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Unraveling The Mystery Of Your Child’s Challenging Behavior

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Why Identifying the Function is Critical in Developing a Plan

News Flash - Analyzing the problematic behavior is the only way to develop an effective plan to change it. Your child’s behavior is no exception.

While reading my post The ABC’s of Behavior, you learned that both what happens before and after a behavior has an affect on the behavior itself. It makes sense then, that the first step toward behavior change is trying to understand what conditions are motivating the behavior as well as what conditions are maintaining the behavior. Part of figuring out what the heck is going on, is assessing why they’re behaving the way they are. In other words… what is the function of the behavior?

Each and every behavior exhibited serves some type of function - the reason why we do what we do and behave a certain way. Why is the child engaging in the problem behavior? Is it attention from others that they’re after? Or perhaps avoidance of a non-preferred activity? What about because they want access to something cool? Sometimes kids tell us exactly why they are acting out, but if they don’t and their behavior could speak, what would it be saying? “I want that and I want it now!” “Leave me alone!” “Play with me, please!” Figuring out the function generally answers the question of why. The answer to this seemingly simple question is invaluable information to have.

After we identify all the factors that are influencing your child’s behavior, including the function, the information will inform us in developing effective interventions. And if we’ve done our homework correctly, the effective interventions will result in meaningful behavior change. Presto!


Figuring Out The Function

If behavior change is our end goal, figuring out the function (or at least having a solid hypothesis about the function) is an absolute must-do! Remember, there are three component parts to any given behavior and all three parts must be addressed… Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence. The function will guide us in generating:

  • appropriate prevention strategies - the antecedent

  • selecting alternative replacement skills to teach - the behavior

  • as well as help us determine appropriate consequences to be consistent with

While some behaviors are maintained by more than one function, behavior generally fits into one of the following four functions:

1. Attention – Your little one engages in the behavior to gain attention from you or somebody else.

It’s important to note that even reprimands and corrective feedback may inadvertently reinforce a child’s desire for attention. Sometimes they’ll take it however they can get it. It can be positive attention or negative attention and still be reinforcing. Your child may be trying to say, “I want your attention!” Or, “Put your phone down and play with me!”

E.g. Child starts acting out when you get on the phone or cries when you pick up their sibling.

Pro-tip: Begin providing positive attention/reinforcement for absence of the behavior (in other words…before the behavior occurs) & when you know you are unable to provide attention, you may want to consider allowing them to engage in a preferred activity.

2. Access to Tangibles – Your little one engages in the behavior to gain access to a specific item or activity.

These are often things they want. Your child may be trying to say, “I want that!” Or more likely, “I want that now!”

E.g. Child tantrums in the candy aisle when told "no candy today" or yells when told electronics time is done.

Pro-tip: Provide access to the desired item/activity when an appropriate alternative response is demonstrated, like when they use their words and ask politely.

3. Escape or Avoidance – Your little one engages in the behavior to either escape (get out of) or avoid an unwanted event, activity or person.

Acting out can often effectively delay or even eliminate their participation or completion of a non-preferred task. Your child may be trying to say, “I don’t want to do that.” Or, “This is awful, I want to leave!”

E.g. Child runs away or hides when told to clean up, or child begins to act super silly in the middle of homework time.

Pro-tip: If you know in advance that it’s going to be an issue, adjust the difficulty of what you’re asking by making it easier. Use First _____ , Then _____ statements - where first they’re expected to do the undesirable thing, and then they get to do something more preferred.

4. Automatic – Your little one engages in the behavior because the behavior itself is reinforcing and provides some type of sensory stimulation.

This is sometimes referred to as self-stimulatory behavior and can often occur in a wide range of settings, even when the child is alone. Your child may be trying to say, “This feels good.” Or, “I really like the sound this makes.”

E.g. Child chews on their clothing or flaps their arms when excited.

Pro-tip: Fill your child’s environment with interesting and stimulating objects and activities that align with the type of self-stimulatory behavior they’re engaging in (e.g. visual, auditory, tactile).


Remember, once we understand the behavior and can answer the why, we can move forward in developing an effective plan to change the challenging behavior. All three parts of behavior must be addressed… the A, the B and the C. For the sake of simplicity, this time we are going to move backwards through the ABC’s with our newly identified function in mind… starting with the C.

First things first, we need to eliminate the Consequence (the C part of the ABC’s) that is currently feeding into the behavior we want to change. Let’s face it… if an undesirable behavior happens with regularity, it is somehow being reinforced. Perhaps it’s being reinforced inadvertently, but it’s being reinforced. Eliminating any reinforcement that is occurring in the consequence is another must-do! If screaming bloody murder in the candy aisle traditionally resulted in being reinforced with the sweet taste of sugar… that has got to come to a screeching halt. If running away when being asked to “come here” guaranteed a game of chase… chase no longer! If thrashing on the floor means we’ll skip brushing teeth tonight... then by hook or by crook the teeth will get brushed. If grabbing a toy from a sibling has meant getting to keep it… the toy goes back to brother! In other words, make sure that the problem behavior does not get your child the same reward/reinforcement any longer. No payoffs. No reinforcement. No attention. No giving in. No backing off. If you do this right, the misbehavior will no longer result in getting the need met.

Here’s the thing… eliminating the reward for the misbehavior, being consistent and not giving in isn’t going to be enough. There, I said it. It will help. It will help a lot in fact! But if you’d like enduring behavior change, and we do, you’re going to have to up your behavior game. You’re going to have to also teach a replacement skill that meets the same need that the misbehavior did. We need to teach them that there is a better way to get the same need met!

When the challenging behavior is no longer rewarded or reinforced, a sweet little opportunity will present itself. Remember, your child still wants the candy, to be chased, to avoid tooth brushing, and access to the toy… You may have removed the reinforcer, but they still want the reinforcer. So what do we do? We teach them a better way, a socially acceptable way to get the need met. It’s what we behavior geeks call a replacement behavior. A replacement behavior is the new & improved skill that will still get the job done. And we can teach it to them! Teaching a replacement skill addresses the Behavior part of the ABC’s. The appropriate replacement skill should result in the same type of reinforcement that the inappropriate behavior once did.

If we teach a new skill that serves the same function as the negative behavior, then the new appropriate skill can be used to get the same need met in the future. Your child won’t have to depend on a negative behavior to get the job done. They can simply rely on the functional replacement behavior that we’ve taught. The new skill should be an efficient way for them to access reinforcement. Voila!

If you learn how to ask for help, you no longer have to scream.

If you learn how to wait, you can tolerate reasonable delays without falling apart.

If you learn how to take deep breaths to calm yourself down when you’re frustrated, you no longer need to throw things.

If you can learn to sign/gesture or communicate the need to use the potty, you can avoid soiling yourself.

If you can learn to negotiate, you no longer have to be aggressive to get your way.

If you can learn an appropriate play or leisure skill, you longer have to rock or flap for sensory stimulation.

If you can learn better ways to gain attention, you know longer need to yell “I want boobies!” for a laugh.

Catch my drift? So it isn’t enough to just eliminate the payoffs for naughtiness, we must also do some teaching of replacement skills. And the replacement skill should be even more effective at getting the job done. Now we’re cooking with gas! We are working hard at being consistent and eliminating any potential reinforcers for the negative behavior AND we are teaching an appropriate replacement skill that they can use from now on. It's important to note that the teaching of a replacement skill should happen when your child is calm and amenable to instruction, NOT when disruptive behavior is occurring. Learning and disruptive behaviors are inversely related. When we're upset, our ability to take in new information is compromised. Kids and grownups alike.

Again, eliminate the payoffs and teach a replacement skill! So far we have a one-two punch of parental prowess to get your little one back on track.

You want the trifecta - the triple threat approach for best results? Go back and read The ABC’s of Behavior and review the "Antecedents to Avoid" and the "Antecedents to Adopt." Refresh your memory about the things you can do proactively to set your child up for success. Things like offering choices, using countdowns to transitions and “First ___ , Then ___ ” statements go a very long way to promote compliance.


Altering the antecedent conditions to promote cooperation (the A), teaching a replacement skill that fits the function (the B) and eliminating payoffs for the misbehavior as well as reinforcing both desirable behavior & the absence of disruptive behavior (the C) will result in significantly improved behavior. I promise! After all, it’s science.


Well done, you now understand why identifying the function of the behavior is critical for behavior change! Now think about which behaviors your child is exhibiting that need tweaking. Try to identify the function to unlock some Dynamic Behavior Solutions. Need some help figuring it all out? Reach out, schedule a free-consultation, or book an appointment. Together we will help your child develop some new skills, reshape previously learned ones and decrease the undesirable behavior. Let’s bring peace back to your family!

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