Identifying Functions of Behavior

July 20, 2021
by Danielle Kanouff

Danielle @ 3C

Behaviors occur all the time. Think about a time when you were around others – can you recall any behaviors that stood out? We often notice more obvious behaviors, usually either really “good” or “bad” behaviors. In these cases, we ask ourselves, “Why did that happen?”


ALL behaviors happen for one reason or another. In behavior analysis, identifying the function of the behavior drives our data collection and interventions. There cannot be an intervention without a specified function.


There are 4 main functions of behavior:

  1. Access to attention (social interactions)
  2. Access to tangibles (items or activities)
  3. Escape (get away from aversive tasks or stimuli)
  4. Automatic reinforcement (sensory stimulation or pain attenuation)


In my blog posts “What is Behavior in Terms of ABA” and “ABCs of Behavior,” we broadly discussed what behavior is along with the antecedents and consequences surrounding behavior. In these posts, we touch on how to identify functions of behavior (why they happen) and how to use or create your own ABC data collection tool to help determine the “why” when investigating the big picture.


Let’s quickly revisit what ABCs of behavior are (Cooper, et al., 2017).

A = Antecedent - an environmental stimulus change that occurs before the behavior of interest.

B = Behavior - the behavior of interest, the one we can observe.

C = Consequence - the event or stimulus change that immediately follows the behavior of interest, which can significantly influence future behavior.


Cooper defines ABC recording as a type of anecdotal observation, a form of direct, continuous observation in which the observer records a descriptive, temporally sequenced account of all behavior(s) of interest and the antecedent conditions and consequences for those behaviors as those events occur in the client’s natural environment” (p. 53-55).


Let’s apply the ABCs to this classic grocery store scenario: Ashton is a 3-year-old who loves sweet treats. When she goes grocery shopping with her parents, she typically asks for a candy bar in the checkout aisle. Her parents usually tell her “No,” but she persists. They stand their ground, telling her, “Maybe next time.”


Now is where things get tricky – her behavior increases to a louder pleading and then promptly escalates to a tantrum. With her parents not wanting to deal with a meltdown in public, they quickly hand over the candy bar. Voilà, no more tantrum!


In this situation, Ashton has likely learned that she will probably get the treat she wants if she tantrums. Let’s presume that if the parents decided to start collecting some of their own ABC data, it would look a little something like this:


X/X/XXGrocery storeAshton asked me for a bag of gummy bears 3 separate times while we were waiting in line, and each time I told her “no.”Ashton began to yell, cry, scream, begging for the gummy bears.I ended up giving her the gummy bears because I wanted her to stop causing a scene in public.To get the gummy bears (i.e., access to tangibles).
X/X/XXConvenience storeWe approached the line, and Ashton grabbed a chocolate bar from the register. I took it out of her hand and placed it back on the shelf.Ashton immediately started crying, began to flail her arms, and scream loudly.I purchased the chocolate because I knew she would stop her tantrum.To get the chocolate bar (i.e., access to tangibles).
X/X/XXHousewares storeAs we were paying for some items, Ashton asked her dad for a package of candy. He ignored her, and she asked again. He then told her, “maybe next time.”This tantrum started with screaming and crying and an attempt to grab the bag of candy from the register.Her dad asked her, ‘if I give this to you, will you be good next time?” and she replied with a ‘yes’ head shake and took the bag of candy.To get the package of candy (i.e., access to tangibles).


This brief A-B-C sequence allows us to analyze what is happening before, during, and after the behavior(s). We see the antecedents indicate that Ashton was denied the treat she was attempting to access. We call this “denied access” to a tangible item (such as the food addressed above).


With these three separate data collection days, we can deduce that the tantrum behavior is consistently reinforced by what’s happening due to access to the tangible item. This simple data collection tool can help appropriately plan and implement replacement behaviors, decrease the tantrums, and increase compliance for Ashton.


Replacement behaviors are socially significant, acceptable, and appropriate when substituting problematic behaviors. As practitioners, we must identify the function before attempting an intervention. Many times, people may overlook the actual function of the behavior.


In Ashton’s case, what if the parents chose to leave the store immediately without continuing to wait in line to pay for items? Then, the tantrums may be to get out of (escape) the store instead of getting the treats.


Data collection is essential when developing a behavior treatment plan. We must remain vigilant when designing interventions, as there may be underlying events we may not immediately think of or notice without documentation.


Systematically recording our anecdotal observations helps us determine behavior patterns, which allows us to serve people better. Creating and designing appropriate interventions is a common goal we as practitioners share to increase the quality of life for both the client and stakeholders.


Thanks for reading,




Applied Behavior Analysis, by John O. Cooper et al., Pearson Education, Inc., 2017, pp. 53-55, 689. 

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

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