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Discovering the Message Behind a Child’s Behavior

May 10, 2017

The ability to communicate allows us to engage in social interactions, participate in activities and avoid unpleasant situations. Because children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may need support in the area of communication, they can sometimes learn to communicate their wants and needs using less appropriate means. They can exhibit challenging behaviors including tantrums, running away from adults, or hurting themselves or others. Although these behaviors can be perplexing for the adults in a child’s life, if we can discover the message behind the behavior, we can help the child learn to communicate their wants and needs in a safer, more appropriate way.

There are four functions, or purposes, to all human behavior, not just problem behavior. These functions also apply to all people, and not just those with ASD.


Sometimes a person engages in a behavior to avoid or escape an aversive place, activity or person. Imagine a child who, when told to come to a teaching table for speech therapy, runs and hides under the table or pulls away from the teacher’s hand. Likewise, a middle schooler may learn that if he acts out during math, he gets sent out of class. These may be efforts to avoid or escape the non-preferred activity.  


Behavior can also be used as a way to get or maintain attention from adults or peers. A preschool child may tantrum at drop off to keep her parent there longer and get attention in the form of hugs and reassurance. An older child may learn that if he falls out of his chair, peers give him attention in the form of laughter.


A child may engage in behavior to get or maintain access to a preferred tangible item. For example, a child at a grocery store checkout line may whine and beg for a candy bar in an attempt to get his parent to buy it. Similarly, a high school student might hang out in unsupervised areas so they can play on their phone or computer uninterrupted.


Some behaviors do not serve a social function but continue because they feel good to the person. A child may spin in circles because she likes to feel dizzy. Or a person might pop their knuckles because they like the sound or sensation.

It is important to note that behaviors don’t always serve the same function. For example, a child might tantrum to escape a non-preferred activity, get mom’s attention or get access to a tangible item they want. It is important to treat the behavior based on its function rather than what it looks like.

By examining what is happening in the environment before and after a behavior occurs, observable patterns may emerge, which can give caregivers a clue at what the function may be.  

Caregivers can engage in informal problem solving to determine the potential function of a behavior, which is the first step in addressing the concern. For problem behaviors that are more significant or pose a safety risk to the child or others, it may be advantageous to collaborate with the Heartland AEA team who serves your child’s district.

Heartland AEA School Psychologists Kristen Bloch, Madeleine Moody and Jane Jensen and School Social Worker Morgan Stone blog about challenging behavior and autism and the services and supports available from Heartland AEA.

Picture of Kristen Bloch
Kristen Bloch
Picture of Madeleine Moody
Madeleine Moody
Picture of Jane Jensen
Jane Jensen
Picture of Morgan Stone
Morgan Stone


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