Why do we behave?

This seems like a philosophical quandary: what are the functions of behaviors? One which could lead to a variety of debates similar to ‘what is the meaning of life’. However, for now let’s break it down simply in a way that can help us in our everyday parenting. Behaviors occur for a variety of possible reasons (in #behaviorspeak we call these the functions of behaviors).

  1. Attention
  2. Access
  3. Escape
  4. Sensory

Over the years in Behavior Analysis, there have been other considerations and discussions of terms. These four are the OG Functions. They are also relatively easy to explain in an understandable way. Which we will attempt here.

Functions of Behavior:


We are social beings. Typically, we enjoy recognition of a job well done, ‘likes’ on Facebook, having a conversation with a loved one, and many other countless forms of attention from another person (or animal friend). Our children are no different. Sometimes he seeks out attention through ‘appropriate’ behaviors (ie. “Hi, Mom”). However, sometimes he seeks out attention through ‘inappropriate’ behaviors (ie. “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom…”). Think of this category as “Look at me!”

Advocacy Work at Step-In Autism Center
Alaska Step-In Autism Center


Remember “Cutie” from the Reinforcement lesson?  She wanted that cookie. In other words, she wanted access to the cookie. Access can be to an object, activity, or person. It gathers all of those “I want to have” scenarios and allows us to conceptualize them as gaining access to something. When you want to go into a concert, you have to present a purchased ticket. So, the behavior is presenting the ticket and the reward is watching and listening to the concert. The function then is to gain access to the concert. Think of this category as “I want…”!


Sometimes we just want to get away from things. Maybe the opening band at that concert is AWFUL!  I mean loud, deafening awful sounds. You quickly stuff napkins in your ears as you run out of there. The function of your behavior is escape from the noise. This category also captures those times that your child behaves a certain way to get out of a required or requested task (in #behaviorspeak we call this escape from a demand). If you put tell your daughter that it is time to do homework and she argues back, the arguing is likely due to a desire to escape the demand of doing homework. Think of this category as “I don’t want to!”.

Advocacy Work at Step-In Autism Center
Alaska Step-In Autism Center


This category can be hard to fully understand. Essentially, there are things that just feel good, look cool, smell great, sound awesome, etc. This category captures those ‘reasons for behaving’. Imagine sitting out on a warm sunny day, the cool breeze bringing smells of the fresh cut grass. The relaxation letting you sink off to pleasant memories of your childhood. This feeling falls into the sensory category. Think of this category as “It feels good to…”

Knowing the four main functions of behaviors allows parents to have a better understanding as to why our children are behaving a certain way. It also allows us to help find more appropriate replacement behaviors.

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