Why Does My Child Behave That Way?

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

Does your child ever scream to get your attention? Throw tantrums? Rock back and forth incessantly? Ever wonder why he (or she) engages in those behaviors and how you might get him (or her) to stop?

Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) work to identify the “functions of behaviors” – the reasons why certain behaviors occur. Understanding the reason for a behavior allows us to change that behavior by replacing it with a more appropriate response.

All behavior is maintained, or reinforced, by the following functions: attention, escape, access to a tangible item, or desirable sensory input. If a child’s behavior results in one of those “rewards,” it is likely to occur again and is therefore maintained by that function.

An example of a behavior that is maintained by attention would be if a child whines and his parent says, “What’s wrong, are you okay?” In this case, the child has just received attention. It’s important to keep in mind that attention doesn’t have to be positive or negative to maintain a behavior. If the child whines and his parent yells, screams, or even sighs dramatically, this can still maintain the attention-seeking behavior. Children, especially those with autism, may not discriminate between “good” and “bad” forms of attention, especially if they don’t understand social norms and cues. To discourage this kind of behavior, be sure to provide lots of attention and social praise for what a child does well and encourage appropriate bids for attention.

If a child is motivated by escape, he may engage in a behavior that allows him to avoid or end an activity. Let’s say a parent asks him to pick up his toys. He places the first few in the toy bin, then throws the rest of the toys across the room. If the parent says, “You must be tired. Lay down for a rest,” without requiring him to finish the task, he’s just learned that throwing toys is a way to get out of cleaning up. Here, a basic technique might be to follow through: require him to finish the task (assisting if necessary based on his skill level) before he can move on to a more preferred activity.

When a child’s behavior is maintained by tangible access, it occurs because that child wants to gain access to something. A familiar example is a child who throws a tantrum in the store to gain access to a toy or treat. If, after several minutes of screaming in the checkout line, the parent gives in and buys the lollipop, the child has just been taught that screaming is an effective request for candy. Look for ways to give access to highly preferred items that are contingent upon good behavior.

Lastly, if a behavior is automatically maintained, that means it’s done because it feels good; the behavior itself provides comforting sensory input. An example might be coughing when your throat tickles. Some people with autism engage in self-stimulatory behavior, which sometimes looks like rocking back and forth, hand flapping, or other motions, simply because it feels good. If the behavior is interfering in some situations, we might try to find a replacement behavior or teach the child when it is okay to engage in the behavior (for example, it’s okay during play but discouraged during learning).

Behavior analysts use evidence-based methods to determine the functions of behavior, such as conducting a functional analysis (FA) or a functional behavior assessment (FBA). For more information about what these assessments entail, as well as how to create functionally based treatments that can help replace problematic behavior with appropriate behavior, consult a BCBA for advice specific to your child.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit