Questions to Ask Yourself to Understand Behaviors

Challenging Behaviors Tool Kit

Whenever behavior occurs, it is important to consider its purpose, or what is most often called its function. Although some behavior is biologically driven, much behavior is learned over time and through experiences, and shaped by what happens before and after the behavior takes place. Other behaviors may have begun as biologically driven (such as scratching an itch) but may turn into something that serves a different function (perhaps scratching to gain a teacher’s attention). 

Questions you might ask about why a person is behaving in a certain way include:

  • Did this behavior start suddenly? If so, might my child be sick or is there another change that might have caused this?
  • Is there some underlying medical concern or condition that is making him reactive? Tired? Stressed?
  • What is my child attempting to gain from this behavior? Is he trying to escape something?
  • What is he trying to tell me? What can I learn from this?
  • Does it happen in certain places, with specific people or in situations where he is hungry or tired? Is there something we might adjust in his surroundings that might improve the situation? 
  • What happens before the behavior? Is there something that makes it more likely to occur?
  • What happens after the behavior occurs? What is helping this behavior persist? What maintains it or makes it work as a tool for this individual? What do I typically do to get my child to stop engaging in the behavior? Am I (or is someone else) giving him more attention then, or doing something that might be making the behavior work to get him what he wants?

If you can develop an idea of when or why a behavior is happening, you may realize there are simple solutions that help to improve a situation and make an undesired behavior less likely to occur. It is also essential to remember that behavior changes, and people adapt. The same behavior that serves a specific function in one situation may serve a different purpose in another setting.

In other words, one bite might be out of frustration when a child wants something he is unable to ask for. Another might occur when he is afraid and needs to get away, and yet another might be an automatic response to intense stress. And although biting is the same behavior, the reasons it happens (the function) can be very different.

Behavior generally serves one of several functions:

  • Obtaining a desired object or outcome
  • Escaping a task or situation
  • Getting attention, either positive (praise) or negative (yelling)
  • Trying to self-calm, self-regulate or feel good (sensory input)
  • Blocking or staying away from something painful or bothersome (sensory avoidance)
  • Responding to pain or discomfort
  • Attempting to gain control over an environment or situation (self-advocacy)

Improvements can often be made by changing the situations and environment, or the things that come before and after problem behaviors occur. And since behavior is often a form of communication, teaching more adaptive and appropriate ways of communicating can often reshape problem behaviors into more appropriate requests, protests and responses. 

Read more in the Autism Speaks Challenging Behaviors Tool Kit.