Functions of Behavior: Tangibles

A look at behaviors with the goal of accessing tangible reinforcers.

The third function of behavior seems to be the one that we most often think of when we see inappropriate behaviors. This function is seen when behavior is to gain access to something tangible. Tangibles can be a powerful reinforcer that we often use to our advantage in ABA therapy, however, it’s important that we make sure to manage them, so they don’t lose their reinforcement value.

It might be common to see a child sprint away from a task or teacher and attempt to snatch a preferred toy or snack from a nearby table. While we may want to use that reinforcer to gain compliance and work through programs, we also must make sure we don’t allow the behavior of eloping from a task to be reinforced by letting them gain access to that reinforcer. In ABA therapy we must be vigilant in managing our surroundings to ensure we are in control of the access to reinforcement.

Access to Tangibles is the function any time a behavior is reinforced by an individual engaging in behavior to gain access to something physical. Tangibles can be toys, food, or even something that doesn’t seem very fun. We’ve all seen children go through stages of being very interested in everyday items. Ties, microphones, the Tupperware cabinet, or the broom are some unexpected reinforcers that come to mind, personally.


Jimmy’s “Neutrals”

Jimmy’s teacher gives him a puzzle to put together while she prepares to work with him. The puzzle is supposed to serve as a “neutral” item that is neither reinforcing nor aversive. However, Jimmy loves the order of putting together a puzzle.

Today, while his teacher is getting ready, Jimmy spills his juice on the table. Jimmy’s teacher gives him the puzzle to occupy him while she cleans up the juice.

Jimmy has learned that he can spill his juice to delay his work and get more time with the puzzle. If he enjoys the puzzle it is possible spilling his juice could become a behavior.

What we could do

Preference assessments are a vital piece of an ABA program. A preference assessment is used to gauge an individual’s interest level in various activities and objects. When we regularly assess a child’s interest level in their tangibles we can stay current on what good reinforcers are as well as neutrals we can use during downtime.

If Jimmy’s teacher completes a preference assessment she will find that the puzzle has become a reinforcer and is not a neutral anymore. The puzzle could be more effectively used as a reinforcer.

iPad Time


After earning all her tokens, Laura gets 4 minutes to play her favorite game on the iPad. When her timer expires, Laura’s teacher says, “Our break is over, please give me the iPad.” Laura pushes her teachers hand away and whines loudly.

Laura’s resistance and whining are to get more time with the iPad.

What we could do

While it’s almost impossible to avoid all inappropriate behaviors, there are steps we could take to reduce them before they present. In this example, Laura might benefit from being given transition warnings. Transition warnings are simply notifying the student throughout the break how much time they have left with the activity. A 30-second interval is often a good place to start.

Regardless of steps taken to ease transition, in ABA therapy we will follow through with the demand we have placed. Despite Laura’s whining and resistance, we will still take the iPad so as not to reinforce the inappropriate behavior.

Though tangibles seem like the easier function to notice, we still rely on continuous data and historical information to hypothesize it as a function. As time goes on we will document occurrences and the outcomes. Over time it will become clearer if the behavior truly was for the tangible or if there might be a stronger reinforcer at play. Furthermore, it is always possible for a behavior to serve two functions.