinforcement is to get the child away from something or have something be taken away through the actions of someone else. So for example, a child might ask for their mother to take the fruit off their plate.

Similarly, the goal of automatic negative reinforcement is to get something away from the child through their own actions. The child might push vegetables or fruit off their plate if they don’t desire them.

Positive and negative reinforcement further explain the functions of behavior.

The Four Functions of Behavior Help to Educators Understand Children

A behavior occurs for a reason. Learning the four functions of behavior will help you to understand a child’s motivation behind actions or behaviors within the classroom.

Plus, grasping both positive and negative reinforcement will paint the full picture of why a child is acting a certain way.

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