Everything Happens for a Reason, Straight Talk about Functions of Behavior

As a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) I’ve heard a lot of criticisms about ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy. I think the bulk of these criticisms come from the misunderstanding that ABA is a field full of “Super Nannies.” Many misinformed people think that as soon as you raise your hand and say you’re having a hard time with your child, an ABA therapist will swoop in with the ‘naughty step.’

People who are familiar with ABA often think of BCBAs as enforcers. I won’t lie to you, we are a consistent breed of people but it’s not because we seek to enforce. We are scientists seeking to understand. BCBA’s are interested in why behaviors happen, so we can improve the quality of life for whole families. It’s that simple.

Functions of Behavior in Children

Now, before we jump into functions of behavior, it’s important to take a side step and look at neurology and development. If you don’t know where your child is developmentally you can often expect too much (or too little) from them. Toddlers are all limbic system, meaning there is no logic in their tiny little bodies. When I learned this, a large weight was lifted off my shoulders. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t begin to develop until three or four years of age.

Going further; In women the prefrontal cortex fully develops by 18 years. In men it’s 25 years(sorry guys!). So, while we need to be consistent with our children, we also need to realize what they are capable of. There’s a way to do both, I promise.


For starters; yes, everything does happen for a reason. When we come into the world, we come with a unique personality and a set environment. It is the environment that shapes our behaviors.

In ABA we don’t seek to change who someone is. We want to bring out who that special someone is! If a person is tantruming all day long, however, it will exhaust both them and their parents. What is helpful is to show parents why certain behaviors are occurring, to remove the reinforcers around a particular behavior and teach a new skill.

Parenting to Avoid Bad Behavior

As parents, you and I get to decide what behaviors we don’t want our children to engage in. Your list is going to look totally different than mine, which is 100% OK, but how to approach it will be the same.

This approach is pretty simple, once you have your list of behaviors. With this list (my list includes spitting, hitting, and screaming), you’ll start to look for what came before the behavior (antecedent) and what came after the behavior (consequence). As you record this information, a pattern will most likely emerge to show you what your little person is trying to achieve with these behaviors.

Here’s a quick way to look for four functions:

Parent is preoccupied. Behavior occurs. Parent gives attention by engaging or scolding their child.

Parent asks their child to something. Behavior occurs. Parent gives in to the demand to avoid the behaviors.

Child asks for item/activity and is told no. Behavior occurs. Parent gives in to said item/activity.

Physically your child has needs like is hungry, tired, or in pain, so you go ahead and help them!

Analyzing Your Child’s Behavior

Soon you will start to see what your child is after with their behaviors. For me, there is a ‘two-step’ because of my son Henry’s age (two years). For any child beyond the age of 4, the two-step just changes order.

Step one is to let Henry melt down while I provide a neutral, safe space for him to get his ‘Big Feelings’ out because he’s in his limbic system and is feeling unsafe. For us this looks like limited talking, modeling deep breaths, and big hugs if he’ll let me.

Step two is making sure he doesn’t get his desired consequence. For attention this would be, “Mommy is still busy cooking let’s set a timer and then I’ll play,” Then, for escape, this would simply be not letting him escape the demand, “Yes you still have to put pants on.” Or, for a tangible, it’s a “No you can’t watch TV, let’s make another choice.”

If Henry were four or older I would flip this and remove the consequence he wanted first and then talk about the Big Feeling after he calmed down. Because he can’t self-regulate yet, I feel it’s important to model this for him. I know other BCBA’s out there who would disagree (and they’re not wrong), but it’s what I feel works for me as a Mama.

Learn What Works For Your Child

I think we would all benefit a little more from a world that says “it’s OK to feel this way, but no, you can’t do XYZ,” vs. “your desires are wrong, get over it.” After his behaviors occur, I also work to teach Henry how to use his words, tolerance to the word ‘no,’ and how to wait. In my opinion, these are essential skills for anyone dealing with young children.

I know it’s a lot to digest. To think that every little thing your child does is to achieve an outcome in their environment is new and overwhelming. I hope that if you start applying the steps outlined in this article that relief is on the way. Seeking to understand your little someone doesn’t have an instant solution. And hey, maybe you’ll start understanding a little bit more about yourself.


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