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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Sawchuk

Functions of Behavior - Part 1

I think we can all agree that parenting is among the most challenging and rewarding experiences out there. With those fun, beautiful and authentic moments, also come difficult ones. While each child and parent has their own unique experiences, many challenging behaviors can be tied back to four main functions: 1) attention/connection, 2) access, 3) escape/avoidance, and 4) sensory. Each of these functions comes with its own unique response.


One of the leading functions of problem behaviors involves obtaining the attention or seeking connection with others, regardless of whether it’s good, bad or neutral.

Consider this: A child who speaks calmly and quietly often gets simple affirming responses from their parents (ex: “good job” or thumbs up), whereas when they raise their voice or hit their siblings they will likely receive a lengthy discussion or scolding (ex: “Why would you do that? You know that we don’t hit others”). The main difference? The amount of attention given to the child when they engage in a problem behavior versus when they are following expectations.

What do we do about this? Selective Attention - ignoring the problem behavior and immediately praising and providing attention when the child becomes regulated or stops the behavior. For example, if a child starts to scream with the intent to gain your attention:

  1. Provide feedback about expected behaviors (ex: “First quiet voice, then I can help”)

  2. Turn your gaze and body slightly away, while refraining from offering any other verbal feedback - you have already set the expectation, there is no need to add more.

  3. Wait - this is especially challenging, but it’s important to remain calm and firm in your expectations.

  4. Repeat expectations - if needed!

  5. Praise Immediately with change in behavior (ex: “thank you for a quiet voice, I would love to help/talk”)

When I observe a child engaging in problem behaviors (ex: screaming, yelling, throwing objects, hitting), it shows me that they have developed “short-cuts” to communication and getting their needs met. It is our duty to help guide them to more successful communication strategies, by showing them what behaviors garner attention, and what behaviors do not.This happens with praising and calling out good behaviors whenever possible. While this might feel silly or unnecessary, it’s important to let our kids know that we recognize the good moments. Some examples:

“You have such a nice calm body right now.”

“I love that you cleaned your room when I asked you to”

“Thank you for sitting nicely in the car while we wait in the drive-thru.”

“You did a great job asking me for help.”


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