Functions of Behavior in ABA: How Many Are There, Really?

ABA uses the functions of behavior to understand behavior and why it occurs. When you accurately identify the function of a behavior, you answer the question: What does this person “get” out of engaging in this behavior. This answer allows you to select function-based interventions to address the behavior.

Although traditional sources say there are 3-4 functions of behavior (access, escape, [attention] and automatic), there is a better way to conceptualize the functions of behavior. Cipani and Schock (2010) created a behavioral diagnostic system that expands on traditional models to help us understand behavior on a deeper level. They describe 2 primary functions: access and escape then go on to identify the type of reinforcer and the mode of access (direct or socially-mediated). This method provides a comprehensive approach to understanding the functions of behavior.

Depending on your source, the functions are presented in different ways which can make understanding this concept confusing for students new to the field. Many traditional resources as well as current ones, reference 3-4 functions of behavior: Access, Escape, [Attention] and Automatic. Some resources group attention with access, others present it as a separate behavioral function. Tools, including questionnaires like the Question About Behavioral Function (QABF) and the Functional Assessment Screening Tool (FAST) also provide different behavioral categories. Here we will compare just 3 common models of describing behavioral funciton.

Classic Functions of Behavior

Jamison et al. (2016) present this limited view of function in their presentation ABA in 2016. They describe the 4 primary functions of behavior as access, attention, escape and automatic reinforcement. In this model, behaviors that receive positive reinforcement in the form of an activity or something tangible fall in the access category. The attention category covers behaviors maintained by positive reinforcement in the form of attention. Escape includes behaviors that are negatively reinforced through escaping or avoiding an aversive stimulus. Automatic describes behaviors maintained by a pleasant sensory experience.

Three of these categories cover positive reinforcement, leaving one to describe negative reinforcement. A benefit to this perspective is the simplicity, but the categories of access, attention and automatic are somewhat redundant and unclear. Instructors in many ABA courses present this model when teaching about the functions of behavior. Students of these instructors may feel confused when they encounter alternative conceptualization of this critical concept.

The image below shows the extent to which this model describes behavioral function. The analyst may include more narrative information to further clarify maintaining variables, but the categories themselves fail to provide much description.

Traditional functions of behavior

Identifying Reinforcers to Determine Functions of Behavior

To identify the function of a particular behavior, professionals conduct a functional analysis or functional behavior assessment. This involves either manipulating variables surrounding the behavior of interest or collecting data when the behavior occurs in a more natural setting. The analysts consider what reinforcer occurs as a result of that behavior (or at least within a temporal relation to that behavior).

In their book Applied Behavior Analysis, which is often referred to as the ABA bible, Cooper, Heron and Heward (1987, p. 501-502) describe 2 primary categories of behavioral function with subcategories for each: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement. Remember that reinforcement is a stimulus that follows behavior AND strengthens that behavior along some measure (i.e. frequency, intensity, duration, etc.). Positive reinforcement refers to the addition of a stimulus and negative reinforcement refers to the removal of a stimulus.

This view of behavioral function is more detailed than the one described above and starts to dig more specifically into what stimulus is added (positive) or removed (negative) to strengthen the behavior (reinforcement). The subcategories included by the authors are represented in the image below. These subcategories provide more information about the maintaining variables which leads to more accuracy when selecting function-based interventions.

Functions of behavior according to Cooper, Heron and Heward (1987)

Diagnosis of Function

Cipani and Schock (2010) use a slightly different model when describing behavioral function. Their comprehensive approach avoids redundancy while thoroughly capturing all possibilities. This system specifies not only positive reinforcement (access) or negative reinforcement (escape) but also the type of reinforcer and whether another person provides access to the reinforcer (direct or socially-mediated). The authors include additional descriptive language when appropriate such as describing whether attention from peers or adults maintains the behavior.

Understanding behavior at this level helps you develop a plan that effectively addresses that behavior. Grey and Hastings (2005) emphasized the use of function in selecting evidenced-based interventions. Functional behavioral assessment and functional analysis allow the analyst to identify or hypothesize the function of challenging behavior. Once you collect data to determine controlling variables, use this diagnostic tool to describe those variables in detail.

First, identify if the reinforcer is positive or negative. Then, determine what type of reinforcer controls the behavior. Finally, determine if access to that reinforcer requires the presence of another person. Although this model requires 3 steps, it becomes fluid with some practice.

Look at this example:

Your client engages in aggression when asked to perform a task he doesn’t want to do. After looking at descriptive analysis data and observing the behavior yourself, you see that his aggression results in a delay of the task and staff altering how long they expect him to perform the task.

Without conducting a full analysis of the behavior, you can only hypothesize the function. In this example, the behavior is maintained by both the direct escape (delay of onset of the task) and socially-mediated escape (staff shortening the task) of a relatively lengthy task. The task might not actually take a long time to complete, but consider the task from his perspective.

This quick example highlights the benefit of describing function in this way. Now you understand more specifically what aspect of the task he finds aversive. Teaching him to request a delay in starting the task or a shorter task or a even break during the task provides an alternative that addresses the details of what maintains the challenging behavior.

Functions of Behavior according to Cipani and Schock (2010)

Comparing the 3 Models

While the model you choose may impact your ability to choose effective, function-based interventions, they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. You may choose to use Cipani and Schock’s model when selecting interventions, but a simpler one when speaking with or training parents or caregivers.

Look at the following example and how each model describes the function of the behavior:

You conduct a functional behavior assessment and determine that your client’s spitting most often results in attention from both his peers and classroom teacher.

The first model described above would put this behavior in the attention category. The second model puts this behavior in the social positive reinforcement category. The third model describes this behavior as maintained by socially-mediated access to attention from both adults and peers. Sure, the information is reasonably similar, but the third example provides a bit more detail that assists you in your search for effective interventions.

Choose the model of functions of behavior that makes the most sense to you and meets the needs of your specific situation. Each model presents unique advantages, but your audience’s understanding of the model might be the most important consideration. Although you use this information to select appropriate function-based interventions, other people likely need to understand your analysis. Parents, RBTs, and payers each read and process your documentation for different purposes. Avoid using language from one of the models that will confuse your intended audience, if possible.

Try for Yourself

Use our interactive “quiz” to help determine the function of a behavior.

References and Related Reading

Cipani, E., & Schock, K. M. (2010). Functional behavioral assessment, diagnosis, and treatment: A complete system for education and mental health settings. Springer Publishing Company.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Merrill Publishing Co.

Grey, I. M., & Hastings, R. P. (2005). Evidence-based practices in intellectual disability and behaviour disordersCurrent opinion in psychiatry18(5), 469-475.

Jamison, W. J., Hard, A., B. A.,Tara, Allen, C., Clark, J. & Hagy, S. (2016). ABA in 2016. [PowerPoint slides].