How Knowing the Four Functions of Behavior Will Transform Classroom Behavior 

Educators are reporting student behavior issues are on the rise following the pandemic. Many, including several of our partners, note a concern in the ability of school staff to handle increasingly intense student behaviors. Our team recently conducted classroom observations in partner schools. The observations highlighted an interesting question: How frequently do teachers understand the function of a student’s behavior in order to respond?  

We’ve come to realize that the answer is “very few.”  This seemingly crucial information for both teachers and leaders is actually an obscure nugget granted to only the select few who become trained in behavioral intervention. How could that be? It’s a missed opportunity when we don’t prepare educators with the knowledge and skills to identify and respond to the variety of behaviors they see in a classroom. Classroom management practices and culture are key components, of course. But they don’t tell the full story of what it takes to create a productive, safe learning environment for all students. 

In this blog, we explain the four functions of behavior and explore how understanding what triggers a student’s behavior will help you effectively respond to the behaviors and engage students in a productive learning environment.

A Note about Equity

Before we dig in, it’s important to note that behavioral expectations are grounded in norms that may not reflect the true diversity of our country. We know that Black and brown children tend to be held to standards beyond their given age as a result of underlying biases. In many contexts, and for various reasons, adults in schools are less likely to show the same willingness to understand the behavior and motivations of Black and brown students and thoughtfully respond as they do with their White peers. When we discuss behavior, we also need to be mindful of how our own experiences/biases may be impacting us and how systems present differently for students of color. 

What are Functions of Behavior?

A person engages in the same behavior repeatedly because it serves a purpose or function for that individual. If there were no function for the behavior, then the behavior would not occur over time. All behavior has a function. Some functions are easier to see than others. Some behaviors can have more than one function.

The Four Functions of Behavior

All behavior can be categorized into four functions, and each function has a range of appropriate responses. Let’s take a closer look at each:

FunctionDefinitionExample
Escape/ AvoidanceAn individual can escape or avoid difficult or unpleasant tasks, activities, or interactions by engaging in problem behaviors. Students who transition to school for the first time struggle with readiness behaviors and following transitions/directions that are not student-directed. 
Access to Tangible ItemsIndividuals can engage in some behaviors to obtain access to tangible items/objects and/or gain access to desired activities.Students struggling with adaptive skills (e.g., waiting, appropriately tolerating when a requested item is not available right away) engage in tantrums or screaming.
Attention- SeekingAn individual may engage in a behavior to gain social attention or a reaction from peers or adults around him/her (this can be positive or negative attention).Students may engage in calling out to get their peers to look at them or laugh at them or gain attention from the adult(s) in the room.
Automatic/ SensoryAn individual may engage in the behavior because of the way it makes the person feel (self-stimulating); the function may be to add something pleasing or remove something displeasing and not rely on anything external. A student may cover his ears in the presence of loud noises to remove the undesired noise or wave their hands/arms to manage overwhelming sensory information.

How to Determine the Function(s) of a Behavior

This is where things may get a little complicated. You may not always know why a student behaves in a certain way.  But there are clues, and as with most things in education, data is your friend. Behaviors have triggers (or antecedents) – you may not realize them at the moment, but they’re there.

There are two types:

  • Fast triggers are what happens immediately before a behavior (e.g., if you take a toy away, and a student has a tantrum, it likely has the function of obtaining “access to tangible items)
  • Slow triggers happen well before the behavior occurs but can be the cause of behavior (e.g., a student who saw a scary Halloween video last week, is reminded of it during an art assignment and tries to run out of the room to “escape/avoid” doing the assignment).

How many of us have had a student have a meltdown during stations only to find out later they had a rough morning on the way to school? Information like this is incredibly important when considering how we respond. Yes, we know that triggers are not always obvious, and many times, we don’t know until well after a behavior has occurred. But our awareness that there is a trigger – and that the behavior is serving a purpose we need to understand – is key to getting students what they need and returning to a productive learning environment. 

What to Do After You Determine the Function(s) of a Behavior

Effective behavior responses may sometimes take decades to master.  What works as an effective strategy for students one day may not work the next.  And sometimes, it may take more than a handful of tries to find even one strategy that works in a given case.

However, no matter the behavior, it is important to avoid engaging in a power struggle with students. Respond, don’t react. It’s easy to confuse the two, but responding requires an awareness of our triggers and needs and remaining in an emotionally regulated state when addressing the behavior thoughtfully. 

Click the image on the right to download a primer tool on the Functions of Behavior.

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