Functions of Behavior: Everybody E.A.T.S.


This past week I was involved in a few discussions at work about behavioral function and the term “control” kept being tossed about. A few of the teams kept suggesting that control itself is a function of behavior. However, to say a behavior occurs because of control does not truly describe why a behavior occurs. Is the student trying to gain access to something? Is the student trying to avoid or escape something? What exactly is the student trying to control?

Often times, we easily confuse the form of the behavior with the function of the behavior. The form of the behavior can be influenced by many factors including culture, experience, ability level, and sensory needs (among others). Considering all the factors that can bias our interpretations of behavior, it makes it easy to just call it control, or power, or revenge. But regardless of the what it looks like (topography), analyze the behavior for what the student gains or avoids by engaging in the behavior (function). Consider what happens before the behavior (antecedents), and what happens after the behavior (consequences), and other environmental features in your observations and analysis. When you analyze the behavior and the environmental effects you will ultimately land on the following four functions: escape, attention, tangible, and sensory. All of our behaviors can be attributed to one or more of these functions. I like to use the phrase “Everybody E.A.T.S!” to help me remember:

“Everybody E.A.T.S.”

Escape: A stimulus or condition is terminated or avoided as a result of the behavior. For example a child engages in this type of behavior to escape or avoid a demand or non-preferred task or activity. Ever see a child tantrums when asked to sit down to do homework?

Attention: Interaction from peers or adults is gained as a result of the behavior. For example a student repeatedly cracks jokes in class and the other students laugh.

Tangible: Access to tangibles is gained as a result of the behavior. For example, a child tantrums when he is denied a toy at the toy store, but stops when he gets the toy.

Sensory: The behavior serves no other purpose but to provide access to sensory input. A common example is hand flapping or body rocking, but so is nail biting and even eating.

We must avoid using terms such as control, power, or revenge to describe behavior, for they are vague and inaccurate descriptions of what is gained or avoided. Instead all behavior plans should subsequently be based on an analysis of the observed consequences of the behavior. Ask questions, observe, and use data collection and interview forms to gain more information. A goal for assessment and intervention plan is to identify and provide a better way for an individual to get the same function met through acceptable alternative methods. By doing so we can identify ways to remove the need for student misbehavior.

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4 thoughts on “Functions of Behavior: Everybody E.A.T.S.

    • Good question! I tend to think of the classroom as the environmental setting. All behavior controls the environment, the question is, what is it that the behavior is controlling:

      Is it consistently gaining access to something or avoiding something?
      Does displaying the behavior gain access to a tangible item or items?
      Is the behavior gaining access to attention?
      Does the student access sensations by engaging in this behavior?
      By engaging in the behavior, is the student able to avoid any of these conditions or demands in the classroom?

      I’m assuming the student is already in the classroom and not trying to gain access to it from somewhere else. Typically, I see attention given in some form or another in a classroom setting, so attention may often be a maintaining reinforcer of behavior, but often times there is additional reinforcement we have not considered such as escape from demands.

  1. I used to believe control wasn’t a real function of behavior also. ..back when I worked only with autistic kids. Then I worked with a traumatized population of kids, and grew to understand control is absolutely a real, true, authentic function of behavior. Just as neurological conditions result in sensory-seeking functions, cognitive/emotional needs can result in control-driven functions. Most bcba’s have only worked with autistic populations so they don’t understand the emotion-driven need for control of non-disabled traumatized kids.

    • My primary work is with students with emotional behavior disorders as well as typically developing kids. So I can understand your perspective. The need for balance and stability in emotions manifests as overt behaviors which help which place us in situations to gain access to preferred and/or avoid aversive outcomes. These behaviors do control, but that is only part of the analysis. Ultimately it’s not a matter of if, but what they are trying to control. Knowing this helps us better adjust the environment for them in a proactive manner, but also to teach them functionally equivalent and more socially acceptable ways to meet those emotional needs.

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