Four Functions Of Behavior

To return back to mini-course: Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism


Welcome to the second unit of this course. This unit consists of 2 lessons.

The first lesson is What are the four functions of behavior?

The second lesson is How do we assess the function of a behavior? ABC Contingency

Each lesson has it's own specific readings, videos, and assessments for you to complete.

Objective: Identify specific behaviors pertaining to the four functions of behaviors to assist in bettering an individual with special needs.

Unit Readings

Lesson #1 Readings

Lesson #2 Readings

Arr.GIF Lesson #1: What are the Four Functions of Behavior


It is important to understand that all behaviors occur for a reason. All human behaviors can be categorized into four functions. These four functions are escape, attention, access to tangibles, and sensory.

Note that these four behavior categories do not imply that these behaviors are "bad". These categories are labels for both positive and negative behavior actions.

An easy way to remember these four functions is that “Everybody EATS”.

E scape

A ttention

T angibles

S ensory _____________________________________________

Function #1: Escape

An individual engages in a behavior to end or avoid something they do not like.

Example #1: Every time Ms.Sam places a vocabulary worksheet on Stella’s desk, she rips up the paper and throws it on the floor. As a result, Ms.Sam does not make her do her vocabulary homework. In the future, Stella continues to engage in this behavior every time she receives a vocabulary worksheet because it results in escaping the vocabulary work.

Example #2: Kyla tantrums every time a demand is placed on her by her teacher Ms.Jenning. Ms.Jenning will ask Kyla to clean up her mess and Kyla will instantly engage in tantruming behaviors. The tantrum will go on until Ms.Jenning decides that it would be easier to clean up the toys herself instead of going through the trouble of getting Kyla to do it. In the future, Kyla continues to engage in this behavior every time a demand (like cleaning up) is placed on her because it results in escaping from having to clean up.

Solutions & Suggestions If the individual you are working with is avoiding a demand or task some strategies that may be effective are:

  • Using a first-then board
  • Using a visual schedule
  • Establishing a good rapport o Using social stories TM
  • Offering choices
  • Clear expectations
  • Follow through [2]


Function #2: Attention

An individual engages in a behavior to receive attention.

Example #1: Sarah screams every instance that her father walks away from her. When she engages in this screaming behavior, her father returns to her and asks, “What’s wrong Sarah?” This behavior is attention-maintained because the behavior consistently results in attention. When Sarah “wants” attention, she screams.

Example #2: Jordan licks the fence in the school yard when he is by himself. Every time Jordan licks the fence, his teacher walks over to him to tell him no. Jordan continues knowing that his teacher will come over to him again. This behavior is attention0maintained because the behavior consistently results in attention. When Jordan "wants" attention, he licks the fence.

  • (Please note that licking things can be a sensory component of having autism, in some situations it can also be an attention seeking behavior like in this case).

Other Examples: The following are examples of attention seeking behaviors in Autistic children:

  • Being way too loud, screaming, dancing, jumping
  • Asking for things way too often (If they are verbal)
  • Pretending they can not do something they are perfectly capable of doing
  • Fake crying
  • Whining
  • Throwing tantrums
  • Acting violently, kicking, biting, or hitting siblings or other children.
  • Beating themselves, hitting his/her head on things, throwing themselves on the floor, pulling their hair, etc.

Solutions and Suggestions "If the individual you are working with has the intent to socially engage or get a reaction from another person some strategies that may be effective:"

  • Teach your child new and more appropriate ways to seek attention (e.g., tap on shoulder, “look at me”) and reinforce when these new behaviours occur
  • Give positive attention many times throughout the day
  • Ignore when undesired attention seeking behaviour occurs [2]


Function #3: Tangibles

An individual engages in a behavior to get access to an item or activity. A tangible is something an individual could touch or pick up. Individuals on the autism spectrum develop attachments to unusual objects like straws, rocks, scrap paper, pieces of dirt, flags, sticks, etc.

Example #1: When Jenna cries, her mother gives her a pacifier. In the future, Jenna cries because it consistently results in access to the pacifier.

Example #2: Joey wants a toy from his friend. During playtime, Joey will hits a peer which results in the peer dropping the toy and crying. As a result of the hit, Joey now has access to the toy he wanted. This hitting behavior will continue because he realizes when he hits a friend, more than likely he will then have access to the toy he wanted.

Solutions and Suggestions: "If the individual you are working with has an activity or item they want some strategies that may be effective:"

  • Increase the variety of activities/items your child is interested in so there are more things to help motivate your child
  • Teaching your child to accept ‘no’ o Control access to tangibles
  • Teach your child to request
  • Transitional warnings [2]


Function #4: Sensory

An individual engages in a behavior because it physically feels good or relieves something that feels bad.

Example #1: Christopher engages in hand flapping in the absence of any specific antecedent or consequence stimulus. This behavior provides automatic sensory stimulation.

Example #2: Derek holds his ears when his peers are talking on the rug. This behavior provides automatically sensory stimulation as it reduces loud noises for Derek.

"Since the goal of sensory-seeking behaviors is to obtain some form of feedback from the environment, they can involve lots of different parts of the body. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, or body movements can all trigger sensory issues. Some examples include:"

Body movements (e.g., hand-flapping, covering the ears, hair twirling) Providing pressure or squeezing to certain parts of the body Waving or placing objects near the eyes Covering the eyes to avoid bright lights or patterns Chewing on objects or clothing Avoiding perfumes, lotions, or air fresheners Strong aversions to specific food textures. [1]

Solutions and Suggestions: "If your child has behaviors that are internally reinforcing that could provide a need for relief, a calming sensation, or a pleasing sensation, here are some strategies that may be effective:"

  • Introduce your child to self management techniques
  • Redirect inappropriate behaviors to more functional ones and reinforce those behaviors (e.g., tapping fingers on a table tapping keys on a piano)
  • Reinforce behaviors that are incompatible with the self stimulatory behavior (e.g. a child that flaps their hands would be reinforced for keeping their hands folded)
  • Physical exercise may decrease behavior
  • Seek medical advice [2]


Now You Try: Assess Yourself

Now that you have completed the required journal articles, readings, watched selected videos, and have take notes on the lesson material, let's assess!

1.) Classify the behavior.

Click the link above and read the behavioral situations. Classify each behavior. If any are incorrect, go back to the corresponding section and review.

Arr.GIF Lesson #2: How do we assess the function of a behavior? ABC Contingency


ABC: What Does it Stand For?

ABC contingency:

  • “A” stands for “Antecedent” or the events that occurred right before the behavior began
  • “B” stands for “Behavior” or the actions of the person we are observing
  • “C” stands for “Consequence” or the events that occurred immediately following the behavior.

By viewing behavior in this frame, we can start to discover the patterns that play a role in forming or maintaining a behavior over time.

Understanding Behaviors and Triggers

When working with a specific individual with special needs / autism, you may decide to keep an ABC contingency chart with you on a clipboard. This allows you to understand the individual's behaviors and find their triggers. When data is kept on this chart, you are able to see patterns that will help you understand certain behaviors. By understanding the behaviors and triggers, you can prevent future negative behaviors ahead of time.

Let's Take A Look

Look at the handwritten ABC chart provided below by an educator in a classroom. In this chart, we look at an afternoon full of behaviors displayed by one particular student. The teacher documented the antecedent (what was happening just prior to the behavior occurring), behavior (the type of behavior occurring), and consequence (what happened after the behavior to resolve the problem).

ABC Template

After looking at this chart, take a few minutes to think about the behaviors.

Ask yourself:

  • What seems to be Dan's triggers?
  • What kind of behaviors does he engage in?
  • What may resolve these behaviors?

Summary of Data:

Looking at Dan's antecedents, it appears that his triggers are transitions. When a transition is to be made at some point in the day, the child displays tantruming behaviors. Referring back to the four functions of behavior, we can also infer that Dan displays these tantruming behaviors as a way to escape what is being asked of him. Because of this data we collected, we can look into ways to better manage transition times for Dan throughout the day. Some solutions fo ratios could be a 5 minute warning, a timer, a buzzer, or 1 on 1 guidance. These solutions can prevent the tantruming behaviors and allow for Dan to be more comfortable with transitions in the classroom.

Checklist or Handwritten Chart To collect data on behaviors you may use a pre-made checklist (see ABC template to the right). These pre-made checklists have options for the antecedent/behavior/consequence for you to check off. Once you get the hang of filling this out, you may consider transitioning into writing your own in a notebook like the example above. This will be your data, do it accurately and do it in a way that you will be able to understand.

Now You Try: Assess Yourself

Now that you have completed the required journal articles, readings, watched selected videos, and have take notes on the lesson material, let's assess!

1.) Read the following ABC chart:


After reading the chart, which of the four functions of behavior correspond with this student's actions? What is triggering this student? What would you do to alter the behavior?

Click the Google Doc link below:

When you click the link please select file > make a copy and input your responses. Please save your document and submit it to


[1] “How Can You Treat Sensory-Seeking Behavior?” Applied Behavior Analysis Programs Guide, 2020,

[2] “Functions of Behaviour.” Erinoak Kids Centre For Treatment and Development, 2012,