Four Functions of Behavior

Behavior is maintained by the consequence immediately following the behavior. A consequence, in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), is as simple as what happens immediately after a behavior. In ABA, a consequence is not a “good or bad thing” – just what happens immediately after the behavior. The behavior, whatever it may be, can be influenced (triggered) by an antecedent, otherwise known as what happens directly before the behavior occurred. What happens after the behavior, the consequence, will either influence the behavior to continue to be more or less likely to occur in the future. Depending on the behavior, more and less outcomes are desirable.

Over 60 years of research in ABA has revealed that all behaviors are maintained based on Four Functions of Behavior. Many of the practices and techniques work from this knowledge/foundation for each behavior. Each function of behavior can look different for each child (or individual, young and old); this is known as the behavior’s topography. A description of each of the functions of behavior is provided below:

1. Escape/Avoidance

o Generally, an individual engaging in escape behavior is attempting to get out of a situation/ task/ activity that is aversive to the individual (something s/he does not like).

  • For example, a child in school hears the timer to clean up and transition to the next task. This child knows that math is after art . Math is aversive to this particular child. This child does not clean up and leaves the classroom to go to the bathroom (this happens most days).
  • Similarly, a child in school hears the timer to clean up and transition to the next task. This child knows that recess is after Language Arts, but recess is not preferred for this child as s/he has had negative experiences during recess (e.g., no one plays with the child or s/he has been in a fight at recess). So this child may refuse to clean up and the consequence is that the child has to stay indoors for recess (which is preferred because s/he has escaped recess).

2. Attention

o An individual who seeks attention (attention can be delivered after a child has engaged in a desired or undesired behavior) can engage in many different behaviors to receive attention from others.

  • For example, a child hits her peers- the behavior may not be aggressive, but actually a form of gaining attention. This child would be taught a replacement behavior, such as tapping another child’s shoulder, or saying another child’s name in order to gain attention from the peer.

3. Access

o When the function of behavior is access, the individual has learned that by engaging in a behavior they are using a “tool” which consistently gains them access to an item or experience.

  • For example, a child screams for a prolonged period of time and is given their iPad and the screaming ends after receiving the iPad. The child now screams when they want the iPad. An alternative replacement behavior can be taught to the child such as asking for the iPad or handing a picture of the iPad to an adult to request the iPad (if the child’s language is limited).
  • In the past the child has been given crackers (a favored food) when they do not eat their food. This child throws their food on the floor to gain access to crackers rather than requesting the item verbally or by using a picture cue.

4. Automatic/ Sensory stimulation

o The function of automatic reinforcement is delivered to the child when the child engages in a physical response toward their own body which provides a particular sensory experience to the child. This action can deliver a desired feeling to the child (e.g., it feels “good” to the child), or the action can remove an undesired feeling or experience from the child.

  • For example, a child experiences headaches often and hits their head with their fist in an attempt to relieve that pain because when the child has hit his/her head in the past, the pain has gone away.


— Morgan Ottone, Lead RBT

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