The 6 Functions of Behavior

Children often communicate through their behavior.  In many cases it is pretty obvious why they engaged in particular behaviors.  When any parent is at a loss for the reason, they need to think of the question; What is the payoff for the child to behave like they did? What did they receive for doing what they just did? In the blog why-does-my-child-behave-the-way-they-do, I reference Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson and it talks about children’s beliefs that can lead to problematic behaviors. In this post I want to simplify things and stick to some basic reasons why children engage in certain behaviors.

If you are familiar with functions of behavior you may have heard that there are 5 functions of behavior. I have taken the liberty to add one more.  The 6 functions of behavior are: Attention, To get access to a preferred item/tangible, Escape, Avoidance, Automatic reinforcement, and release of Pent up Emotions.


As a child grows and develops they learn how to get parents’ attention.  There are thousands of ways that a child can do this and many are positive.  Unfortunately, children also learn how to get parent’s attention by any means necessary, which can be very frustrating. Children may have been sent a message by a parent that they are too busy to give them attention. Children have a low threshold for delayed gratification and find any way to get parent’s attention now.  If there is a pattern of parental ignoring, then children will often learn which behaviors are most effective in getting a parent to pay attention, which often falls under negative attention seeking.   Unfortunately, we as parents tend respond faster when our children behave problematically.  This doesn’t make the child necessarily happy but at least they get parent’s attention, and so the pattern can develop.

To Get Access to a Preferred Item/Tangible

In order to get something, we must get it ourselves or communicate that we want that item.  That’s not very profound, I know.  Children are so smart that they learn quickly how to manipulate the situation in order to get something they want.  My 9 month old baby girl, the most beautiful little thing in the world, becomes a screeching monster when she wants her toy bunny back.  She screams, dad can’t handle it, and quickly gives her the bunny. Children are masters at whining.  This simple, annoying little tool is so useful in getting mom or dad to relent and give them what they want.  Screen time is so addictive these days that children know exactly how to get that from a parent. They are smart and have learned that if they annoy and beg and pester parent enough, they will hear the words in a frustrating tone, ” just go turn the TV on and chill”.  As they turn away, they smile, knowing they have just succeeded in getting exactly what they wanted.

To Escape

Some children find themselves in an activity or environment that causes them distress and they behave in such a way to escape.  For example, a child may ask to go to the bathroom during a test to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing the test material. Some children develop a pattern of running away or hiding in order to escape stressful or unwanted situations. A classic example is when a young child does not want to go to bed and makes up excuses like being thirsty, needing to go to the bathroom, or their toe hurts.  Each of these excuses is a way to escape from having to go to bed.  Some children get into flight mode when they are in emotional distress and when a child runs away or hides parents can perceive it to be defiance and respond in a way that only adds to the child’s stress.  If parents knew the reason for escape, they can react in a different and more effective way.

To Avoid

The difference between escape and avoidance is that a child never starts the non-preferred activity. They never actually begin the activity because they choose to avoid it all together.  For example, if a child is nervous about a test, then they never make it to test day because they suddenly came down with a “cold”.  The function of faking a cold was to completely avoid the test. I have worked with many kids in schools and some children have learning disabilities. The stress and humiliation of not knowing how to read is something that is very difficult to cope with. Reading can be so frustrating for them that they avoid even going to the class to learn.  There main goal is to avoid the emotional distress and negative thoughts about themselves.

Release of Pent up Emotions

We all have emotions and feelings.  Children learn coping skills to help them manage their emotions. There are many positive coping skills that children learn, but many negative coping skills as well.   Some children hold their feelings inside and stuff them down.  Other children learn to cope by using unhealthy coping skills that may help release their emotions, but it causes them a lot of problems.  A simple example is when a distressed child screams at the top of their lungs for 5 minutes in order to release their stress. If an adolescent boy gets a phone call from his girlfriend and she breaks up with him, he becomes upset and chooses to punch a hole in his wall.  When children have pent-up emotions and need to release them, the sole function of the behavior is to release and express. The only “pay off” is to get rid of the emotions.

Any quality functional behavioral analysis has in its sole purpose to find the reason or purpose of the behavior.  If the function can be identified,  then an affective treatment plan be developed for both child and family.


If you or someone you know could use some help or support, then contact me.



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