Read time: 5 minutes

Identifying Functions of Behavior

Danielle Kanouff

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 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:









Grocery store

Ashton 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).


Convenience store

We 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).


Housewares store

As 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,

~ Danielle



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

©Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels via

1. Instruction

2. Modeling




While learning new math content, the teacher will:

·      Instruct the concept.

·      Model an example.

·      Practice another example with the student.

·      Provide feedback in the form of positive praise and consideration.

·      Give constructive feedback.

·      Provide time between each step for processing.


Backward Chaining

Essentially, the teacher will complete all steps in a chained task except for the last:

  • Allow the student to complete the previous step independently or with the least restrictive prompt.
  • Continue until the student is independent with the last step.
  • Expand the student’s independence, starting with the previous two steps and so on, until he can complete all steps independently.


Forward Chaining

1. Think of forward chaining as the opposite of backward chaining; the teacher allows the student to complete the first step in a chained task independently or with the least restrictive prompt.

2. The teacher will complete or assist in the completion of the rest of the steps.


Video Modeling

1. Individuals will observe themselves performing a target behavior successfully on video.

2. The aim is to have the behavior imitated.

Example 1: Teacher records the student participating in waiting and ordering food in the lunch line. The targeted behavior is to join with peers in an educational setting.

Example 2: Teacher records the student interacting with a peer in a special education setting. The targeted behavior is to increase interactions with peers to promote social skills.


All of the antecedent interventions listed above are evidence-based practices that are proven to be effective with the prevention of maladaptive behaviors and skill acquisition for functional replacement behaviors.


As clinicians, we need to anticipate maladaptive behaviors in practice. This anticipation allows us to be steps ahead of our patients, focusing on the expected, desired behaviors needed for beneficial treatment and service outcomes. I hope you can use a tip or two from this series and apply them to your practice.


Thanks for reading,



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About the blogger

Danielle Kanouff, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA

Danielle has been working with children since 2009 when she began her career as a teacher. After moving to Nashville, TN, in 2011, she became a special education teacher.

She worked primarily with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity.

Her love for children with disabilities inspired her to earn her master’s degree in special education at Vanderbilt University in 2016. During this time, she also obtained her Behavior Analyst certification and licensure.

While she is no longer in the classroom, she continues to keep a full caseload working with children and young adults who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their families, and the children's medical, educational, and therapeutic team members.

Her goal at 3C is to share what she’s learned working in the field of education and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

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