Functions of Behavior

Behavior is a common occurrence in children, but more often in children with special needs. This is often a part of their diagnosis. It is usually caused by a characteristic of their diagnosis and not necessarily directly caused by the diagnosis. For example, a non-verbal child with autism may tantrum when he wants a drink. The tantrum behavior is not a symptom of autism, but it is a cause from the child not being able to communicate they want a drink (characteristic of autism). Behaviors can take many forms-aggressions, tantrums, self-injury, bolting, self-stimulation. It is important to teach the child appropriate ways to deal with the behavior and not make the behavior functional. For example if the child tantrums to avoid doing work you can teach them to request a break. If they have a tantrum at work time it is very important to make them do some of the task. It is important to gain an understanding of why the behavior is occurring to know the best strategy to handle it (more info on how to do this coming soon).

There are four functions of behavior.

  • Self-stimulatory (sensory input)
  • Escape/avoid a task or demand
  • Get something they want
  • Get attention


Children will exhibit behaviors in order to escape something or get out of doing something. Behaviors can vary greatly. They may tantrum when you ask them to do work or in a over-stimulating environment they want to leave. Typical children (and teenagers) will exhibit behaviors when you ask them to do a chore in order for you to stop asking them to do it. As with all behaviors it is important to stay consistent and follow through with what they were asked to do. You do not have to expect they entire thing, but they must at least do some of the task without behaviors. Each time make them do a little bit more.

Gain something

This is a common cause of behavior in young children and children with special needs. When an individual is unable to communicate what they want it leads to extreme frustration causing behaviors. The easiest way to deal with this is to develop a communication system for the child-special needs or not. Simple picture boards in a book to make a choice are easy to make and use. Have your child practice asking for things by using the book and encourage them to use the book every time they get something so they make a connection. If the behaviors are due to a communication issue it is crucial, once they have calmed down, to have them communicate what they want and then give it to them. The faster they learn to communicate what they want, the faster the behaviors will decrease.

Another cause is not being allowed to have something they want. If a child asks for some candy and are told no they can become upset and exhibit behaviors. This is due to frustration of being denied what they want. If you give a child what they ask for when they are exhibiting behaviors they are very likely to exhibit behavior every time they are told “no”. It is important to teach your child to handle hearing the word “no”. This can be done by reinforcing them for not exhibiting behaviors when you say “no” using an alternative reinforcer.

Get attention

Children can exhibit behaviors in order to gain attention from an adult or peers. This may be caused by a lack of ability to appropriately interact. Children also may associate some type of social activity with you that they act up in order for you to interact with them. Any kind of attention either when they are doing something good or getting in trouble is still reinforcing for the child. It is important to not give them verbal interaction if this is the cause. Do not make eye contact and redirect them to what they are suppose to be doing. Reinforce frequently for doing what they are suppose to be doing and not attend to them when they are exhibiting this behavior. Sometimes this means leaving the room or turning your back to the child and working with someone else.


Self-stimulatory behavior is different than the other three. The others involve tantrums, self-injury, and aggression. Self-stimulatory behavior is a bit different. It can involve vocals, hand/arm flapping, jumping, rocking. Although they may seem harmless, they are not socially acceptable and it can interfere with other activities. It is important to reinforcer they child for NOT exhibiting the behavior, also blocking the behavior when it occurs. These behaviors can happen often when the child is bored it is important to keep your child engaged in activities.


In order to best treat behaviors it is best to understand why the behavior is occurring. It is best to think about what happened immediately before the before and treat it accordingly. It is also crucial to reinforcer for appropriate behaviors whenever possible.

April 8, 2012 This post was written by Categories: Behavior No comments yet

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