Functions of Behavior: Automatically Reinforcing

Some behaviors don't require the involvement of others to be reinforced.


The last function we will address is for automatically reinforced behaviors. Some behaviors, like self-stimulatory behaviors, are reinforced automatically. Rocking, hand-flapping, and stereotypies are repetitive behaviors that are automatically maintained. Most of us can relate to finding a repetitive motion comforting or difficult to stop. Bouncing a knee or cracking knuckles are common examples.

Behavior that is automatically reinforced is not always maladaptive or dangerous, but it can interfere with interactions and what we are trying to teach. If we choose to reduce these behaviors, the best way to keep them from being maintained is by blocking the reinforcement. Depending on the child, simple redirection tasks can help to stop or break up the behavior. A redirection is precisely what it sounds like. We provide another demand or task to redirect the individual from the targeted behavior.

In other cases, physically blocking the behavior might be necessary. A visual self-stimulatory behavior is reinforced by the child seeing something in a specific way, like from their peripheral vision. A simple hand inserted into their line of sight to block their vision can remove the reinforcement.


Sylvia Rocks

When Sylvia is getting frustrated with her noisy environment at school she will often rock back and forth in her chair. Sylvia also enjoys rocking on couches and in the car, even if it isn’t noisy.

Sylvia’s rocking is automatically reinforcing and helps her to feel calm in various situations.

What we could do

If a stimulatory behavior is not challenging, it might not be necessary to do anything. “Stims”, as they’re often called, can be a coping mechanism. If no real benefit can be seen from trying to reduce these behaviors, it makes little sense to attempt redirecting the behavior.

If Sylvia’s rocking became problematic, perhaps by interfering with programming or interrupting her ability to carry on a conversation, we might try to reduce this behavior. Reminding Sylvia that “sitting nice” is required for her to earn her breaks or other reinforcers could be an effective method. If drawing attention to her rocking creates additional undesirable behaviors, we could give her small imitation tasks to do that are incompatible with rocking. An incompatible imitation task is anything that she would be unable to do while rocking. We could tell her to stand up or have her sit on an exercise ball instead of a regular chair.

As this brief series on functions of behavior closes, we have a basic understanding of why a behavior might occur and we are able to begin hypothesizing functions . There is one more piece required for this to be successful. The final component is data.

In Applied Behavior Analysis we take what is called ‘ABC data’ on every occurrence of any behavior that we see to correctly understand a behavior’s function.

‘A’ stands for ‘antecedent’, or what comes before. It can be very indicative of the reason for the behavior if we can see over time what habitually came before that behavior. Perhaps a specific task, program, or demand always elicits a tantrum. It can then become very clear the child hopes to escape that task.


‘B’ stands for ‘behavior’, or simply put, what the child does. Data is essentially useless if each person working with a child has a different idea of what a behavior looks like. To prevent this, we define the behavior in measurable and objective terms. We might state, “the child screamed and fell to the floor and resisted being helped up” rather than “the child pitched a fit”.

‘C’ stands for ‘consequence’, or what follows the behavior. When a behavior is being seen, a function is hypothesized so a preliminary defined response can be used. If there is not a hypothesized function, or a behavior is new, therapists will respond based on what they know of the client. These varied responses from therapist to therapist can provide insight into what was effective for ending the behavior and allow the BCBA to better understand the function. For instance, if many of the child’s behaviors are for attention, when something new emerges a therapist that knows that child might assume the new behavior is also for attention and ignore it.

Now that the final piece is in place, the function of a behavior can be hypothesized. The data from several weeks or more is analyzed, and the function of the behavior is theorized. Once a conceived function is in place, a response that does not reinforce that behavior can be implemented.

We hope you have expanded your understanding of the Functions of Behavior through this series of articles. Escape, attention, tangibles, and automatically reinforcing come in many forms. Continuing to observe, track, and modify your methods of working with your child or students will help you develop a quick and natural response to unwanted behaviors.