Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

October 23, 2020

The ABC’s & Functions of Behaviors

Understanding the ABCs & Functions of Behaviors: Introduction to Parent Workshop

Written by: Lindsey Anuzis, MA, LCMHCA, NCC, RBT

As both a licensed mental health counselor, and a registered behavior technician doing ABA therapy for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, it is safe to say that behaviors are something I think about often.

Behaviors are a topic that frequently come up when talking with concerned parents. Specifically, parents ask what is causing these behaviors and what they can do to address them. All behavior is rooted in communication; Therefore, figuring out your child’s “why,” is crucial. This is especially relevant for newer parents struggling with tantrums or “three-nagers,” as well as, the parents of pre-teens and teens.  So, let’s talk about the ABCS, and functions of behavior.

A is for Antecedent

The antecedent is what happens immediately before a behavior occurs. Antecedents can include certain people being present or not present (i.e. mom out of town), sounds, conversations (i.e. the word “no”) etc. Antecedents can even include certain times of the day like, getting ready for school in the morning, homework time or bed time. A crucial step in understanding a behavior and its function, is noticing any patterns that occur before the behavior begins.

B is for Behavior

A behavior is an action that is measureable and has a clear beginning and end time. With little kiddos, think; screaming, kicking, hitting, running away, rolling on the floor, head banging etc. For those pre-teens and teens this could look more like procrastination of homework or chores, talking back, sneaking out, substance use, or blatant disobedience.

C is for Consequence

A consequence is what happens immediately after a behavior occurs. It is how you, as the parent respond, or what your child does. Think about how you react. Are you yelling, or giving your child positive attention? Does the child immediately look at you? These observations offer insight into why the behavior is occurring. For those struggling with preteens and teens, this can be a bit more complicated as other factors start to enter the mix (i.e. hormones, and identity exploration etc.).

Now that we have the ABCs down, let’s talk about common functions or the “why” of behaviors. While I do believe behavior can be more complicated (especially with underlying mental health conditions) than just these four functions, they offer a good place to start. Also of note, the following functions can be present for both positive and negative behaviors.


This is the function when a behavior leads to attention. Attention can be positive or negative in nature. It can include words, laughs, eye contact, and gestures among other things. This can be the cause of behaviors at school (i.e. being a “class clown,” or disruptive student, or the student who is always raising their hand to answer questions). At home this can include fighting with siblings, helping around the house for praise, or practicing more for sports/music to get acknowledgement.


This is the function when a behavior leads to a break, delay, or removal of something, and typically occurs during a non-preferred activity or after a direction is given. For example, procrastination of homework, chores, picky eating/avoidance of certain foods, etc.


This is the function when a behavior leads to access to an activity or item. These behaviors can occur when a favorite item/activity is removed or unavailable (i.e. struggles with siblings sharing).


This is the function of a behavior when the behavior leads to a positive sensory feeling or positive internal state. These behaviors are not social in nature, meaning they could happen when the child is alone (i.e. self-soothing), and occur regardless of the setting, activity or people around. A child engages in a behavior because they like the way it feels. They may engage in a behavior to access a good feeling, such as sucking a thumb for comfort, or to remove a negative feeling, such as temple pressure to relieve a headache.

If you are interested in learning more about reducing negative behaviors or promoting positive ones, give us a call! I would be more than happy to work with you individually or you can inquire about joining my parenting workshop. These small group, virtual parent workshops will meet weekly for 4 weeks and occur each month.