Replacement Behavior: Definition and 10 Examples

Replacement Behavior: Definition and 10 ExamplesReviewed By Chris Drew (PhD)
replacement behavior definition and examples, explained below

A replacement behavior is a term often used in applied behavior analysis that refers to socially acceptable behavior that can replace an unwanted problem behavior (known as the target behavior).

The unwanted behavior is usually disruptive to home life or classroom instruction, or possibly harmful to the student or child.

The replacement behavior serves as a constructive substitute that will be a prosocial behavior that supports both the individual student and their family and peers.

Replacement Behavior Definition and Overview

In applied behavior analysis, practitioners focus on two behaviors:

  • The Target Behavior: This is the behavior that we want to phase out throughout the ABA intervention.
  • The Replacement Behavior: This is the behavior we want to phase in as a replacement for the target behavior.

Replacement behavior is sometimes referred to as functionally equivalent behavior, defined as:

“desirable/acceptable behaviors that achieve the same outcome as a less desirable problem behavior” (D’Eramo, 2013, p. 1379).

The crucial element of the replacement behavior is that it serves the same function as the problem behavior, but is more socially acceptable.

Replacement Behavior Examples

Target behavior (behavior that will be replaced)Replacement behavior (the new more appropriate behavior)
A student pushing the classmate in front of them to get attentionThe student uses a gentle tap on the shoulder once they learn that it is just as effective.
A toddler crying loudly to get a toy.The toddler uses words to ask to play with a particular toy.
A student shoving their books off the desk due to frustration.The student asks for a short break instead.
A student answering questions out of turn to show their knowledge.The student raises their hand and asks the teacher to take a look at their work.
A student crying because an assignment is too difficult.The raises their hand and ask for help.
A student tapping on their desk loudly during a lecture.The student releases their nervous energy by playing with a fidget toy while the teacher is talking.
A student grabbing a classmate’s toy out of their hands.The student asks to borrow something using a polite tone of voice.
A student being disruptive to get the teacher’s attention during a storybook reading.The student takes the initiative to move to sit next to the teacher, allowing them to feel emotionally connected.
A student trying to twirl a pencil between their fingers.The student dissipates energy by handling a squeeze ball in one hand.
A student sulking and feeling helpless because an assignment is too hard.The student raises a frown card over their head so the teacher can see it and come to help.

The Theory: Replacing Disruptive Behavior

In order for the replacement behavior to be effective, it must serve the same function as the disruptive behavior.

So, if the child is answering questions out of turn because they want the teacher to recognize that they studied, then the replacement behavior must allow the student to satisfy that need as well.

There are four main functions of a student’s disruptive behavior.

  • Attention Seeking: The child is being disruptive to gain the attention of an adult or other children. Behaviors may include making silly noises, crying/whining, or calling out answers. Even though the adult may show displeasure with these actions, negative attention is still attention.
  • Escape: This can be escape from a task or situation. The goal is to get away and avoid doing an assignment or participating in an activity.  Behaviors can include crying, throwing a temper tantrum, or simply running away.
  • Access to Tangibles: The child is trying to obtain a toy or participate in an activity. Because they have not learned constructive ways to gain access, they may show anger, cry/whine, or engage in physical aggression such as pushing another child out of the way.
  • Sensory: Some children need extra sensory stimulation, while others feel overwhelmed by even slight stimulation. Therefore, the child engages in disruptive behavior to stimulate their senses, such as excessively bouncing in their chair or kicking their feet. 

In other cases, the child may scream or run away to block external stimulation.

How To Assess the Function of a Disruptive Behavior

To determine the function of a behavior, either the teacher by themselves or a team of professionals (teachers, school counselor, psychologist) will conduct a functional behavioral analysis (FBA).

FBA is:

“a collection of methods for gathering information about antecedents, behaviors, and consequences in order to determine the reason (function) of behavior” (Gresham et al., 2001, p. 158).

The chart below identifies different ways to perform an FBA.

Functional behavioral assessment methods in a chart, reproduced as text in the appendix

Indirect methods include examining school records or conducting interviews with teachers and parents. This will provide a wealth of information about the child’s typical behavioral patterns.

Teachers and parents can often provide valuable insight into what is driving the child’s actions.

Direct methods include observing the child in a naturalistic setting such as the classroom or playground.

An ABC recording form stands for antecedents, behaviors, and consequences.

Detailed instructions for how to use the chart can be found here, with a free downloadable template found here.

This video demonstrates how a recording sheet is used in an actual classroom.

Experimental analysis involves the teacher testing different triggers and antecedents to determine if they evoke the disruptive behavior. It is a form of hypothesis testing with an individual student.

Case Studies of Replacement Behavior     

1. Replacement Behaviors for Escape-Motivated Behaviors

Dwyer et al. (2012) examined the effectiveness of four replacement behaviors (teacher help, break, choice between help or break, or none) for three young male students (ages 7 and 8) with emotional disturbance (ED).

The researchers began by gathering data.

“An FBA was conducted for each participant. Specifically, the first two authors reviewed each student’s file, interviewed each student’s teacher, interviewed each student, and performed systematic direct observations to document the levels of problem behaviors and identify antecedents and consequences of students’ problem behaviors” (p. 117).

This analysis revealed that all three students’ off-task disruptive behavior was maintained by a desire to escape instruction.

The students received training (two 15-minute sessions) on replacement behaviors such as using a help card, break card, with guided practice, modeling, and role playing.

The students’ on-task and off-task behaviors were observed during a baseline phase and during application of the treatment conditions in which the students were instructed to use one of the four replacement behaviors.

The results revealed that “All students displayed the lowest levels of off-task behavior, on average, during the choice (help and break) condition” (p. 122).

2. Aggression and Replacement Behaviors

Bailey et al. (2202) received a referral for a group-home resident named Jack, a 24-year-old man with profound mental retardation and aggressive behavior.  

Jack’s aggression “was nearly always directed at staff and had caused injuries ranging from bruising to bleeding…Jack was at-risk for losing his placement in the group home, being medicated to reduce his aggression, or both” (p. 356).

An antecedent analysis indicated that aggression was least likely when Jack received social attention in the form of physical contact and conversation with the staff.

The staff were trained on how to implement two versions of replacement behavior for Jack: Point and Spell.

The Point behavior involved Jack pointing to a picture of two people talking to each other. The Spell behavior involved Jack spelling the word “talk” on his laminated keyboard.

Notable results (p. 366) were as follows:

  • For the 4 months prior to the study, “aggression occurred on average of 21.2 times per month.”
  • During the 4 months immediately following the study, “aggression occurred a mean of 1.4 times per month.”
  • Two years after the study, Jack formed sentences by pointing to pictures, “starting with the phrase, ‘I want’ and concluding with: talk, help, peanut butter and jelly, crackers, pizza, hamburger, Dad.”

3. Replacing Fidgeting Behavior with Fidgeting Behavior

Not all replacement behaviors involve substituting severe disruptive behavior such as aggression. Lots of young students can be disruptive because they are so busy fidgeting, making unnecessary noises and creating distractions. They just need to find a more constructive way to expel energy. For this, we use a strategy called noncontingent reinforcement (as opposed to a reinforcement contingent upon a behavior).

Enter the wide array of resources to address fidgeting. Fidget toys are popular for hand manipulation or sensory stimulation.

There are also several items for large motor fidgeting, such as the Wiggle Seat, Bouncy Ball Chair, and the Fidget Band. These items are sometimes referred to as kinesthetic equipment.

But, does this equipment allow the child to engage in a constructive replacement behavior instead of being disruptive due to excessive movement? That is the question.

Flippin et al. (2021) provided several elementary classrooms with five types of kinesthetic equipment (i.e., exercise balls, standing desks, kneel-and-spin desks, under desk pedals, and bouncy bands).

The results showed that:

“Use of kinesthetic equipment was associated with significant increases in the proportion of students’ time on-task during equipment weeks compared with baseline and withdrawal weeks” (p. 11).


Replacement behavior refers to teaching a child to rely on a constructive means of obtaining something they want instead of being disruptive.

In order for a replacement behavior to be adopted by the student however, it must serve the same purpose (i.e., function) as the disruptive behavior.

To determine the function of the disruptive behavior, the teacher or a team of professionals conduct a functional behavioral analysis (FBA).

The FBA is conducted by examining existing records, interviewing individuals that interact with the student, and observing the child in their natural surroundings to identify triggers and consequences of their actions.

That analysis then informs the action plan that is then implemented with the individual.

Although replacement behaviors are usually discussed in the context of severe behavioral issues, they can also be useful in other populations.


Bailey, J., McComas, J. J., Benavides, C., & Lovascz, C. (2002). Functional assessment in a residential setting: Identifying an effective communicative replacement response for aggressive behavior. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 14, 353-369.

D’Eramo, K. (2013). Functionally equivalent alternative behavior. In: Volkmar, F.R. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, 1379–1380. Springer, New York, NY.

Dwyer, K., Rozewski, D., & Simonsen, B. (2012). A comparison of function-based replacement behaviors for escape-motivated students. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 20(2), 115-125.

Flippin, M., Clapham, E. D., & Tutwiler, M. S. (2021). Effects of using a variety of kinesthetic classroom equipment on elementary students’ on-task behaviour: A pilot study. Learning Environments Research, 24, 137-151.

Seifert, A. M., & Metz, A. E. (2017). The effects of inflated seating cushions on engagement in preschool circle time. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45, 411-418.

Appendix: Graph Reproduced as Text

Functional Behavioral Assessment Methods:

1. Indirect methods
1.1 Behavioral checklists and school records
1.2 Interviews and surveys oft eachers and parents

2. Direct Methods
2.1 Descriptive naturalistic observation
2.2 ABC recording form

3. Experimental functional analysis
3.1 Identify and maipulate antecedent triggers
3.2 Identify and manipulate maintaining consequences

 | Website

Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

 | Website

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *