Here is a scenario parents may be familiar with. Brian is in the car with his mom, and he starts to have a tantrum. Mom begins by giving him a snack, a toy, and drink to figure out what he wants. Once Brian gets a drink he and he stops the tantrum. Why was Brian having a tantrum?  Brian may have been using the tantrum behavior to communicate that he wanted his drink instead of asking for it.

All behaviors occur for a reason; it is not a random occurrence. You child’s behaviors are not occurring randomly but meeting a specific need they have. Being able to understand why a behavior is occurring will help you to determine a plan to decrease the challenging behaviors and replace them with an alternative behavior that is more socially appropriate but still meets their needs. At times the function of the child’s behavior is easy to figure out, and other times it can be more difficult.

Behaviors can be simplified into four functions: to escape, to gain attention, to gain tangibles, and automatic reinforcement/sensory stimulation.

  • Escape- Many times; a child may be engaging in challenging behaviors to escape or avoid situations, tasks, or even people. For example; your child may knock over food at the table and is told by the parents “no more dinner since you knocked your food over.” The child may continue to knock food over to avoid eating things that they do not like.

  • Tangibles- Some behaviors occur to gain access to a preferred item or activity. For example, a child may engage in tantrum behavior until they are given a cookie. In the future every time the child wants a cookie the engage in tantrum behaviors.  

  • Attention - Sometimes a behavior may occur to gain someone’s attention. A child may engage in a challenging behavior to gain attention even if that means getting reprimanded for the behaviors. For example, a child may start to climb on the furniture, and the parents tell the child to get down and physically get him off the furniture. If the child wants attention, he may climb the furniture in the future.

  • Sensory Stimulation - Some behaviors occur because they are internally stimulating to the child. It may also occur to help them cope with sensory stimulation that they do not like. For example, a child may rock back and forth because they are getting internal sensory stimulation from it. Another example may be a child who paces when in loud noise settings to help them stay calm.


How can knowing the function of behavior help?

Understanding why a behavior is occurring can help you understand what your child needs and what they are trying to communicate. Once you understand the function, you can work on a plan that will teach the child an alternative behavior that meets their needs. When working on creating a plan here are some simple tips.

  • When the challenging behavior occurs stop and think about what happened before the behavior and what usually occurs after it. Think about what can make the behavior stop. Sometimes even writing what happens may help to see what the function is.

  • Create strategies to reduce the behavior and increase appropriate alternative behaviors by rewarding the alternative behaviors and eliminating the need for the problem behaviors. Using the example from above, when Brian starts to cry in the car to get a drink mom can start to encourage Brian to say drink, please. Once he says it, his mom can give him a drink and tell him he did well. This rewards the asking behavior and eliminates the need for him to cry.

  • Stay consistent with the plan you create. Staying consistent with your rewards and punishments helps teach children what behaviors are good and which behaviors are not.

  • Ask for help. If your child’s behavior is extreme or you are struggling to help your child change their behavior, ask the professionals in your child’s life for help.    

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