Even well-intentioned adults can feel confused, angry, or frightened when a child on the autism spectrum acts in ways they find challenging. “Why do they do that?” they may ask, perhaps assuming no explanation exists.
A Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) opens a way forward.
The FBA process takes seriously the core insight of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): All behavior serves a purpose. No voluntary behavior “just happens” (Reflexes are another matter).
Behaviors serve two kinds of functions. They can get us something we desire (such as attention, internal stimulation, or specific activities). They can also help us avoid something we don’t want (such as—again—attention, internal stimulation, or specific activities).
Once behavior analysts identify why a given behavior occurs, they can design a plan to modify or replace it.
How do special education programs implement a Functional Behavior Assessment?
The Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) behavioral health team, which has extensive experience affecting positive behavioral change in students, offers this overview.
Five Steps for Putting the FBA Process Into Practice
In their book Classwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, Brandi Simonsen and Diane Myers define a Functional Behavioral Assessment as “a systematic process for studying a student’s behavior using multiple sources of information generated by multiple informants and documenting patterns of behavior over time.”
Every student is a unique individual. Consequently, no two FBAs look exactly alike or happen in exactly the same way. But whatever tools analysts use and however much time they need to take, the FBA process always includes these steps:
- Building a Multidisciplinary Action Team
The multidisciplinary action team includes people who can provide unique perspectives on the student and their behaviors. Teams include the student’s general and special education teachers, related service providers (including behavioral health professionals), paraprofessionals working with the student, the student’s parents, or other primary caregivers, and (as appropriate) the student. One team member will serve as coordinator. The coordinator manages data collection, facilitates team communication, and ensures the FBA is implemented as intended.
- Identifying the Target Behavior
The team identifies the student’s target behavior: the interfering or disruptive behavior impeding learning and development for the student and/or their peers. Should the student present more than one problematic behavior, the team must decide on which behavior this assessment will focus. The team should prioritize any behaviors affecting safety.
- Collecting Baseline Data About the Behavior’s “ABCs”
The team’s practitioners and teachers will gather more information about the target behavior by reviewing the student’s past and current records, by conducting formal and informal interviews, and by directly observing the behavior. One widely used method of observation answers questions about the interfering behavior’s “ABCs”:
- Antecedent: What happens prior to— and triggers—the behavior? What events may help predict when the behavior occurs?
- Behavior: What specific shape does the behavior take? What does it look like?
- Consequence: What results from the behavior? What effects might be helping maintain the behavior?
The data collection phase of the FBA process ensures the team shares an accurate and thorough understanding of the disruptive behavior before planning and putting into place an intervention plan.
- Formulating and Testing a Behavioral Hypothesis
Now the team can formulate a hypothesis about the function the behavior serves. Here’s a sample behavioral hypothesis from the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders (NPDC): “John talks loudly when the teacher is conducting a lesson because he cannot complete his work, and he is then sent to the resource room where he plays with a squishy ball and has no demands placed on him.”The team then tests the hypothesis’ accuracy, unless doing so would pose risk of injury or damage. Testing involves modifying the student’s circumstances to increase the probability the target behavior occurs.
In the NPDC’s example, if altering the antecedent (the teacher’s instruction) and consequences (making John do something other than go to the resource room) results in increased interfering behavior (because John isn’t getting his desired results), the hypothesis is probably correct.
- Developing and Monitoring a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP)
Once the team has verified its hypothesis, it can proceed to design and implement a Behavioral Intervention Plan. The BIP includes:
- A description of the target behavior.
- Hypotheses about why the behavior occurs.
- Evidence-based strategies for modifying or replacing the behavior.
- Positive behavioral supports for addressing the behavior.
- Observable and measurable goals by which the team will measure the student’s progress. (If the student has an Individualized Education Program, the BIP goals may overlap with the IEP goals).
Once behavioral health specialists start implementing the BIP, data collection continues to assess the plan’s efficacy. The team will want to know how often and for how long the disruptive behavior still occurs, and how often the replacement behavior occurs.
Let the PTS Behavioral Health Team Help Your Students and Your Program
The Functional Behavior Assessment demystifies the behaviors of students with autism. It serves as the basis for the helpful interventions these students need to succeed in school. It also helps the adults who care about them realize more fully these children have problems, but are not “problem children.”
Could you use help implementing the FBA process for the students you serve? Contact PTS today to start a behavioral health partnership that can move them and your special education program forward!