ABA Tips for Parents Four Functions of Behavior

Written by Alana George, BS Clinical Psychology, RBT Student Analyst

In order to significantly implement applied
behavioral analysis, it is most important to
identify the purpose of the displayed
behavior your child engages in. Identifying
the function of their behavior helps us to
prevent problem behavior and teach better
ways to have their needs met and ensure
consistency across all environments.
Understanding the function of the behavior is
important in order to decrease the problem
behaviors and increase appropriate or desired
behaviors (Cornerstone Autism Center
2021). Most behaviors can be understood
and identified with four main functions.

The Four Functions of Behavior

Access to Tangible

  • An individual may display a behavior to access an item or activity. Most common tangibles children tend to gravitate towards are Food, Toys (cars, puzzles, dolls), and Activities (tablet time, blowing bubbles, parachute). In the clinic or school environment your child may engage in behavior to earn tokens (stickers, stars, coins) which hold value and can be traded for a reinforcer of high value. For example, your child may complete goals with their RBT, earning one token per goal, and when they earn five tokens, they have the option of any available reinforcer.


  • An individual may display a behavior to gain others attention. The attention can be positive or negative. The attention can be provided in various ways as well such as eye contact, verbal reprimanding, laughing, physical touch, and more.


  • Not all behaviors seek to gain something like attention or tangibles. When a child engages in an escape behavior, they are trying to get away from something or avoid it altogether. An individual may display behavior to escape a situation, activity, or person. Common examples of escape functioning behavior are elopement, climbing, verbal protest, tantrum. Escape behaviors are most provoked when a demand is placed or due to sensory overload.


Also referred to as automatic reinforcement, individuals can exhibit sensory seeking or sensory avoidant behaviors. Sensory Seeking individuals may underreact to sensory input or need more of it to function. A few examples of sensory positive reinforcers include:

  • Auditorial: musical instruments, playing a song.
  • Visual: pictures, videos, mirror, kaleidoscope
  • Edible: Preferred snack or treat
  • Tactile: Sand, beans, water, Play-Doh, rice
  • Proprioception: swinging, bouncing, squeezes, tickles

A Sensory Avoidant individual may overreact to sensory input and become overwhelmed and hyperactive. A few examples of Sensory Negative Reinforcers include:

  • Auditorial: Quiet space, calming music, earmuffs.
  • Visual: Low lit/dark room, tents, sunglasses
  • Edible: bland and non-textured food
  • Tactile: removing tags from clothes, refraining from physical praise
  • Proprioception: weighted blanket, heating pad

Importance of the Function

In simple terms, the function of the behavior is whatever happens immediately after the behavior also known as the consequence and increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. All behavior occurs for a reason and holds a purpose. Learning the four functions of behavior will help you to understand your child’s motivation behind actions or behaviors within the classroom, clinic, and home environment. Throughout your child’s behavioral intervention therapy your behavioral analyst (BCBA) will observe and assess your child’s behavior to identify the function and implement an effective treatment plan.


Insight to Behavior. (2020, May 20). How to Better Understand the Four Functions of Behavior. https://insightstobehavior.com/blog/understand-functions-behavior/

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