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1,000,000 behaviors, 4 functions

By: Katherine Manettas


When we refer to “behavior” at North Georgia Autism Center (and in the field of behavior analysis as a whole), we are really talking about anything that we can observe a person saying or doing!


Crying is a behavior. Picking up a cookie and taking a big bite out of it is a behavior. Laughing is a behavior, too! You can probably think of hundreds of different behaviors off the top of your head right now, but what if we told you that all behavior is maintained by 4 primary functions?


Considering these functions is important because we need to know why a behavior is occurring in order to address it, regardless of what the behavior looks like!


The four functions of behavior are expressed in the acronym SEAT: Sensory, Escape, Attention, and Tangible. Every behavior can be classified under at least one of those functions listed above...Yes, every single one!


A sensory function (known as the “feel good” function) refers to engaging in behaviors because, well, they feel good to us! For example: turning up loud music and singing in your home when nobody is watching, or twirling your hair because you are bored and there’s nothing else to do. Other self-stimulatory behaviors include hand-flapping, biting your nails, body rocking, etc. Every one of us engages in sensory-seeking and sensory-defensive behaviors and this function is not exclusive to those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.


Escape refers to engaging a behavior to remove a situation that we do not like. For example: running away from a bee when you are doing your yard work to avoid getting stung. Also, pushing away a smelly food that you do not want to eat functions as escape. Ignoring someone’s phone call is maintained by escape, too.


Attention refers to engaging in a behavior to receive any sort of attention from someone else. Asking for attention by saying “excuse me” or “hey, look!” would be an appropriate way to ask for attention. People who do not yet have language skills may cry or engage in other behaviors (pulling on someone’s clothing or running away) to receive attention from someone else.


Tangible refers to engaging in a behavior to receive something, such as a favorite toy, food, or activity. Saying “Can I have a cookie?” serves a tangible function because it allows a person to ask for something that they want/need.


At NGAC, we do not pass judgement about the behaviors that we see, regardless of the magnitude (severity) or the topography (what the behavior looks like). All behavior is communicative in some way! Identifying the function of behaviors that we observe helps us unveil tons of teaching opportunities. While reducing a challenging behavior seems like the main goal, we can only accomplish this by teaching important skills such as asking for what we need, developing self-regulation/coping skills, and increasing independence.


Next time someone in your life engages in a behavior that may be disruptive to you, we at NGAC encourage you to take a moment and consider why that behavior is occurring. Remember: all behavior is telling us something if we take a moment to listen!

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