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Behavior 101

Yes, behavior is learned, but how can we learn from it?

I'd like to let you in on a little secret: applied behavior analysis, or the scientific study of behavior, is principle-based. This means that Behavior Analysts are successfully able to change behavior by applying a foundational set of principles to every situation they encounter. Why am I telling you this, you ask? Well, because this is good news for you. It means that with knowledge of these principles, you, too can effectively change behavior! Now, while I cannot provide you with a certification in Applied Behavior Analysis, I can share with you a few basic assumptions that every behavior expert lives by. These are the foundation of your behavior toolkit (think of them as the actual tool belt, or tool-box).

Behavior is observable and measurable

When we refer to behavior, we are referring to observable and quantifiable actions: 

  • Observable (i.e., can you see it?)

  • Quantifiable (i.e., can you measure it? how much does it occur? how often does it occur?)

Why? Because you cannot accurately measure something that cannot be seen by others. Being objective with behavior allows us to reliably "test" the impact of the strategies we implement.

Behavior is learned

Well, you probably already picked that one up from the heading. All voluntary behavior (that is, behaviors that are not automatic - like breathingis learned, and occurs as a result of the consequences provided for each of those behaviors. In other words, you don't enter the earth knowing how to walk, you learn how to walk by trial-and-error.


Behaviors are influenced by their environment

Every environment that someone encounters, teaches them how to behave. You know how we may "act" a certain way at work and another at home? It's the same thing. Certain actions/behaviors are reinforced in certain situations, and not (i.e., punished) in others.

Behavior serves a purpose

Behavior is both communicative AND functional. Regardless of what behavior a student is continually exhibiting, it is likely FOR A REASON! Some students learn that misbehavior will get them what they want and is more efficient and effective at doing so. When faced with challenging behavior, we have to ask:

What is this behavior trying to tell me?

Quiz YourselF!
Do you remember the 4 basic assumptions of behavior, mentioned above?

Behavior function


Now that you know some of the basic assumptions of behavior, I'll get to how you actually answer the question of "what is a behavior trying to tell me?"

How is function related to reinforcement?

Overtime, as we discussed earlier, a student learns how to get access to or avoid certain stimuli (i.e., thing, event) by performing certain behaviors. These patterns are developed by the reinforcement provided by others, both positive and negative, for engaging in these behaviors. Negative reinforcement indicates the removal of something that strengthens, or increases, a behavior, while positive reinforcement indicates the addition of something to increase a behavior. Reinforcement influences patterns of both desirable and undesirable behavior and is easy to remember when thought of in relation to addition and subtraction (which is different from the term, punishment, read more about that here)For example:

  • Positive Reinforcement: You show up to work each day to earn a paycheck at the end of the month (and to inspire young lives, of course). The added paycheck encourages your work habits.

  • Negative Reinforcement: You press the snooze button on your alarm clock every morning at 6:15am because you want to end the loud noise (but still wake up in time to get to work).  The removal of the loud sound encourages your snooze button habits. 

This guide by the NJ PBSIS provides a more in-depth description of reinforcement as it relates to function, as well as an associated worksheet that is also referenced in

Problem-Solving, Parts 1 and 2.

Why are behavior functions important?

When you determine why a behavior is occurring, you can more accurately develop a plan to change it. When you develop a function hypothesis (i.e., your theory of why a behavior is occurring), you have insight into what a student needs, thus being able to find other, more appropriate ways to meet that need. A good behavior plan addresses the specific need(s) of the student by targeting the function(s) of their behavior. 


​You can remember behavior functions using the SEAT acronym:

Behavior Functions-2.png

Note: There is no "control" function:

If you think that a student exhibits the behavior for this reason, I urge you to explore what the underlying cause of this behavior might be. Is it possible that the student is seeking adult attention or attempting to escape a task? 

Interested in more? 

Learn how to use a behavior's function to effectively manage it

Discover the cycle of behavior and how to intervene using specific strategies

Related Readings

If you find this intriguing and want to educate yourself about ABA (or perhaps obtain a certification), reading any of these books will likely set you apart in your grade-level team (or graduate program application):


Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers (Alberto & Troutman, 2016)


Understanding Applied Behavior Analysis (Kearney, 2015)

A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Behavior Problems (Smith & Yell, 2012)

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