Functional Behavioral Assessment
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Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is a process used to gather details about the events that predict and maintain a student's problem behavior. The purpose of the FBA is to provide information that will be used to design effective positive behavior support plans. To support a student who is engaging in problem behaviors in your classroom, it is important to consider the reasons why a student may be engaging in problem behavior. Behaviors are not repeated unless they serve a function for the student.
Why Do Students Engage in Problem Behavior?
Although there are many reasons why a student may engage in problem behavior, they fall into two major categories: to avoid or escape something unpleasant and to obtain something desirable. For instance, a student may try to escape from a difficult or boring task by becoming disruptive in class because he knows the teacher will send him to the office for misbehaving. In other situations, a student tells jokes and makes funny noises during independent seat work because she is seeking attention from her teacher and peers. In this way, problem behavior can be seen as a form of communication. It is the student's way of telling others that he or she is tired, bored, needs a break, and/or wants attention.
Some students do not have the skills to communicate and have learned over time that engaging in problem behavior results in desirable outcomes. Students may also engage in problem behavior even though they know how to communicate in more appropriate ways because problem behavior is usually more effective and efficient for them. Imagine a student who raises his hand to gain his teacher's attention but the teacher doesn't respond because she is busy working on another task. However, when the student yells loudly, the teacher immediately turns around, tells him to be quiet, and asks what he wants. If the teacher responds this way frequently, over time, the student will learn that the most efficient and effective way to get the teacher's attention is to engage in problem behavior.
Problem behavior may occur in order to escape from or obtain internal events as well. In some cases, students with too much energy are unable to sit still or participate in class. Students with developmental disabilities may engage in repetitive behaviors (including rocking, eye poking, or self-injury) which are maintained by internal physiological factors. Students with mental health concerns or students with physiological factors who maintaining problem behaviors can still benefit from a FBA. Although the behaviors in these cases may not be maintained by social situations or events, the environment still has an impact on the frequency and intensity of problem behavior. By understanding the variables within the environment that are associated with positive social interactions, students show lower levels of problem behavior, which leads to a higher quality of life for the student. This can help your student's team build an effective PBS plan.
Sometimes, a student's behavior may initially be maintained by physiological factors, but over time the student learns that his behavior has an impact on the environment. For instance, a small child with an earache may strike at her ears with her fist because it decreases the pain she is experiencing. The student's self-injury results in immediate concern from his teacher who provides comfort and high levels of positive attention. Once the earache is gone, the student may still strike at her head because she knows her teacher will give her immediate comfort and attention.
How is a Functional Behavioral Assessment Completed?
A FBA is not completed in the same way every time. The type of information that is collected varies depending upon the individual student's problem behavior, strengths, and needs. In some cases, specific tools are needed in a FBA to collect information about medications, sleeping patterns, or social and interactional skills. The level of complexity needed to complete a FBA varies as well. A teacher may conduct a simple and time efficient FBA to better understand a student's minor disruptive behaviors. However, a student who engages in serious aggression or self-injury at home, in school, and in the community may need higher levels of support from his teacher, parents, and other important people in his life. In this case, the FBA may require more time and energy to complete. Even though the FBA tools and level of intensity vary, the process remains the same.
The FBA is considered complete when the following products have been documented:
- a clear and measurable definition of the problem behavior
- events that predict when problem behaviors will occur and will not occur
- consequences that maintain problem behaviors
- one or more hypotheses about the function maintaining problem behavior
- direct observations data supporting the hypotheses.
Hypothesis Statements The hypothesis about the function maintaining a student's problem behavior is a very important outcome of the FBA. The hypothesis statement starts with any setting events that increase the likelihood of problem behavior that have been identified in the FBA.
Setting events affect how a student will respond to situations by temporarily increasing or decreasing reinforcers in the environment. For instance, a classroom activity a student usually enjoys may not be as reinforcing right before the holidays. Math class may be difficult for a student who has a learning disability, but on most days the student copes well. However, on days when this particular student has a bad headache, the presentation of math problems may be more aversive than usual. Setting events can occur immediately before a problem behavior or days in advance. Some setting events are obvious while other setting events can be more difficult to identify. For example, the death of a close family member that occurred before school started can increase the likelihood the student will engage in problem behavior a few months later when school starts. Setting events can be social (e.g. arguments), physiological (e.g. illness), or environmental (e.g. noisy or crowded rooms).
Events that directly precede and serve as a "trigger" for a problem behavior are called antecedents. Antecedents serve as cues signaling when a behavior will be reinforced. A substitute teacher can sometimes be an antecedent for problem behavior. In this situation, the presence of someone other than the students' teacher signals that talking loudly, pretending to have homework already turned in, and off task behavior in general will be reinforced, allowing the students to escape from their school work. Antecedents can be related to the physical setting, materials, time of day or social situations. Examples of common antecedents include verbal demands, criticism, teasing, the absence of attention, and the presence or absence of specific people, materials, or events. The difference between an antecedent and a setting event is that setting events increase the likelihood that an antecedent will trigger problem behavior.
One or more problem behaviors identified within a hypothesis statement may be maintained by the same function. Sometimes problem behaviors occur in a chain with less intense behaviors (complaining, tapping pencil loudly, placing head on desk) starting first and leading to more serious problem behavior (shouting, throwing pencil or books, pushing desk over). This important information can be used to intervene early in an escalating sequence of problem behaviors.
A student's problem behavior may increase to obtain or avoid something. Consequences are the events that directly follow a behavior. Toys, praise, physical attention, and even "negative" attention are examples of events or items that may be identified as reinforcers. These events, items, or people immediately following a behavior are considered positive reinforcers if behavior increases when the consequence is presented. A behavior can also be reinforced by escaping or avoiding an event, item, or activity. If the consequence following a behavior results in escape or avoidance of events, items, or activities and behavior increases, it is referred to as negative reinforcement. Punishment, on the other hand, results in a decrease in behavior. A common mistake is to assume that a consequence is punishing for a student without considering whether the student's behavior is increasing or decreasing when the consequence is presented. The use of consequences such as time out, detention, and in-school suspension may actually be increasing the likelihood of problem behavior for students who engage in problem behavior to escape class or obtain attention from teachers and peers.
At times, there is not a clear social function for problem behavior. In these situations, internal sensory feedback can be positively or negatively reinforcing a person's problem behavior. Behaviors that continue to occur when the students are alone or occur across many situations and settings are sometimes maintained by internal reinforcers.
Functional Behavioral Assessment Process
The process for conducting a FBA involves three different types of strategies: indirect assessment, direct observation, and functional analysis. These activities are completed by a team, including the teacher (or teachers), the student, parents, and other important individuals. A team approach ensures that the FBA gathers accurate information that reflects the perspectives of the student and the people within his or her social network. Sharing responsibilities for completing a more complicated FBA can reduce stress for any one person in the group. Schools who are implementing school-wide PBS often embed the FBA and PBS planning process into already existing student support teams.
Indirect assessment strategies are often the first type of FBA strategy conducted and involve a combination of activities including:
- record reviews, and
- checklists and questionnaires
Interviews Interviews with key people are used to determine the concerns and perspectives about the student and to begin identifying the events associated with the occurrence and nonoccurrence of problem behavior. Teachers who are reporting that the student engages in problem behavior in their classrooms are interviewed to gather initial information. However, teachers who indicate the student does not engage in problem behavior in their classes may also be able to share important details about the setting, teaching strategies, or other characteristics of the class that result in the student's success. The student (whenever possible), parents, and others are also interviewed to gain their perspectives.
Record reviews Reviewing a student's academic, behavioral, and psychological reports provides information that can uncover important information about possible setting events, social skills, issues related to quality of life, and academic strengths and problems.
Checklists and questionnaires A variety of checklists and questionnaires are available which assist in the FBA. Quality of life measures highlight the social aspects of the individual's life that may need attention. Checklists and rating scales related to social skills and problem behavior provide insight into the function maintaining the student's problem behavior.
Indirect assessment measures should be used in combination with direct observation methods.
Direct Observation Direct observations of a student should be used to develop and support the hypothesis you have about why problem behaviors are occurring. Often, direct observations include gathering information about when problem behavior occurs, what happens right before problem behavior (e.g., antecedent triggers), what problem behavior looks like, and how people respond to the occurrence of problem behavior (e.g., consequences). There are many types of direct observation methods available. Here are some common strategies for collecting direct observation data.
Scatter plot A method called the scatter plot is frequently used to collect information about a problem behavior during specific time intervals across the day. The scatter plot helps identify whether problem behaviors occur at predictable time periods. This information can be used to identify specific routines and settings where interventions might occur.
ABC Chart The Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) chart is used to record descriptive information while observing a student in natural classroom, recess, lunch, home, or community settings. The ABC chart assists in the development and confirmation of the hypothesis statement.
Direct measures of behavior Measurement methods can include recording the frequency, duration, latency, and intensity of problem behavior. Permanent products refer to a result of the behavior that can be measured. For instance, the number of assignments turned in to the teacher or completed office referral forms are examples of permanent products. Direct measures of behavior collected during the FBA process are often used later to compare with measures of a problem behavior once an intervention has been implemented. If there is a decrease in problem behavior or increase in adaptive behavior compared to the data collected during the FBA (the baseline data), there is support for the PBS plan's effectiveness.
A "functional analysis" systematically tests hypotheses by manipulating the events that are thought to be associated with the occurrence of problem behavior. A functional analysis is a formal test of the relationship between environmental events and problem behavior. Each event that is suspected to contribute to the occurrence of a problem behavior is presented by itself while controlling other possible sources of variance. Researchers often use this approach because it is the most rigorous way to test a hypothesis about the function maintaining problem behavior.
To conduct a FBA effectively, combining indirect assessment with either direct observational strategies or functional analysis is necessary. Interviews, checklists, and rating scales may seem to save time. Unfortunately, the information gathered can be highly subjective and inaccurate. Without more objective methods to verify the indirect assessment information, your FBA will be incomplete. In most applied situations, a combination of indirect assessment and direct observation data will provide the information necessary to support your hypothesis.
If you have not completed an FBA before, the best way to learn how to use the tools in this module is to find someone who has a background and expertise in positive behavior support or applied behavior analysis. Ask this person to coach you as you complete your first FBA. This person can help you learn more about the FBA process and teach you how to make decisions about when a functional analysis may be necessary.
Developed by: Rachel Freeman University of Kansa
To see the other posts in this series click HERE.
So I’m back at promised with some helpful tips for writing hypothesis statements that lead to successful behavioral support. This will finish up step 3 (developing hypotheses) and we will be ready to move on to what we all were waiting for–creating behavioral support plans. I know that the process of an FBA can seem ridiculously long, especially when you are dealing with some really difficult behavioral issues. However, I can tell you that without this process, the behavioral support will not be as successful and the process will just get longer. Being able to develop strong hypothesis statements that are our best guess about why the behavior is occurring is like a doctor doing a throat culture to see if your sore throat is strep. If it is, antibiotics will help. If it isn’t, they won’t and you have to address it a different way. Just giving you antibiotics doesn’t eliminate your sore throat and it has side effects of making you (and the population) more resistant to that treatment (antibiotics) in the future. So, with all of that said, here are some things to know about writing hypothesis statements that will hopefully help lead to better behavioral support. It’s a bit long so grab your favorite beverage and dive in. Or click on the pictures and the Pin button to pin it for later. 🙂
1. DO: Include as much information in the hypothesis as possible
If you use the template from my last post, you will end up with a statement that includes common antecedents and consequences to the behavior with a conclusion about the overall function of the behavior. The more details you include, the better able you will be to develop a plan that addresses the whole problem. Clearly Jimmy’s behavior is motivated by gaining access to a tangible activity (tangible function). However, knowing that his behavior has a tangible function just tells us that he needs to learn to make a request for what he wants. It doesn’t tell us what he should be taught to make a request for.
Knowing that he has this difficulty with computer time tells us that he needs to be able to request a turn on the computer, specifically. In addition, knowing it’s a tangible function doesn’t tell us what we could do to structure the situation and prevent problems before they occur WHILE Jimmy is learning to request a turn on the computer. We all know that our students don’t learn skills overnight and behavior is like a habit. You don’t just replace it overnight. So there will be a time where those antecedent-based interventions are important to restoring order in your world. Knowing more about the antecedents in the hypotheses statements let’s us know that we might want to have a clear signal about when the computer is or is not available, perhaps not have Jimmy have free time turns with other students where he has to give up his turn while he is learning to ask and wait, and perhaps that we need to have some visual supports at the computer to facilitate turn taking.
Similarly knowing the consequence tells us that we want to structure the situation so that someone is available to facilitate the computer area to keep other students from giving up and giving him access to the computer following his tantrum (thereby reinforcing the negative behavior). So, the more details we have, the more our behavioral support is laid out for us.
2. DO: Only describe what you can observe
This one is really hard in some ways, particularly if you are talking about behaviors that have an automatic reinforcement function (i.e., something internally is reinforcing the behavior like his anxiety decreases when he bites his hand or he stays awake / alert through self-injurious behavior during downtime. Many students have difficulties with sensory regulation and with anxiety and depression and sometimes their behavior is related to internal thoughts of negativity or the need to reduce that anxiety. I’m not discounting that emotions play a role. However, I am saying that we can’t know what those emotions are so they can’t play into our description of them. In Simon’s case he can report that he doesn’t like those social situation in which he makes violent threats. My data tells me that he gets kicked out of those situations because of his threats and the types of situations in which he makes them are almost always group social situations. I also know that Simon has significant deficits in social skills that leads to my conclusions. Saying that Simon is angry because he is in the social situations doesn’t tell me what to do; I don’t know how to keep Simon from being angry. However, I can teach him social skills that will help him be more successful and I can provide more support in those situations to help him be more comfortable.
In Abe’s case, he can’t report that, so I have to interpret it. I don’t know if Abe is engaging in self-injurious behavior because of some biological mechanism that is releasing endorphins that make him feel better. However, I do know that his behavior occurs almost entirely when he is left alone with nothing to do and that he does appear calmer after engaging in the behavior (i.e., he isn’t bouncing his leg, he isn’t making vocal sounds as frequently, he isn’t pacing across the room). By sticking to what I can see and/or what has been reported, we are more likely to be accurate in what we are reporting and again, we can make changes that will lead to better support. In Abe’s case we may want to structure his day so there is less downtime and perhaps use some antecedent exercise as a way to help with sensory regulation, among other supports.
3. DO: Include setting events
Setting events are an important part of knowing what we need to accommodate for. We may not be able to change them (for instance, I can’t cure a child with allergies) but we can accommodate for them. Then we can teach the student, when he is able, to advocate for and accommodate on his own. Remember that setting events are things that happen in the more distant past that make challenging behaviors more likely to occur when an antecedent presents itself. So, for instance, if Sarah doesn’t sleep well at night, she is more likely to cry when you ask her to come to morning meeting. To accommodate the setting event (since I can’t make her sleep better) I might let her have a break to chill out before morning meeting, let her take a short nap when she arrives in class, or make morning meeting start with her favorite activity to make it more enticing. Or might let her ask for a break to get out of the activity on those days. Knowing a setting event is involved is really helpful in planning behavioral support.
4. DO: Verify the hypothesis
A hypothesis is only a guess about the function of behavior. There are several ways we can verify the accuracy of that guess, but the most functional way is to create a behavioral support plan that addresses the hypothetical functions and take data to see if it works. Another way is to conduct an analogue functional analysis, in which we systematically manipulate the consequences for behavior in controlled conditions and determine how the behavior reacts. For instance, if the behavior increases over time it when I remove work after the behavior, then the function is likely to escape from work. This is a somewhat technical method for assessing behavior and not something that is often done in schools except by someone with specific experience and training (since it involves reinforcing the behavior initially). I’ve chosen not to talk about it much here because it’s not something you can really learn effectively through a blog post–it requires hands-on training among other things. Another way is called a structural analysis in which we change the antecedents to see if specific events we think might be triggers for the behavior reliably produce the behavior when presented. This requires careful data collection and shouldn’t be attempted without training because it involves setting the student’s behavior off. However, it is an easier approach for verifying than an analogue functional analysis and there are some researchers who have advocated that it might be more useful in schools. If anyone wants more information about either of these approaches, leave me comments and I’ll be happy to do future posts on either or both. For our purposes in this series, I would say your intervention serves as your “verify” step. If the intervention doesn’t work, we go back to questioning whether our hypotheses are correct.
1. DON’T: Be mislead by the form of behavior
Be careful not to assume that because the form of the behavior is sensory-based (e.g., putting hand in mouth, biting his hand) that the function is. Many, many, many behaviors may begin with a sensory function but quickly acquire a more “social” function of getting attention or escaping from situations. There is some literature to support that a certain percentage of babies bang their heads on their cribs. Sometimes this is due to ear infections and sometimes it’s not. Regardless of the original cause, banging their heads gets parents’ attention. If children don’t develop more sophisticated methods of gaining attention (or those methods don’t work) that headbanging can gain a social function of gaining attention. Over time it likely escalates in severity because lower levels of the behavior stop working to gain attention. Similarly a young child may mouth his hand as he mouths all the objects around him (a typical developmental phase). If that behavior causes people to remove him from a situation, then the behavior may take on an escape function over time. Just because the form of the behavior involves the senses, doesn’t mean it has a sensory or automatic reinforcement component.
2. DON’T: Assume automatic reinforcement if you can’t determine a function
Some people will tell you that if you can’t find a pattern to the behavior data, then the behavior probably has an automatic or sensory function. That is one of the biggest mistakes I see with functional assessments. Your assumption if you can’t find a pattern in the data should be that you don’t have enough data and you can’t determine the function. Just because you can’t see a pattern doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist and doesn’t mean that the reinforcement is something you can’t see because it’s internal. Only
3. DON’T: Assume there is only one function to the behavior
Human behavior is a pretty complex thing and it’s unlikely that we will explain someone’s challenging behavior with only one hypothesis / function. Most behavior is multi-functional. The older the student gets and the more experience he/she has with challenging behavior, the more likely the challenging behavior may come to serve more than one function.
4. DON’T: Stop taking data
Since we still need to verify the validity of the hypotheses statements, we are still going to need data to tell whether our intervention was effective. Our ABC data can provide baseline data for this, if we took it throughout the day or in controlled conditions, but we will need data to compare it to. I’ll spend more time talking about data within behavior plans later in the series, but it continues to be important. Sometimes just having a plan of what to do makes us feel like the behavior is better when in fact it has stayed the same. Data is the only way to monitor its true effectiveness and thereby verify if our hypotheses were correct.
So that brings us to the end of the FBA process of behavioral support. Our next step will be figuring out what to do based on our hypotheses of the functions of the challenging behaviors. I will pick up there later this week, but I have a special surprise coming up on Wednesday.
It’s become increasingly evident from responses on my Facebook page that everyone LOVES ideas for workbaskets. I’m going to start a monthly linky on Wednesday called Workbasket Wednesday. Any blogger can link up a post about workbaskets and structured work systems to Wednesday’s post and put the graphic from the post in their post and link back to the linky post. If you are not a blogger, feel free to share pictures with me (through Facebook or message me through my Facebook page) and I’ll be happy to publish them. Or share links to pins on Pinterest in the comments of Wednesday’s post. I will publish this post for link-ups the
last first Wednesday of every month so we will have a monthly opportunity to share workbox ideas. So bloggers get your posts ready and I’ll have it up and running on Wednesday for your to link up.
Until next time,