What is Behaviour and What is its Function

First we need to spend a few minutes to cover some learning theory.  You might well feel, when you get to the end of this section, that you are having to put ALL this work into just one student and how crazy.  However, you basically have a choice, go on as you are with a frustrating situation that never improves, or take on board what we outline below and in other sections.  Once things are sorted out, you will have a much nicer classroom, a student that is ticking along well, a situation you have control over and you will be much less exasperated.

What is behaviour for?

We all show a wide variety of behaviours and the reason we do them is because they have an end result; the behaviour has a function, generally we are rewarded in some way.  Someone may go to work (the behaviour) because they get paid (the reward) two weeks later so the effort of going to work is outweighed by the payment at the end.  Someone may help another person with a task (the behaviour) because they obtain an intrinsic reward (they feel pleased or good about helping a friend, the social interaction is intrinsically rewarding, they like being with their friend).  Sometimes a behaviour appears to be designed to not do something, for example, if you tell people you have a headache (behaviour) so you don’t have to go to work (avoidance).

Small children have fairly simple, straightforward reasons for their behaviours; intrinsic rewards are not so well established as in adults.  This takes time to develop gradually.  In addition, rewards for small children can’t be too long after the behaviour happens or they will not work.  Getting a reward two weeks after the behaviour would definitely not work for a three year old.  The behaviour and the reward have to be closely linked in the mind of the child.  At first, a small child may be rewarded by being given a fun toy to play with after the behaviour, but as they get older, saying ‘great work, well done!!’ might become quite rewarding on its own, particularly if it has been paired earlier on with a tangible reward. What functions as a reward in this context is not something decided by an outsider such as the teacher.  The reward is something that reinforces the behaviour i.e. that will cause the behaviour to occur more frequently.  This is an important point, no-one can decide that something should be a reward for someone else. More on the subject of reinforcers  in the Rewards and Reinforcement section.

You might be thinking, that’s all very well, but I don’t want to make my special needs student do a behaviour, I want to make them stop doing a behaviour (such as crying, kicking, falling on the floor etc), read on.  When you are talking about a child with some kind of cognitive disability such as autism or intellectual disability, learning the links between behaviours and rewards are even harder.  When they were very tiny they learned (like all babies) that a good way to get a result was to scream and cry.  Small children with intellectual disabilities or autism may find it hard to discover by themselves that there are other more interesting and less stressful ways to get what they want.  They may get a bit stuck in the screaming and crying phase and need specific behavioural methods to help them understand that, yes, they can get the rewards they crave, but by means other than screaming or crying.  Also, they are not as likely to discover intrinsic motivation for themselves.

Teachers who have had no problem with mainstream students’ behaviour management may find that, puzzlingly, their special needs student is a bit different to manage.  This is because these students need extra help to understand the way the behaviour/rewards link works, it is not their fault that they haven’t worked it out already.


Before we move on, we need to cover the concept of punishment.  For centuries, punishment has been recognised and understood as a form of behaviour management and with capable students who understand the nature of their actions as well as consequences, punishment has a value.  However, for kids with cognitive and/or intellectual disabilities, who may not understand or have insight into their own behaviour, punishment does not have a great value.  In addition, fear of punishment can make already anxious students even more anxious and make their behaviours worse.  For this reason, we use positive reinforcement rather than punishment as we have found it to be much more effective.

Extinction of a behaviour

Some behaviours ideally have to be removed or changed and this process goes through a period of extinction during which the behaviour may, at first, be seen much more.  Since the behaviour isn’t working any more the student might try even harder to get it to work. This is called an extinction burst and, if everyone sticks to their position, the behaviour will eventually fade away.  Letting this happen is not punishment, this is a child trying to reinstate the consequence for a behaviour we do not want to see any more.

An example of extinction of a behaviour:

A student has previously used falling on the floor and crying, to obtain time on the iPad.  She is now ignored when she does this and staff wait quietly for her to stop.  She cries more loudly and wriggles about on the floor, kicking desks to attract attention.  Eventually, she quietens down and gets up and, when she shows signs of this, staff then may encourage her, mentioning that now she is quiet and sitting in her chair, she can use the iPad.

Working out the function of behaviour

First of all, we need to work out what exactly is the function of a particular behaviour.  It makes it easier to work out these functions if you think of them as placed in four categories;

behaviours that are used to avoid something e.g.

  • doing work
  • following instructions
  • being at school

behaviours that are used to obtain something e.g.

  • a tangible reward (toy, time on the iPad)
  • a longer time to do something, e.g. stay on the swing

behaviours that are used to alter sensory stimulation.

  • some behaviours do not rely on anything external to a person and instead are intrinsically or internally pleasing in some way – they are “self-stimulating”. They function only to give the person some form of internal sensation that is pleasing or to remove an internal sensation that is displeasing (e.g. pain).
  • for example, we play games on our iPads (behaviour) because it is fun (intrinsic reward)
  • a child might rock back and forth (behaviour) because it is enjoyable or calming for them (intrinsic reward)
  • a child might rub their knee (behaviour) to sooth the pain (intrinsic reward) after accidentally banging it off the corner of a table.

behaviours that are used to obtain social attention

  • a child may engage in a particular behaviour to gain some form of social attention or a reaction from other people. e.g. to get other people to look at them, laugh at them, play with them, hug them or even scold them.

While it might seem strange that a child would engage in a behaviour deliberately to have someone scold them, it can occur because for some children who have a great need for more attention, “bad” attention is better than no attention at all.

Examples of inappropriate behaviours and their function:

  • A student might engage in aggressive behaviour so his teachers stop writing tasks with him (avoiding)
  • A student might engage in self-injury to avoid having to go outside to play with classmates (avoiding)
  • A student becomes oppositional and refuses to move from the computer table because he wants to go on playing on the computer (obtaining)
  • A student throws objects across the room because she wants to play with a particular toy (obtaining)
  • A child might collapse on the floor and cry in music class because the noise intensity is too high and she needs to leave the class and go somewhere quiet (alter sensory input)
  • A child might throw objects at staff and run away so they run after him and chase him (social attention)

So perhaps it is becoming clearer how important it is going to be to know what a behaviour is for and to pair an appropriate reward with an appropriate behaviour with not too much time in between the two and how easily the reinforcement can affect the resulting behaviour.


Click for a Behaviour Recording Sheet which will automatically download below, if you print out and fill in over a period of time, this will help you work out what is causing the behaviour.  We will go more into monitoring and looking for causes of behaviour when we get to the Emotional Regulation section.

High and Low Arousal States

Arousal levels reflect the level of functioning of the brain and are linked to being awake, alert and attentive or sleepy, vague and sluggish.  A student can be under aroused, at optimum arousal level or over aroused.  The level of arousal can have quite an impact on the behaviour so we need to have an idea about what is happening for our student.  This diagram shows arousal levels.

We want our students to be at optimal arousal levels for learning and engaging in their activities.  We all shift around on these levels of arousal throughout the day and have usually learned how to get ourselves to the optimal level when we need to. We all have different ways of doing this, yoga, playing music, going for a jog, coffee, etc.

A student’s arousal levels may shift continuously throughout the day from one state to another. We have noticed that our students are at optimum arousal levels between recess and lunch so we tend to do the most work tasks at this time.

When the student is in a high arousal state – the student is at the mercy of overwhelming reactions such as anxiety, fear, distress or even dysregulating positive emotional states e.g. giggling fits.  In your classroom they may be fidgety, anxious and hypersensitive.

When the student is in a low arousal state –the student may withdraw or shut down in an attempt to cope with disorganizing or overly stimulating experiences.   In your classroom they may be lethargic, zoned out or bored. There are some strategies designed to help with arousal levels in the Sensory Issues section.

Ziggurat Model

We will now look at the Ziggurat model briefly to help understand the order in which we do things. This model was co-authored by Ruth Aspy and Barry Grossman, psychologists specializing in assessment and intervention for students who have autism. Whilst this model has been specifically designed for students who have autism we believe it can be applied to most students we teach, especially those who may have times of emotional dysregulation, or where their arousal states are out of balance.

The Ziggurat Model is used for designing comprehensive interventions for individuals. It is a research-centred system that capitalizes on strengths in order to address underlying deficits. It is assessment driven and provides a framework that guides parents and professionals to ensure complex needs are fully addressed in the right order.

The direction of movement in this model starts at the bottom, the foundation, and goes to the top, which is where we ultimately want our students to be, so effective learning can take place. This means that students must have the factors in the tiers addressed in order from bottom to top before the top tier can be achieved.  Sometimes it might be hard for a teacher to stop trying to teach lesson content to a student and focus on making them feel happy to be in class and teaching them the link between reward and work, but this is exactly what you have to do.

In each tier there are some specific things that need to be considered. Exactly how you will do this will be addressed later on in other sections.

Sensory and Biological Tier (the foundation)
  • Provide a sensory diet, i.e. make the environment suit the student, such as not too light or dark, not too noisy, work at a pace to keep arousal levels up but not high, not too near other students if this is stressful, remove visual and auditory distractions such as busy notice boards, view out of the window, distracting noises.
  • Monitor and address:
  • Appetite/hunger
  • Activity level (e.g. fatigue, hyperactive)
  • Posture and movement
  • Medical needs

More information on this Level can be found in the Sensory Issues section

Reinforcement  Tier (only do this when you are happy that the Sensory and Biological Tier has been addressed successfully)
  • Provide reinforcements that work for that student
  • Only provide them following the expected behaviour
  • Reinforcements should be

frequent and consistently given but using a variety of rewards

selected by the student themselves

  • Gradually decrease frequency when student is more adjusted
  • Provide a range of reinforcers – make sure they are clear and obvious such as a favoured toy to play with, activities such as jumping on trampoline, privileges such as time away from work
  • Use a student’s restricted interests to your advantage – be aware of what the student likes/wants to do
  • Pair social with tangible reinforcement
  • A key point in reinforcement is it must be self-selected. When you have a student who doesn’t appear to have a clear like or interest in something we generally give the student a choice from a variety of reinforcers that are available and practical. Make sure reinforcers are reasonable and possible.  For instance, if they want to go for a walk this may not be possible for supervision reasons. In this case, if it would make sense to the student, you could use a token system so the student is working towards that goal and can achieve it at a suitable time.

More information on this Level can be found in the Rewards and Reinforcement section

Structure and Visual/Tactile Supports Tier (only do this when you are happy that the Reinforcement Tier has been addressed successfully)
  • Create predictability
  • Prepare for change – transitions
  • Provide regular predictable routine
  • Walk through new activities

Use visual supports to help explain e.g.

  • Video
  • Stories and cartoons
  • Schedules and checklists
  • Graphic/tactile organizers

More information on this Level can be found in the Visual Supports section

Task Demand Tier (only do this when you are happy that the Structure and Visual/Tactile Supports Tier has been addressed successfully)
  • Remove obstacles such as those caused by difficulties or limitations in social skills, restricted patterns, communication, sensory issues, cognition, motor skills, emotional maturity.
  • The task demand tier focuses on removing obstacles. Students may have difficulties in social skills and communication and often prefer consistency.
  • In this tier you may choose to consider the cognitive ability of the student. Tasks should be at the student’s level. If it is too easy the student may display off-task behaviours.  If it is too hard the student may display inappropriate behaviours. Some students, if they are weak in a subject area, may have a negative emotional memory (more on this later) associated with the subject so their arousal state becomes high.
  • We need to find the balance, work tasks should have some level of challenge and also some form of interest and relevance to the student. Tasks shouldn’t be too repetitive, long or taxing. The art is to get the task just the right difficulty and length.

More information on this Level can be found in the Reward and Reinforcement section

Skills to Teach Tier (only do this when you are happy that the Task Demand Tier has been addressed successfully)

Address skill deficits

  • Social
  • Restricted patterns
  • Communication
  • Sensory
  • Cognitive
  • Motor
  • Emotional
  • The last tier refers to the skills to teach. It is not referring to the actual lesson objective but helping the student learn how to manage their emotions. So then they can stay regulated and be open for learning.

When you are ready you can to move on to the NEXT SECTION – EMOTIONAL REGULATION