Once a functional assessment is complete, the next step is to develop a hypothesis statement—a prediction or "best guess" of the function or reason a child’s challenging behavior occurs. This includes a description of the child’s challenging behavior (i.e., what the behavior looks like), information about the specific predictors or triggers that occurred before the child exhibited challenging behavior, the perceived purpose or function of the child’s behavior, as well as the maintaining consequences that followed. Predictors include both what conditions immediately precede the child’s behavior, as well as any setting events that may be presumed to increase the likelihood of the challenging behavior’s occurrence (e.g., lack of sleep, allergies/illnesses, social and interactional factors). Hypothesis development is a critically important step toward developing interventions that are directly linked to the function of the child’s challenging behavior (O’Neill et al., 1997).
Very young children have brief learning histories (Dunlap & Fox, 1996). In many cases, those with a limited repertoire of behavior will often use one behavior for several different purposes. For example, children often use a general tantrum (prolonged screaming, crying, pulling away) for multiple functions (e.g., request object and escape transition). Therefore, when sorting out hypotheses the support team should address all of the circumstances in which challenging behavior occurs rather than trying to match an individual function to each challenging behavior.
Once the behavior support team identifies its hypotheses, attention should be paid to the way by which hypotheses are written. They should be carefully written either as a series of sentences that include each component (e.g., description, predictors, purpose, maintaining consequences), or as a "when…then" or "if…then" statement (Hieneman et al., 1999). Remember the more clearly articulated the hypothesis, the more likely the hypothesis will clearly communicate the team’s understanding of the child’s challenging behavior.
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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