The Four Functions of Behavior - Hidden Talents ABA

The Four Functions of Behavior

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October 12, 2020 The Four Functions of Behavior

In Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), therapists believe that all behavior happens for a reason. Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA, identifies the four basic functions that motivate behavior in Reflections on Applied Behavior Analysis.

What are the four functions of behavior?

1) Escape

One of the major reasons a child will behave in a certain way is to get out of doing something they don’t want to do. This is the definition of the escape function.

For example, a child who feels anxious in social situations may hide to avoid doing things in groups. The child may find novel ways to get out of doing things with others. Or a child might avoid eye contact or place their head down on a desk during a lesson to get out of school work.


Behaviors you may see when children are motivated to escape include:


  •       Avoiding physical discomfort
  •       Avoiding social situations
  •       Running away
  •       Avoiding people or situations
  •       Hiding


2) Attention:

An individual may also behave in negative ways to draw the attention of parents, teachers, or others to them. Again, attention seeking behavior can be appropriate or problematic, depending on the situation. For example, a child might raise their voice or talk over those around them to draw a parent or teacher’s attention. A child might complain or scream to draw attention away from others in a classroom setting.


Although we generally think about attracting attention to ourselves as it is a means of having positive engagement with others, children may behave in negative ways to get attention even if the attention isn’t positive.


Things you may see when children are motivated to attract attention include:


  •       Raised voices
  •       Whining
  •       Being overly loud
  •       Raising a hand or waving hands

3) Tangible Items:

A person may behave in a problematic way to obtain an object they want or to get to participate in an activity that they particularly enjoy. Behaviors that may be used to get tangible items or experiences can be either positive or negative in nature. For example, a child may throw a tantrum in an attempt to get a toy or to go to see a movie.


Behaviors you may see that are intended to obtain something tangible include:


  •       Throwing a tantrum to get a toy
  •       Ordering a pizza
  •       Stealing a desired object from a store or another person
  •       Buying a desired object


4) Sensory Stimulation:

The best way to describe the sensory function is that a child might do things that in and of themselves are pleasurable. For example, you will often see children twirling their hair around their fingers. Some children will twirl themselves around or pick at their skin or hair. Others may hum or crack their knuckles.


Behaviors you may see that are reinforcing in themselves:


  •       Picking at hair or skin
  •       Cracking knuckles
  •       Twirling
  •       Twisting hair
  •       Humming or making noises that vibrate within the child’s chest or throat


Clearly, the function of a particular behavior may not be obvious. Sometimes a parent may assume that a particular behavior has one function, when in actuality it is found to fulfill a less obvious function. 

For example, you may initially assume that your child always cracks their knuckles when you are driving to school in an attempt to get your attention. Although this is a possibility, and may be true for some children, your child may actually find the act of cracking their knuckles physically rewarding.

How the Four Functions of Behavior are used in ABA Therapy

ABA therapists will identify the function of problem behaviors they see your child exhibit. Understanding the reason that your child is behaving inappropriately, will help the ABA therapist determine a way to help your child meet their needs without having to resort to negative behavior. 

Once an ABA therapist understands why your child is exhibiting problem behaviors, they can develop intervention strategies to discontinue this behavior.


Understanding the reason your child performs a particular behavior will not only help the ABA therapist understand the needs that the behavior fulfills for your child. This information will also help your child’s therapist understand how to help your child stop this problematic behavior. If the problem behavior fulfills a needed function, the ABA therapist will work with your child to help them develop a positive alternative behavior to fulfill this function.

How Reinforcement can be used to Stop Negative Behaviors

ABA therapy looks at learning as occurring due to a sequence. According to learning theory, learning occurs due to A - an antecedent, which is followed by B - a behavior, and results in C - a consequence. 

According to learning theory, negative, or problem, behaviors occur because they have been reinforced by a positive consequence. Therefore, an ABA therapist must determine why the problem behavior occurs and what is reinforcing it.


Reinforcement can be used both to increase positive behaviors and to reduce negative behaviors. Once an ABA therapist understands the function of a behavior, they can determine how to use a combination of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement to reduce or stop these negative behaviors.


To stop a problem behavior, an ABA therapist will identify the consequence that is reinforcing the behavior. Reinforcement that is provided for a problem, or negative, behavior is then stopped, by removing the reinforcer from the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence sequence. This process is referred to as extinction.


The extinction process will depend upon the functions of the behavior your child is engaging in. If a child’s problem behavior is being reinforced by positive reinforcement, the reinforcer must be discontinued. For example, a child may yell out for attention in the classroom. Attention garnered by this behavior may be reinforcing and must stop. 


However, this same behavior may be fulfilling the escape function. Say for example, that the child is being removed from the classroom due to the outburst. The removal from the classroom, and class work, may be reinforcing the behavior. 

In this instance, the negative reinforcement of being removed from the classroom must be discontinued, or if avoiding the work is the issue, the work must accompany the child when they are removed from the classroom.


If the problem behavior is fulfilling the sensory function, it will be reinforced automatically. It may be a stretch of the imagination, but let’s say we determine that the child in question is actually yelling because their voice reverberates against the blades of a nearby fan, and that the child finds this sound reinforcing. To extinguish this behavior, the physical environment would need to be rearranged so that the yelling would no longer be rewarding the child with their reverberating voice.


How Reinforcement can be used to Increase Desired Behaviors

ABA therapy also uses aspects of reinforcement to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. Once an ABA therapist identifies the functions of negative behaviors, they will develop a plan for diminishing negative behaviors. When appropriate, an ABA therapist will help your child replace problem behaviors with desired behaviors.


For example, if your child is using problem behaviors to obtain attention in the classroom to ask a question, the problem behavior needs to be discontinued, but your child also needs to know how to obtain the attention they need appropriately. Your child’s ABA therapist will develop a strategy to help your child replace problem behaviors with desirable ones in instances like this.


The first step, in this instance, would be to obtain your child’s attention when the negative behavior occurs. If your child yells out for attention when they have a question, the goal would be to teach your child an appropriate way to get the needed attention. First, the problem behavior would be stopped. This may be done simply by asking the child to stop or through the use of nonverbal behavior.


Once the negative behavior has been stopped, the child is redirected to replace that behavior with a positive behavior. For example, a child who is interrupting during a lesson, may be asked to stop. The child would then be cued for the appropriate positive behavior. In this example, the therapist may simply remind the child to raise their hand. The positive behavior, in this case hand raising, is then immediately followed by a reinforcer.


Positive reinforcement occurs when a positive, or motivating, stimulus is presented after a behavior occurs. ABA therapist will provide positive reinforcement directly after a desired behavior occurs. Often a desired behavior will be immediately followed by verbal praise, non-verbal praise, for example a smile, or a reward. An ABA therapist may reward a child by providing access to a toy or food that the child has previously identified as reinforcing. Your child’s ABA therapist will work with your child to determine appropriate reinforcers.