Behavior Learning

Functions of Behavior

Every intervention starts with analyzing the problem at hand. While working with children with Neurodevelopmental conditions I came to realize that it is important to understand the meaning or communication behind their different behaviors. Many empirical and scientifically researched methods have been used for understanding the problematic behaviors, emotions, and cognitions. Recent advances have pointed out towards one method that is being widely used with children on the spectrum or other developmental conditions by many practitioners and this method is known as Applied behavior Analysis. 

ABA is a widely researched and empirically supported intervention for children with behavioral problems that has its basis in Behavior Therapy. ABA practitioners have come to use the power of observation and data collection (i.e. data about behavior) for centuries for formulating their intervention plan for the individual involved. 

The very first step to formulating an effective intervention plan for your child is to collect data about the subject of concern i.e. the problematic behavior. This data collection is done using the well-known ABC approach which I will talk about in the next article. The scope of this article is to understand how to interpret the behavioral data that one collects through observation, recording, and clinical interviews with the caregivers. The interpretation of behavioral data in ABA language is called Functional Analysis of Behavior. This simply means that the behavior that is shown by the child serves a function to the child. While working with kids on the spectrum I came to see these behaviors as serving seven different functions. 

Let us explore each of these functions with examples now!

  1. Behaviors (positive or negative) can develop due to the need for attention. We are social beings and hence attention is a motivating factor. Attention leads us to behave. For instance, the child may learn to tap on your shoulder or throw temper tantrums because he/she wants to seek your attention.
  2. Behaviors can also develop as a result of certain physiological states such as hunger, pain, discomfort. For instance, the child says please when hungry to get food or the child may engage in self-injurious behaviors because he/she is experiencing pain.
  3. A desire for tangible materials like toys can also lead to behaviors. For instance, a child would talk in a sentence while requesting for his favorite toy or may beat the parent to get access to that toy
  4. Behaviors can also stem from sensory or automatic factors in the environment. For instance, a child would throw temper tantrums when cutting nails or hair due to the prevailing sensitivity.
  5. Behaviors can also be a way of communication. For instance, a child may pull your hand constantly towards the kitchen to request for his favorite biscuit.
  6. Behaviors can also be a way of escaping a situation. For instance, the child may throw a temper tantrum before going to the party because he does not want to go.
  7. Behaviors may also be strengthened because they are self-stimulatory i.e., they help in self-regulation. For instance, when angry a child may engage in excessive self-talking to calm him/herself down.

 Lastly, It is important to remember that behaviors are learned and hence they can be unlearned by using interventions like developing new healthy behaviors, replacing the old behaviors, or fading the problematic behaviors. But before one thinks of intervention it is important to first gather data on the problematic behaviors that exist. Once you have successfully started observing these behaviors, I will share further insights on how to make the observations useful. Until then happy observation.

 Your scientific friend,


Facebook page- Brainlocked

Urvi Mange

Clinical Psychologist (Master of Arts in Applied Psychology) and MSc. in Neuro-Cognitive Psychology (ongoing)


  1. This is so informative, thanks for sharing. I have observed some of my daughter’s behavior exactly as described.

  2. Definitely this article is very useful, you placed it in very simple language and with solid content. pls share any useful ABA related materials. I am a psychologist and Behavior Therapist. Thanks

  3. Thank you! Just starting the autism journey with my granddaughter. She was diagnosed 2 years ago. The mother is very reluctant in getting her help. How can I help her understand the necessity for ABA therapy.

    1. Please show her more of our blogs where we have mentioned Early Intervention is the key for better world to the kids.Make her understand that their are no side effects of help but not getting help will definitely increase problems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *