The 4 Functions of Behavior

Reposted with permission from Action Behavior Centers

What are the four functions of behavior? 

In the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) field, it is believed that there is always an underlying reason for all behavior. Our behavior serves a purpose, even though it may not always be clear. All behavior can be narrowed down to one (or more) of four reasons, also known as functions. The 4 functions of behavior are categorized as attention, escape, tangible, and sensory. Trying to understand why an adult or child is engaging in a target behavior may be challenging, but determining the specific function of behavior that is being exhibited can assist in guiding a treatment plan to help decrease or increase a specific behavior. 

  1. Attention (Connection) – This function can be described as when someone engages in a behavior in an effort to gain attention. Children may behave negatively to get attention even if it isn’t positive attention. However, It is important to remember that not all attention seeking behavior should be perceived negatively. For example, raising your hand to be called on and screaming for someone to come over are both attention seeking behaviors, but one of the two is more socially acceptable.
  2. Escape (Avoidance) – Escape is one of the most common functions. This occurs when people engage in certain behaviors in order to avoid or end an unpleasant experience. A child may behave in a certain way that is unacceptable to get out of doing something they don’t want to do. Examples of this could be sleeping in class to avoid working or taking a different route home to avoid traffic.
  3. Tangible (Attaining) – This can be described as someone engaging in a behavior for access to something. In order to obtain an object or take part in an activity in which a person is particularly interested, a person may behave in a particular manner. A child screaming to get a toy or finishing their homework for tv time are both examples of a tangible function of behavior.
  4. Sensory (Automatic) – This behavior occurs when people engage in certain behaviors because they physically feel good or to relieve negative feelings. It is referring to stimulating the senses. An example of this would be itching an ant bite or fanning yourself on a hot day. 

Understanding Positive and Negative Reinforcements 

In general, behavioral outcomes can serve one of two purposes. The reasoning behind these behaviors is to either acquire something or remove from something. When a child behaves in a way to acquire something, it’s called positive reinforcement. On the other hand, negative reinforcement is the removal of something unpleasant to the child.

To help with further understanding, both positive and negative reinforcements can be better understood through attention and sensory reinforcement. Attention positive reinforcement occurs when a child receives something as a result of someone else’s actions. For example, a child might ask their father for a blanket. To positively reinforce the child’s communication of asking, the father will provide the blanket. Whereas, negative reinforcement might be where the father removes the blanket because the child no longer wants to use it.

A third concept is that of automatic reinforcement. In this circumstance, the reinforcement happens without the help of anyone else. The child is able to meet their needs on one’s own. Using the same scenario, a child getting their own blanket is positive reinforcement. As far as negative reinforcement, this would result in the child pushing the blanket off of themself. 

How can we help? 

A child’s motivation behind specific actions or behaviors can be pinpointed by understanding the four functions of behavior, but it is important to remember that a single behavior can hold two or more functions. In addition, it is important to comprehend both positive and negative reinforcements in order to fully grasp why a behavior is occurring. By identifying these functions, we can teach kids to meet their needs in a positive way. In ABA therapy, our staff will observe your child in their element. We will pay close attention to what is happening before and after the targeted behavior to identify the key function. After being assessed, we will teach replacement behaviors. The goal is to decrease target behaviors and increase desired behavior to ensure behavioral consistency in all environments to achieve success on the spectrum. 

About Action Behavior Centers

Action Behavior Centers (ABC) is an organization committed to the treatment of children using empirically validated methods and strategies to assist each child in reaching his or her greatest potential and improving their quality of life.

Learn more at their website:

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