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Behaviour Tips: The Why of Behaviours

This week’s Behaviour Tips article will give you some tools to understand why children/youth display certain behaviours. In behavioural terms the why is called the function of behaviour. We all behave in certain ways because we get something out of it, and this can be positive or negative. For example, children who have been neglected will misbehave to get attention, even if the attention is negative, it is still attention. There are two causes of behavioural differences, biological and environmental. Biological are traits that the child is born with, and environmental are from the child’s early experiences. No matter what the risk factors are, it is not productive to blame the child, the parent, or ourselves. It is productive to focus on changing the child/youth’s environment (including our own behaviour) to help them develop the skills they need to function (behave) as best they can, with other people.

There are only four reasons why we behave the way we do!

1. For attention

2. To escape

3. For revenge

4. Feelings of powerlessness and control

To figure out why our children behave in the ways they do, behaviourists look for patterns. What are the same environmental situations that trigger challenging behaviour? There are professionals that parents can hire, e.g. Behavioural Consultants, who can spend time with your child/family to help with this process, however this can become quite costly! A tool parents (teachers, caregivers etc.…) can use themselves to figure out the behavioural why’s, is a Functional Behavioural Assessment (FBA). There are multiple documents to record patterns in behaviour. The most widely used tool is an ABC Recording Form. The ABC is referencing Antecedent, Behaviour, and Consequence. Find the form here:

The information you will record on this form includes (A) what happened right before the behaviour occurred, (B) a description of the behaviour, and (C) what happened following the behaviour or as a result of the behaviour. Note that the (C) consequence is not how the child was disciplined, but what the child or other children did after the incident.

The information gathering can take some time, but patterns will emerge to allow you to understand the function of your child/youth’s behaviours!

Once you have an initial guess to the function (why) of the behaviour, you can now adapt the environment to prevent the challenging behaviours.

Note: Your relationship with your child/youth is the most powerful tool that you have. This is more challenging in foster situations because of the various histories and experiences of each individual, and in some circumstances professional help is required. If this is your situation, please contact me and I can share some behavioural contacts with you. Many children use the same challenging behaviours because they do not know any other way to behave. To break the pattern, they need to stop using the behaviour for a long time. A month of appropriate behaviour is a great start, however it cannot offset years of inappropriate behaviour. The more we can help children/youth stop the challenging behaviour, the less they are learning to use it.

Time for Action!

Once you have identified the possible functions (reasons), the next step is to brainstorm and create strategies that give the child the same reward as they were receiving from the misbehaviour. Adapt the environment include changing the physical environment, the social environment, and/or our own approach to the child/youth. This will take flexibility from everyone involved. Begin with the A in the ABC, the setting events.

For time consideration of this article, I will list the to-do’s without a lot of explanation. There is a ton of information about FBA’s online if you would like more detailed information.


1. Change the environment so the child/youth won’t need the challenging behaviour (prevention).

2. Replace the challenging behaviour with appropriate behaviour that achieves the same outcome for the child more quickly and with less effort.

Lastly, you can do this!

Misbehaviour is an opportunity to teach; give yourself time, set realistic goals, and reflect on your success and challenges to adapt your “program”. Also, be aware of a Behavioural Burst; when you try a new approach, behaviours may become temporarily worse before they get better. If you do not see gains in a reasonable amount of time, change your approach.

Reference: Meeting the Challenge (Kaiser & Rasminsky).

Applied Behavior Analysis (UBC 2018).

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