What’s the function? Understanding behavior, part two

Last week, I discussed the ABCs of behavior.  The post explained how to define and describe behavior, and how to identify the antecedent and consequence of a behavior.  Now that we know the what, we can explore the why .

All behaviors, whether positive, negative, or neutral, serve a purpose.  Of all of those behavior choices we make daily, the majority fall into one of the following four categories.

Avoidance or Escape

  • Positive example, elementary– Anna lines up to avoid moving her clip to orange.
  • Positive example, secondary– George goes to biology to avoid being counted absent.
  • Negative example, elementary– Anna rips up her math paper so that she will not have to complete the work.
  • Negative example, secondary– George skips biology to avoid being around Harry, who bullied him last year.

Attention Seeking

  • Positive example, elementary– Maria raises her hand so that she can receive praise from the teacher.
  • Positive example, secondary– Juan works hard on his group project so that his peers will respect him.
  • Negative example, elementary– Maria throws a tantrum so she can be sent to the office, which results in alone time with the principal.
  • Negative example, secondary– Juan interrupts the teacher’s lesson with wisecracks so that his classmates will laugh.

Access to a Desired Item or Activity

  • Positive example, elementary– Steven turns in his homework so that he can earn a sticker.
  • Positive example, secondary– Jenny completes her classwork quickly so that she can text her boyfriend about their date.
  • Negative example, elementary– Steven runs out of the class and into the computer lab so that he can play his favorite game.
  • Negative example, secondary– Jenny skips algebra so that she can hang out with her friends, who are also skipping.

Sensory Stimulation

  • This is most often seen in students with disabilities and includes behaviors such as rocking back and forth, scratching themselves, and staring into lights.  These students may also engage in behaviors that provide escape from undesired sensations such as loud noises or scratchy clothing.


While considering one of the functions above, ask the following questions:

  1. Is the student struggling academically?  A large percentage of negative behaviors in schools can be explained by academic needs.  If a student does not understand the material and feels anxious, self-conscious, or overwhelmed, they may choose behaviors that help them avoid the task or escape the situation.  They may also engage in attention-seeking behavior to compensate for the negative feelings they have toward school.
  2. What is the student’s home life like?   Are the parents consistent with rules at home?  Does the student have responsibilities or chores?  Are there other factors or life changes taking away the parents’ attention?  If a behavior results in desired outcomes at home, a child will try it at school.  For example, if Aaron cries when he doesn’t want to do homework, and his mother responds by letting him play instead, he will cry when given classwork that he doesn’t want to complete.
  3. Has the student experienced trauma?  Students who have been victims of traumas such as abuse, violence (toward them or someone close to them), accidents, and natural disasters may have react strongly to environmental triggers. If Leticia was abused, for example, she may react strongly to an adult’s raised voice, or, conversely, may engage in inappropriate behavior in order to get attention from the teacher.
  4. Could the student have a mental health disorder?  Particularly intense and extreme behaviors, or behaviors with no apparently cause, could be a sign of an underlying disorder such as ADHD, depression, or anxiety.  These students should be referred to an outside mental health provider for evaluation and treatment.

When a student has more severe behaviors, a school psychologist or behavior specialist may be asked to conduct a functional behavior assessment (FBA), in which observational data, interviews, and questionnaires are used to determine the function of problem behaviors and provide recommendations for interventions.  The FBA will likely lead to a behavior intervention plan (BIP), which will address the student’s individual needs.   Teachers and school staff are seen as a valuable part of this process, so it is critical they can explain the behaviors and give information that will help determine their functions.  Teachers can also help by identifying student’ strengths so that interventions will be more effective.


Want to learn more about the FBA process?  The article A Practical Guide to Functional Behavior Assessment goes through the process using a case study.  It’s easy to read and very helpful!

Also, since it’s been in my head since I started writing this post, enjoy the video for Schoolhouse Rock’s Conjunction Junction.

Next week is October!  I’ll start every month with a piece highlighting a special topic in mental health, generally coinciding with a holiday or awareness month.

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