Why Behavior Occurs

Sometimes it can seem as though behavior just happens for no reason at all.  There may seem to be no trigger provoking the problem behavior to occur, but there is always a reason why behavior occurs.  Let’s dive into the four functions, or reasons why behavior occurs.


What the behaviors themselves look like will vary greatly from student to student, but it is important to understand the why to be able to use the appropriate interventions and change behavior for good.


1. Escape

When students are engaging in escape behaviors, they are trying to get away from a task, demand or even an area.  These can look like ripping up paper, refusing to complete problems, or leaving the table or classroom.


Students may be overwhelmed, overstimulated or perceive the task as too difficult (among other things).  There are many interventions that can be put in place for escape behaviors.  


Intervention: A proactive behavior management tip is to use visual schedules.  When a student has an individualized visual schedule, it will help prepare them for what is to come, explain the expectations of their day, and lessen anxiety- which will also lead to less behaviors.


A visual schedule also allows students to see if there are parts of their day they are looking forward to.  When they have something like recess after a more difficult subject area, they will be more motivated to complete the work to finish the task and go to recess.

2. Attention

Attention seeking behaviors can try to get the attention of peers or adults.  It is important to note that this attention can be positive or negative.  This means that even if you are raising your voice, the child is still getting what they want- attention.


Determining if the child is seeking peer or adult attention is crucial because that impacts the intervention you will use and how you will implement it.

Intervention: Provide noncontingent reinforcement.  To learn how to implement this easy, proactive strategy, read here.

3. Sensory

When talking about sensory seeking behaviors, there are a few caveats that need to be made.

-We all engage in sensory seeking behavior, so this behavior should only have an intervention to change it if the child verbalizes it, it is hurting them physically, or it is significantly impacting their learning.

-Sensory interventions should always be done collaboratively with the experts- occupational therapists and physical therapists.


Sensory seeking behaviors can be something as simple as scratching an itch or head banging when a child has a headache.

Intervention: Implement a sensory diet that meets the needs of that sensory seeking behavior in a different way.

4. Gaining access

When a student wants to get access to the iPad, their cell phone, or a piece of candy and they start engaging in problem behavior- this is considered the function of gaining access.


Intervention: Teach appropriate replacement behavior. Instead of the student hitting adults until they give them the ipad, teach them to ask maybe using their AAC device, sign language, or a card.  


Whatever the replacement behavior is, it needs to be just as easy to do as the problem behavior —- otherwise, why would they do it?

Learning the four functions of behavior is only scratching the surface of how to manage problem behaviors.  It is important to collaborate with teammates, families, and experts when managing problem behavior.

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