If you’re a special education teacher, chances are you are charged with understanding functions of behavior and behavior interventions. Working with challenging behaviors takes grit and a lot of emotional energy. I know you’re a great teacher, just because you are here and reading this to get better at helping kids get the right strategies they need to have behavior that will lead them to success.

Behavior Is Communication

You’ve probably heard it before, but all behavior really is communication. All kids, special education or not, have limitations in their communication, and sometimes frustration at the lack of communication comes out in behaviors that need to change for safety or other reasons. It’s important to note that positive behavior is communication too!

ABC Charts

To determine the function of a behavior, I need to do an ABC chart. Here’s what ABC stands for:

Antecedent: What happened before the behavior occurred?

Behavior: What behavior happened?

Consequence: What happened in the room after the behavior. Essentially, we are looking for what is reinforcing, or encouraging, the behavior to continue. Sometimes, the causes can be quite subtle. Finding those can be tricky, but they are there.

You may already have a hunch about the function of the behavior. But sometimes, we assume wrong. The ABC chart will help make sure we choose the right function of the behavior. If we choose the wrong function, our behavior intervention plan could not only be useless, it could even make the behavior worse.

ABC Chart Example:

We’re going to use a new behavior my cat Holly started as an example. The data isn’t 100% real, but it gives a good idea of what is really happening. If you were doing this for a student, use real data. As you can see in the chart, Holly has started biting. She’s old and doesn’t have many teeth, but it is still not a behavior I want my little fluff ball to keep doing.

When looking at this chart, I can see that as a consequence of her behavior, sometimes she gets petted (yes, I’m a sucker), and sometimes she’s kicked out of the room. You probably have a hunch about the function of the behavior already, but we are going to examine it more closely. Then we are going to look at  the same behavior in different lights.

Want my ABC Chart to take your own behavior data? It’s yours for free.

Functions of Behavior

According to ABA, there are four basic functions of any behavior (both positive and negative behaviors). Before we can create a behavior intervention, we need to understand the why, or the function, of the behavior. The exact same behavior can have different functions for different people.

Sensory Stimulation

Sometimes kids show sensory seeking behaviors inappropriately. It’s important to remember everybody has sensory seeking behaviors. Do you love to get a pedicure because of how it feels? Do you take a shower because you can’t stand feeling gross? Do you like to take a bath because of how the warm water makes you feel calm? Or maybe you look forward to dessert all day because of the sweetness.  All of those are sensory seeking behaviors.

Can our target behavior of biting be a sensory seeking behavior? Absolutely, it can. If my cat Holly had a tooth infection, biting could provide pressure that would help her gums feel better. Alternatively, if she is getting pleasurable sensory stimulus of being petted after she bites, then sensory stimulation could be the cause.


You’ve probably heard of the evolutionary response, fight, flight, or freeze. Fight, flight, and freezing behaviors can all be an escape method from something the person (or in this case a cat) finds undesirable.

Can our target behavior of biting be an escape behavior? Absolutely, it can. If she was biting, and it made the person she bit go away, it could indicate an escape behavior.

Access to Attention

I like to think of access to attention as seeking connection and seeking a relationship. And that’s a wonderful thing. But sometimes, new skills need to be taught to appropriately ask for the attention.

Can our target behavior of biting be a plea for access to attention? Absolutely, it can. If my cat Holly felt ignored, she may be escalating to a more extreme behavior to get my attention and the  connection she wants. If the consequence was that I talked to her and looked at her when she wasn’t getting that before her biting behavior got her what she wanted.

Access to Tangibles

Can our target behavior of biting be a plea for access to tangibles? Absolutely it can. If Holly got food, water, or a toy soon after biting, her strategy would have worked. Her request would be the biting and the behavior would have been reinforced by giving her access to the thing she wanted.

It’s not wrong for our students to want tangibles. But we need to help our students understand limits on tangibles. They may want to use the iPad all the time.

How to Interpret the Data

You might be thinking, great, we haven’t even ruled out any of the functions of behavior yet. Biting could be for any of those reasons. So now what? Next, we look closely at the consequences in the data we have chosen. Consequences don’t mean punishment here. The consequence just means what happened after the behavior, for good or bad. Always remember, the behavior our students exhibit make sense to them. They are doing the best they can. The situation can be even more complicated if you are working with a child who is exhibiting challenging behaviors but also has had trauma. You can learn more about trauma informed teaching here.

In my ABC chart for Holly’s behavior, you will notice two things that happen when Holly bites. Sometimes I pet her (against’ my better judgement, but she’s so darn cute, y’all). Other times I ignore her. You’ll notice when I ignore her, she bites again! Let’s go through each function and consider what is the most likely.

Sensory Stimulation

Holly hasn’t been biting anything but people, so she doesn’t seem like she has a problem with her teeth causing her pain. If she was gnawing on other things, I would consider this. However, Holly does love being petted. She purrs and purrs when she gets petted. For her, it’s like getting a massage. So sensory stimulation could be the function of her behavior to get more pettings.


When Holly bites, she is staying right by the person she bit. If I try to move away from her, she follows me. She’s definitely not trying to escape. She’s purring when she’s biting too, so she doesn’t seem to be in a fight mode. And she is actively doing something, so freeze doesn’t make sense here either.

Access to Attention

When Holly bites, she purrs at the same time. Did you know cats very rarely purr alone? Purring is a social communication in cats. Usually they purr in the presence of humans or other cats. If I turn around and talk to her, she stops biting.

Access to Tangibles

In our data, Holly hasn’t been getting any tangibles after she bites, so this shouldn’t be the function of the behavior.

Multiple Causes of Behavior

I think our kids (and pets) are savvy and complex creatures. Sometimes, instead of just one function of the behavior, they might have more than one. In this example, I think Holly has two functions of this behavior. I think she is seeking the sensory stimulation of being petted but also is seeking access to attention. Sometimes a consequence will fall into multiple categories, and it’s OK to consider it as such. Your intervention will need to ensure that all the possible functions are addressed.

Behavior Intervention

Now that I have analyzed my data and determined that the function of the behavior is access to attention, sensory stimulation, or both, I can start to develop behavior interventions. The focus of my behavior intervention is to get Holly what she is communicating she wants in a more appropriate way. I don’t mind her getting attention or seeking sensory stimulation, it’s just that she is biting to get it that is the problem.

Addressing Attention Seeking Behavior

Before Holly can bite me, she has to be close enough to do so. She particularly bites right after I take a shower. So now I know I can be on the lookout for her. I can give her attention and love before she bites. By anticipating her need, I have made her biting communication unnecessary. She gets what she wants, and I don’t get bitten. With your students, can you anticipate what they want? Can you help them communicate their wants and needs in a better way?

Addressing Sensory Seeking Behavior

My husband says that he is a petting machine to my cat Holly. She would love to be petted for hours on end. She is highly sensory seeking. You may have similar students. I don’t have a way to turn off Holly’s craving for petting, but I can make sure it works for us, not just her. We have established routines with her that let her know when petting time is. In a regular day for her, she gets pets after I take a shower, in the evening while we hang out in the living room, and right before bed. She even knows when the light goes off, petting time is over and she leaves the room. If we don’t let her out, she asks to be let out in just a few minutes. She knows her routines and is in place for them before we are.

If you have students who are sensory seeking, create a regular routine schedule for them to get the sensory input they need. The predictability of the routine can prevent problematic behaviors because they will catch on that the sensory experience is coming. Some kids may need these sensory times a lot! It may feel like lost instruction time, but it isn’t if it is meeting the kids needs. Sensory needs don’t show up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I personally would place them on the bottom two rungs. I think sensory needs  are physiological, and can help produce a feeling of safety. Your kids can’t learn without their needs being met first. Maslow before Bloom always.

Changing the Circumstance

You might have noticed that one of the big antecedents to the biting behavior is me taking a shower. Instead of working on a behavior intervention, I could simply change the circumstance instead. If this is possible for you with a behavior, this is a great place to start. It’s much less frustrating for everybody. If I wanted to avoid Holly biting right after I get out of the shower, I could make sure she’s not in my bedroom before I take the shower.

Consistency is Key

Changing a behavior requires consistency. You may have noticed in the ABC chart I posted, I have not been consistent with Holly’s biting. Sometimes she gets ignored, sometimes, I remove her from the room, and other times, I still pet her, which reinforces the behavior! To change her behavior I need to pick a single strategy, stick to it, and take more data to see if it is is working.

To change her behavior, I have a few different options.

  1. I could pet her as soon as she approaches me. I know she likely wants to be petted, so I could pet her before she has the chance to bite.
  2. I could ignore her. Her behavior will likely escalate as it has done so in the past. I would need to avoid her bites, move, and perhaps wear PPE, especially if this was a student. Eventually the behavior will fade, but often not before an extinction burst. I’ve been bitten in the classroom and had to go get a tetanus shot. Not a good situation for anybody.
  3. I could remove her from the room. In the school space, this may not work if a student is unwilling to go. You want to avoid restraints and moving students being restrained as much as possible for both their safety and the safety of staff.
  4. I could create a communication system for her to request petting in a different way than biting. I could set up a bell and teach her that when she makes it ring, I will pet her. To do this, I need to be prepared to be consistent in rewarding her request.

Functions of Behavior and Behavior Interventions

The functions of behavior and behavior interventions do not have to be a mystery. You can use our free chart from above to start to figure out what the functions could be. Once you know the function, help your student get what they need in a way that works for everybody. It can be done! Having a hard time with a particular behavior? Feel free to message me on our Facebook Page about it. I will try to help. Just make sure to respect your student’s privacy rights when you ask.


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