“Always assume that a motivation for a particular behaviour is positive but expressed in a negative way.”

– Richard L. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler, Discipline with Dignity

To effectively support students with behaviour disabilities and to help them develop new and more positive behaviours, teachers need to understand why students behave as they do. One effective way of understanding students’ problem behaviour is to recognize that the behaviour has a function. In many instances, the behaviour allows students to obtain something they want or avoid something they do not want.

The same behaviour can have different functions for different students. For example, students may hit others in order to be left alone, or take something away from a classmate to get attention.

Research studies and evidence-based best practices have identified the following principles.4

  • Behaviour is learned and therefore can be unlearned.
  • Each student is unique and therefore requires an individualized approach based on the purpose or function of the student’s behaviour.
  • The first step of an intervention is to identify the purpose or function that the current behaviour serves.
  • Behaviour is influenced by the type of reinforcements or other consequences received after the behaviour occurs.
  • Teachers and school-based teams need observational data to determine the function of the behaviour and the effects of antecedents and consequences surrounding that behaviour.
  • Teachers and school-based teams need to understand the function of behaviour in order to select appropriate teaching strategies.
  • Altering the setting or environment may improve student behaviour.
  • Data collection is the basis for initial decision making as well as for continuously monitoring the programming.
  • Teachers and school-based teams can enhance their competency and capacity for meeting the learning needs of students with behaviour disabilities by working through a process that consists of:
    • understanding and observing behaviours
    • implementing positive behaviour supports
    • matching appropriate teaching strategies to student needs.

Behaviour is learned

Students learn a pattern of behaviour through observation or through feedback and consequences.


Individuals may learn new behaviours by observing other people’s behaviour, that is, through social learning or modelling. They see other people behaving in a certain way and imitate them. For example, Mary hears that the teacher excused other students for not handing in homework because they claimed to have forgotten it at home. So she uses a similar excuse. Or Barry’s parents encourage hitting as a way of “standing up for yourself.” So Barry responds to frustration with peers by physically lashing out.

Feedback and consequences

Students learn behaviours through the feedback and consequences they receive at home or school. Sometimes feedback or consequences unintentionally reinforce negative behaviours. For example, a teacher responds to a student who frequently calls out in class by giving him more attention, which is what he wants. Or students try to get sent out of class for disrupting the class in order to avoid a task or activity they dislike.

Functions of behaviour

All behaviour has a function. Often the function is to:

  • obtain something (such as attention, activities, goods or control)
  • avoid something (such as specific activities or social situations).

In addition, low tolerance for frustration may also contribute to problem behaviour.

Obtaining something

  • Research shows that some people require very little attention from others while others require a great deal. Some students who are unable to obtain attention in appropriate ways resort to negative behaviours such as calling out in class, disrupting or hitting other students, or swearing.
  • Students may become aggressive in order to obtain desired goods from other students.
  • Students may intentionally display oppositional behaviour to gain control over their environment.

Avoiding something

  • Students who do not like attention, or at least certain types of attention, act out or refuse to participate in order to avoid that attention.
  • Students may display inappropriate behaviour in class to avoid doing a task or answering a question when they don’t know the answer. They are more concerned about not looking “stupid” or “dumb” than about the consequences of their behaviour. Being disruptive sometimes gets them out of the class so they can avoid the situation for a while.
  • Students may lie or cheat to avoid the unpleasant consequences of their negative behaviour.

Trigger events

In many cases, an event triggers an emotional reaction or problem behaviour.

Typical “fast” triggers in the immediate environment include:

  • being asked to do something
  • being told “no”
  • receiving negative feedback or a negative consequence
  • being in stressful situations; for example, the teacher asks for an answer in class or the student is anxious about writing tests or being involved in large groups
  • being near a person the student feels is adversarial
  • the perception that someone said something or did something that is threatening or unpleasant
  • overreacting to school work the student perceives as too difficult, too complex or irrelevant
  • the teacher’s absence.

“Slow triggers” that may result in negative behaviour at a later time include:

  • family-related factors such as parental depression, family anger, ineffective parenting, separation and loss, or abuse
  • medical and health issues such as lack of sleep, poor nutrition or the effects of medication
  • social and community factors such as peer groups (including gangs) or extracurricular activities.

It can be difficult to identify the trigger event if you don’t understand the student’s past history or present developmental characteristics. Teachers might try asking the student to recall what he or she was thinking or feeling before becoming upset, but the student may not be able to respond in any helpful way.

The trigger may not be easily recognizable because it stems from:

  • built-up frustration as the day progresses, resulting in increased fidgetiness, self-stimulation, or covering the ears or eyes
  • specific sights, sounds or smells that the student finds irritating (e.g., loud noises such as a fire alarm or smells)
  • sounds or smells that bring back memories of trauma such as abuse.
4. Adapted with permission from Edmonton, AB: Special Education Council, The Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2007), p. 4.