Understanding the why of behaviour

Steven Covey in his seminal work ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ highlights his fifth habit as “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  It puts me in mind of the Prière pour la paix often attributed to St Francis of Assisi. 

…grant that I may not so much seek… to be understood as to understand”

Covey points out we are often quick to diagnose an issue, particularly a behaviour issue, based on our own experience and expectations. He uses the allegory of the optometrist who gives a patient his own glasses because they worked for him for 10 years. But the same glasses are not suitable for the patient who can’t see through them (Covey, S.R. 2001, p.236). The optometrist pushes the patient to “try harder”, “think positively” . He makes no attempt to consider the patient’s needs from their perspective. He literally does not see through the patient’s eyes, even though he has the tools to do so. When it comes to behaviour issues, the response is often similar.

Attempts to correct behaviour often focus on the individual to change their behaviour. They are expected to try harder and think positively. No attempt is made to understand the underlying function behind their behaviour. Nor is any attempt made to consider environmental conditions that have contributed to the behaviour in the first place. 

Behaviour does not occur in isolation

Often I hear statements like “Oh, she’s a show off, she just looking for attention” or “He’s lazy or irresponsible, he just doesn’t want to learn”.  When I hear this, I ask myself “How do you know this?” and “Do you understand why this is happening?” We all look for attention in a myriad of ways and anyone who knows about procrastination, knows all too well about avoiding a task. 

Behaviour of any kind does not occur in isolation, it is prompted by two key environmental factors. The first is – what happens before the behaviour occurs, particularly an event that triggers it. The second is – what comes after the behaviour, particularly the pay off that ensures it will happen again. What happens before the behaviour is known as the Antecedent, and what happens after is known as the Consequence. Antecedent means “what comes before” and Consequence means “what comes after as a result of something”. 

We can attempt to gain a clearer understanding of the underlying causes of behaviour by looking at the three components of Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence, often referred to as the ABC model. The ABC model is used in a system known as Functional Assessment of Behaviour (Umbreit, J., Ferro, J.B., Liaupsin, C.J., & Lane, K.L., 2007, p.58).

The ABC Model of FAB

  • A: Antecedent – what happens before the behaviour
  • B: Behaviour – the behaviour that happens
  • C: Consequence – what happens as a result of the behaviour

Functional Assessment of Behaviour (FAB) uses objective scientific observation to develop a theory about what the underlying cause of the behaviour. It does not seek to label the individual being assessed, nor to label the behaviour. Functional Assessment of Behaviour is objective because it takes into account all the components of ABC: the Antecedent, the Behaviour itself and the Consequence as units of information. Those units of information are analysed to develop a theory about what is the Function behind the behaviour that causes it to be repeated. 

When we conduct a  Functional Assessment of Behaviour, we seek first to understand. 

Just like an optometrist’s tools and equipment aims to better understand a patient’s eyesight needs, a Functional Assessment of Behaviour is an educator’s tools to better understand the individual’s needs that contribute to their behaviour. 

When we conduct a  Functional Assessment of Behaviour, we seek first to understand, and we seek to understand two things: 

  1. What is the Function or the motivation that drives the behaviour? What does the individual gain or avoid with this behaviour
  2. What are the conditions (ABC) that lead to this behaviour? Can we change those conditions to change the behaviour? 

Functional Assessment of Behaviour helps us identify the things we can change to support people to improve their behaviour. Behaviour can be changed for the better and still provide the person with the same needs.  

Simply expressed, the function is the being fulfilled by the behaviour. To change behaviour we can make adjustments to the Antecedent, the Behaviour itself and Consequence. But the Function of the behaviour is the one component that is not changed.  People are supported to  develop more socially appropriate ways to behave that still provide them with the same need. 

To gain or avoid

Our behaviour is determined by two key functions: to gain something or to avoid something (O’Neill R.E., Horner, R.H., Albin, R.W., Sprague, J.R., Storey, K. & Newton, S.J., 1997 cited in Cowick, B., & Storey K., 2000, p. 60). O’Neill et al.’s research breaks down that “something” even further to social interaction, tangible items or activities, or sensory experiences. According to this research the most common motivations for challenging behaviour are gaining social attention (from peers or adults) or avoiding a task (too difficult, too easy), or a combination of both. 

The common response to someone wanting to gain attention is to not give it to them. And so, people whose behaviour disrupts the whole group are removed, ignored, or at best advised to “tone it down”. A common response to attention seeking behaviour is “s/he is just looking for attention, don’t give it to her/him”. Attempting to change the function is the least effective way to manage behaviour. All behaviour communicates a need and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places social connectedness and acceptance as a foundational need just above safety and security. 

I would like to think we would not deny a hungry person the food they need. If a person’s behaviour indicates they are craving social attention, it means they are not getting it from the usual social avenues of family, friends or peers. Denying that attention will not reduce it, the same as denying a person food will not reduce their hunger. In fact the opposite will happen, the behaviour will progressively intensify and possibly worsen until the need is satisfied. 

By seeking first to understand the function of an individual’s behaviour we acknowledge their specific needs. By identifying and then adjusting  the Antecedent, the Behaviour and the Consequence to the behaviour we show them more effective behaviours to still get what they need. 


 Covey, S.R., (2001), The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Melbourne, The Business Library.

 O’Neill R.E., Horner, R.H., Albin, R.W., Sprague, J.R., Storey, K. & Newton, S.J., (1997) Functional Assessment and program development for problem behaviour: A practical hand book (2nd ed) Pacific Grove,California, Brooks/Cole, cited in Cowick, B., & Storey K., ‘An Analysis of Functional Assessment in Relation to Students with Serious Emotional and Behaviour Disorders’ International Journal of Disability, Development and Education 2000, 47:1 p.60.

Umbreit, J., Ferro, J.B., Liaupsin, C.J., & Lane, K.L. (2007) Functional behavioural assessment and function based intervention: an effective, practical approach Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Pearson Education, Inc.