Remembering the Functions of Behavior

In the August CCEI Newsletter, the idea of behavior as a form of communication is explored. But what exactly are children attempting to communicate?  We can begin to understand children’s behavior (communication) when we become familiar with the functions of behaviors. The function of a behavior is the why behind the behavior or the need that the behavior is trying to communicate.

Depending on the resource there can be any number of functions of behavior.  Here are a few of the more common functions of behavior.

  • To gain attention – Sometimes, children engage in behaviors to gain the attention of others. The term attention-seeking is used to describe these instances. Many experts are now referring to attention-seeking behaviors as connection-seeking Sometimes, children just need to be seen, acknowledged, and reassured of their connection with adults in their lives.
  • To obtain tangible objects- Sometimes, children will engage in behaviors designed to get them what they want. They may take toys from others or have a tantrum to acquire a desired object.
  • To gain control – Sometimes, children feel completely out of control of the circumstances in their immediate surroundings. They may act defiantly in order to feel a sense of control or autonomy.
  • To avoid or escape a situation – Sometimes, children’s behaviors are a means of getting out of a particular situation, such as cleaning up or having to go to bed.
  • To gain or avoid sensory stimulation – Sometimes, children behave in a way that is a direct response to stimuli in the environment. For example, a shirt tag irritating a child’s neck could lead to an aggressive reaction. A child who is sensitive to sounds could run out of the room if it becomes too loud. Other children may play roughly with others because they are seeking strong sensory input.
  • To communicate strong emotions – Sometimes, children do not have the words to express their overwhelming emotions. They may bite a friend they are excited to see or begin to kick an adult if they are overly tired.

The good news is, that despite all of these possible triggers of challenging behaviors, we know that behavior is communication… we know that children are trying to tell us something.  It is our job to observe, reflect, and engage with children in a way that helps us get to the bottom of the matter. From there, we can help by meeting the child’s needs or guiding them to communicate their needs in safer, more effective ways.