How FBAs get at the root of problematic behavior

Every educator should be aware of what a functional behavioral assessment is, what it involves and how it can help in managing a child's behaviors that are making it difficult to learn.
By: | January 1, 2021
Getty Images, The Real Tokyo LifeGetty Images, The Real Tokyo Life

For all their efforts, educators sometimes find themselves at a loss as to how to manage a child’s problematic behaviors. Maybe they keep implementing the student’s positive behavioral interventions, with limited results. And maybe they don’t have a clear idea of why the student is misbehaving in the first place.

When that happens, and especially when a student’s behavior makes it hard for him to learn, it may be prudent to conduct a functional behavioral assessment to get at the root of the problem. The only time the IDEA explicitly mandates an FBA is when a district finds that a student’s misconduct is a manifestation of a disability (state law could require an FBA in additional circumstances). However, schools don’t have to, and often should not, wait for such a finding, since an FBA may prove essential to enabling the student to improve his behavior.

An FBA is used to identify the situations, settings or conditions causing the student to act the way he does, and it lays the groundwork for developing an effective behavioral intervention plan.

Once the IEP team knows what’s causing the student to throw books across the room whenever he’s asked to complete an assignment, for example, or to bolt for the classroom door when he’s asked to join a group discussion, its members can start to design interventions that address the underlying causes of the behavior.

The IDEA doesn’t explain how to conduct an FBA or who conducts it. However, after notifying the parent and obtaining consent, a district generally assigns a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or another person capable of identifying the function of problematic behaviors to perform the FBA.

An FBA nearly always includes these major steps:

1. Defining the behavior

The individual responsible for conducting the FBA describes the behavior in a specific, detailed way. This is so that teachers and others tasked with gathering information are on the same page as to what behavior is at issue.

2. Collecting information about the behavior

The evaluator then gathers information that enables her to develop an understanding of:

  • What the behavior looks like
  • What leads up to the behavior
  • What the student is trying to achieve through the behavior (such as escape from an unwanted task)

The evaluator typically gathers the information by reviewing the student’s existing evaluations, observing the student in class, and interviewing teachers and parents.

Teachers and other educators may take part by collecting information about the behavior, including documenting what events, conditions and situations precede it, what the behavior looks like when it occurs, and what happens afterward.

3. Developing a hypothesis about what’s causing the behavior

Based on the information collected, the evaluator articulates a theory explaining why the student engages in the behavior and tests that theory to confirm its accuracy.

Once the FBA is complete, the IEP team should be equipped with the information and recommendations it needs to develop a behavioral improvement plan (BIP) that will improve the behavior.

The BIP may include such things as replacement behaviors and positive reinforcers or rewards that, because the IEP team is now addressing the underlying reasons for the behavior, wmay make it unnecessary or undesirable for the student to continue to act out.

Joseph L. Pfrommer, Esq., covers overs special education legal issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.