Behavior Analysis 101: Every One of Your Child's Behaviors Serves one of These 4 Functions

Understanding the "why" behind our behaviors.

Ever wonder why people do the things they do? My 3-month-old spits her pacifier onto the floor and under the crib. My boss emails me with the most time-sensitive work at 10 pm. My husband leaves his shoes in the middle of the floor. Is everyone trying to drive me crazy?!

When things feel out of control, I take comfort in knowing that even if we don’t realize in the moment, there are reasons for everything we do. If there are reasons for behavior, then we can make changes to what we do (if we want to!) Understanding the function (or the why) behind a behavior gives us agency to change behaviors in the future.

Every Action Has A Function

Everything that we (babies, kids, teenagers, parents, grandparents) do (coo, swing, listen to music, take out the trash, show up to work) is governed by one of four functions of behavior. Think of a function as the purpose a behavior has served in the past. What has doing this gotten me? All of us take action for one of four reasons: To get things. To gain attention. To escape or avoid things. Or because it feels good.

We can see these four functions of behavior in our everyday life. Why do we do certain things? It might be...

1. To get things or activities (Tangibles)

  • Clocking in early to work to earn overtime pay.
  • Reaching into the cookie jar for chocolate chip cookies.
  • Buying a ticket to see our favorite team play.

2. To get a response from people (Attention)

  • Calling our mom to complain about a rough day.
  • Telling a joke during a staff meeting.
  • Crying in the crib for Daddy to come pick us up.

3. To get away from something we don't like (Escape)

  • Hitting the snooze button when alarm goes off.
  • Calling out sick from work.
  • Ignoring a telemarketer's call.

4. Because it feels good (Sensory)

  • Drinking coffee in the morning because we like to feel energized.
  • Eating chocolate cake because we like how it tastes.
  • Listening to Hamilton because we like how it sounds.

Understanding the 'Why'

So is everyone in my life out to drive me up the wall? It definitely feels like that sometimes! It’s important to remember that we might not be aware of how certain behaviors are serving us. We can predict future behaviors because of consequences we’ve observed in the past, but it’s imperative not to jump to conclusions about our kids’ intent.

Now that we know about functions of behavior, we can analyze the things we and our kids do.

When my daughter spits her pacifier out and it rolls under her crib, it’s important to keep track of how I react and understand what that’s communicating to her...

  • Have I had a major reaction, yelling and grumbling as I'm lying face down on the carpet at 2AM? That attention might be reinforcing.
  • Have I left the paci, not willing or able to get to the back corner under her crib for the 50th time? She escaped the feeling of the paci in her mouth and avoided my next attempt to put it back.
  • Have I replaced the pacifier with a bottle? She got access to a snack.
  • Do I turn up the noise machine? Maybe she likes the sound!

Now What Do I Do?

Functions of behavior help us learn. Everyone does things to get what we need, and that’s a good thing! My 3-month old doesn’t know how to say, “Mommy, can you please come and snuggle me?” She adapts and learns through consequences to get what she needs. For now, that might mean spitting her pacifier out onto the floor. We want to give ourselves and our kids grace when we’re thinking about the reasons we do things.

Particularly when our kids (and ourselves) are repeating the same behaviors over and over again, thinking about the function can help unlock effective change. 

When I’m working on decreasing inappropriate behaviors, the very first thing I ask myself is, “Why is she doing it?” What function has it served in the past?

The most successful and long-lasting behavior change will find an appropriate behavior that serves the same function. Understanding what the person is getting by behaving a certain way is the best way to figure out how to make a significant change. Some of the things we and our kids are doing will fit into the lives we want for our families. Some behaviors won’t, and that’s totally normal! If you identify some behaviors that aren’t serving you and your family, check out my post on teaching replacement behaviors for the next step!

Recognizing the function of a behavior can help us understand some of our kids (and our own actions!) Remember that not all behaviors necessarily need to be changed. It will take time (and patience on Mommy’s part!) for my baby to learn to ask for what she needs. She found a way to communicate that works for her! In the meantime, I’ll remember that everything she does will seek to...

1. Get something

2. Get attention

3. Get away from something

OR 4. Get stimulation.

For now, understanding my daughter a little bit better is progress enough for me. 😊

Need help finding the why behind your child’s behavior? Just Parent’s beta test program is open! If you’re interested in meeting one-on-one with a BCBA or in testing out digital resources, sign up on the respective page!

Kelly (Bergin) Bevans, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA