4 Functions of Behavior

When looking to decrease a problem behavior such as screaming, flopping to the floor, crying, or other behaviors that are interfering with your child’s ability to be successful in their daily life, a BCBA will first look at the function of the behavior.

When talking about function, a BCBA is referring to “why a person engages in that particular behavior” or what does engaging in the behavior result in? What does the person get out of it?

Behavior serves 4 purposes or functions so take a S.E.A.T. while I explain.


S: Sensory

This function requires no one else. The behavior itself is reinforcing. For example, itching a bug bite, twirling your hair, biting your nails-these are a few examples of behaviors that do not require another person. We all engage in behaviors that are maintained by sensory input!

E: Escape

A child engages in an escape-maintained behavior to get away from (escape or avoid) the task. For example, a child is instructed to clean up their toys, but instead runs to their bedroom. Running away escapes the demand of cleaning up toys.

A: Attention

A child engages in a behavior to get attention from another person. For example, a 1-year old playing peek-a-boo with their Mom. The very game, peek-a-boo, requires attention from another person in order to be fun!

T: Access to Tangible

A child engages in a behavior to gain access to a preferred activity or item. For example, a teenager maintains a high GPA so he/she can continue to have access to their parent’s car on Friday night.

Once the function of the inappropriate behavior is identified, it is the job of your child’s support team to identify a socially, acceptable replacement behavior. The replacement behavior should serve the same function, be easier, and more efficient than the target behavior for it to decrease. Understanding the function will decrease the problem behavior and increase the replacement behavior.

One step in determining the function of a target behavior is to record Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Data or ABC Data. To learn more about ABC data, click on the post!

Nicole Herber, BCBA, COBA