Understanding the Functions of Behavior: A Guide for Parents

Aug 25, 2023

As parents, we often find ourselves puzzled by our children’s behaviours. Why does your child throw a tantrum when it’s time to leave the park? Why does your teenager procrastinate on school assignments despite knowing the consequences? The key to unlocking these mysteries lies in understanding the functions of behaviour. By delving into this concept, parents can gain valuable insights into their children’s actions and pave the way for more effective parenting strategies. In this blog post, we’ll explore what functions of behaviour are, why they matter, and how parents can apply this knowledge in their daily lives.

The Functions of Behavior: Explained

Behaviour is communication. Every action a person takes serves a purpose or fulfils a need. The functions of behaviour are the underlying motivations that drive these actions. Understanding these functions can shed light on why a particular behaviour is occurring and guide parents toward appropriate responses.

There are generally four main functions of behaviour:

Attention-Seeking: Some behaviours are aimed at gaining attention, whether positive or negative. A child who acts out or throws a tantrum may do so because they crave attention from their parents, even if it means getting scolded.

Escape or Avoidance: Individuals may engage in behaviours to escape from a situation they find challenging or unpleasant. For instance, a child might whine to avoid doing their homework or a teen might pretend to be sick to skip school.

Desire for Tangible Rewards: Many behaviours are driven by the desire to obtain something tangible, such as a toy, a snack, or access to a favourite activity. A child might clean their room to earn a reward, showcasing the connection between behaviour and material gain.

Self-Regulation or Sensory Stimulation: Certain behaviours help individuals regulate their emotions or sensory experiences. For instance, a child might engage in repetitive movements like rocking back and forth to soothe themselves when feeling anxious.

Why Parents Should Care

Understanding the functions of behaviour offers parents a multitude of benefits:

Effective Communication: By recognizing the underlying motivations for behaviour, parents can better decipher what their child is trying to express, enabling more effective communication.

Tailored Strategies: Armed with knowledge about the function, parents can develop strategies that address the root cause of the behaviour, leading to more positive outcomes.

Reduced Frustration: Instead of reacting impulsively to challenging behaviours, parents can respond with empathy and patience, reducing their own frustration and creating a calmer environment.

Promoting Positive Behaviour: By addressing the underlying needs driving negative behaviour, parents can reinforce positive actions and help their children develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Applying Knowledge in Parenting

Observation: Pay close attention to the situations in which specific behaviours occur. Note what happens before and after the behaviour, as this can provide crucial insights into its function.

Ask Why: When confronted with challenging behaviour, ask yourself what might be motivating it. Is your child seeking attention? Trying to escape a task? Desiring something specific?

Offer Alternatives: Instead of merely discouraging negative behaviour, provide alternative ways for your child to achieve the same goal. This encourages them to learn more appropriate methods of communication.

Reinforce Positive Behaviour: When your child displays behaviour aligned with desired outcomes, acknowledge and reward it. Positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue making good choices.


Understanding the functions of behaviour equips parents with a powerful tool for deciphering their children’s actions and responding effectively. By recognizing that behaviour is a form of communication and delving into the underlying motivations, parents can create a more harmonious and supportive environment for their children to thrive. This knowledge transforms parenting from a guessing game into an informed and empathetic journey of growth and understanding.

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