Understanding the Functional Behavioral Assessment Process

When a child acts out in class, the behavior may relate to a deeper struggle with their learning. Determining the reason for that behavior not only reduces disruptions but helps the child learn more successfully. However, teachers and parents alone may not have the tools necessary to work on developing productive behaviors. 

Teachers can’t always stop behaviors with usual classroom management and disciplinary action. In these cases, a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) can help in understanding the cause of a child’s behavior and creating a plan for potential solutions. When you know what causes a problem behavior, you can focus on modifying it in a way that benefits the child and helps them learn successfully. In special education, an FBA is part of an individualized education program (IEP), and it can help the student meet their educational and social goals.

In this guide, I explain what a functional behavioral assessment is, how it works, and how it helps children meet their academic objectives. I will review the FBA process in detail, as well as how to start the process for your child, so you can understand the next best step.

Inside the Functional Behavioral Assessment Process

  • What is a Functional Behavioral Assessment?
  • When Does a Child Get an FBA and How Can It Help?
  • What Does the FBA Process Look Like?
  • 1. Define the Behavior
  • 2. Observe the Child
  • 3. Collect and Analyze Data
  • 4. Develop a Behavior Intervention Plan
  • 5. Gather Data on Plan Effectiveness
  • When Should You Request an FBA?

What Is a Functional Behavioral Assessment?

The functional behavioral assessment is a behavior-focused evaluation using a structured process to gather data for a special education IEP. With it, the FBA team collects information on a child’s behavior when that behavior becomes disruptive and negatively impacts their learning. The FBA works to identify the behavior, its cause, and what reinforces it to become a pattern in the classroom. Once the FBA team has enough data on the behavior, they use it to develop interventions that lower the incidence of the behavior and instead encourage more positive and productive ones.

Although an FBA works to identify negative behaviors, it also serves to help the IEP team identify positive behavior interventions that they can use to modify the behavior. By highlighting the purpose of the child’s behavior, the team can work toward reaching academic goals more productively. The FBA forms a foundation the IEP team can use to create a behavioral intervention plan (BIP).

When Does a Child Get an FBA and How Can It Help?

Not all students with an IEP receive or need an FBA. An FBA is typically only recommended if the child’s behavior interferes with their learning. For example, if problem behaviors are observed when asked to solve a math problem and their behavior prevents them from understanding or completing the assignment, they may get an FBA to determine why they exhibit those behaviors and how they can work with their IEP team to learn more productive behaviors. 

If the IEP team needs additional information to create an appropriate program for the child, the FBA team can help gather the necessary data to implement in an effective IEP that more fully benefits the student. An FBA should be conducted if you notice a child’s behavior is repeatedly disruptive and impedes their learning.

Children who receive an FBA as part of their IEP benefit from a more targeted and organized approach to behavioral therapy. The FBA can show teachers, parents, and other professionals who work with the child how their disability affects their behavior. It can also help the IEP team alter the child’s environment to reduce the likelihood of the behavior recurring if that environment contributes. It opens possibilities for new ways to work with the child that help them learn and give them the tools to meet their goals.

What Does the FBA Process Look Like?

The FBA process involves both direct and indirect assessments of the child’s behavior. The direct assessment portion includes observing the child and tracking their behaviors as they occur. Documentation should include:

  • When the behavior happens
  • Potential triggers and antecedent behavior
  • The cycle of the behavior
  • Naming the behavior in specific, objective, measurable terms
  • Consequences of the behavior

Identifying the antecedent behavior, or actions preceding the disruptive behavior, enables the FBA team to find patterns and understand the underlying cause of the problem behavior. Likewise, pinpointing the consequences allows the team to determine how and why the cycle continues.

Indirect assessment happens outside of direct involvement with the student. It may include interviews with parents, teachers, and other professionals who regularly work with the student as well as gathering documentation. These interviews help the FBA team understand setting events that impact the child’s behavior, such as performance- or skill-related struggles. At this stage, the FBA team may also informally interview the child.

Performing an FBA involves the following steps.

1. Define the Behavior

Defining the behavior must include an objective, specific measurable definition. For example, rather than saying the student is disruptive or aggressive in class, the FBA team should explain the student’s specific actions. Maybe they talk excessively during lectures, leave the classroom without asking, or break class materials.

The FBA team should then record those behaviors to show how they impact the student’s education and when and why they occur. Defining the behavior in this way gives the FBA team a starting point to begin addressing the behavior with more focused methods to create a behavioral intervention plan.

2. Observe the Child

To define the child’s behavior accurately, the FBA team observes the child in class. At this point, the team should have a hypothesis about the behavior, including the antecedent and consequences. The observation helps explain the causes or triggers of the behavior and how it is handled in the classroom and test the hypothesis.

For example, if the student becomes disruptive when asked to complete a writing assignment in class, the FBA team may determine that trouble with motor skills required for writing causes the child distress and triggers their behavior. The team will then investigate that line of reasoning further. At the same time, the observation helps them determine when and where the behavior does not occur in order to narrow their focus and create a more effective plan.

3. Collect and Analyze Data

While some of the data the FBA team collects will come from observation, other elements provide additional support for the direct assessment. Some of this data may include:

As with observation, this data shows when and where the behavior does or doesn’t happen and the circumstances surrounding it. The team then uses this data to test their hypothesis and design a behavior support plan. 

4. Develop a Behavior Intervention Plan

If making simple modifications in the classroom does not stop the disruptive behavior, the student may need a behavior intervention plan (BIP). A BIP developed by a school psychologist or behavior specialist and the IEP team uses a targeted approach toward specific behaviors and their functions. It typically uses prevention strategies and replacement behaviors to modify the target behavior.

The BIP becomes part of the child’s IEP, and it must be followed consistently to be effective. Additionally, the BIP cannot be adjusted without an IEP meeting that reviews the BIP and the student’s progress. 

5. Gather Data on Plan Effectiveness

Once the IEP team implements the BIP, the FBA team observes the student again to determine its effectiveness. If the student shows progress, the IEP team continues with the plan. If not, the team reviews the program to modify it or create a new plan. They then continue to observe the student to determine if the behavior continues with the changes.

The FBA team will learn what does and doesn’t work through further observation and meet to adjust the BIP as they collect more information. The team will also review the BIP yearly to determine whether the child still needs it or if changes to the plan would further student success.

When Should You Request an FBA evaluation?

If you’re a teacher and notice a child regularly exhibiting disruptive behavior that impedes their learning, talk with their parent or guardian about conducting an FBA. However, due to school staffing and class sizes, teachers may not immediately recognize a student’s need for an FBA. 

Often, the need for an assessment arises long before the assessment happens. Schools don’t always offer FBAs without a request, so you will likely have to contact the school to start the process. Therefore, if you’re a parent and you see that your child is having problems at school that may have contributing behavioral factors, talk to your child’s IEP team about conducting an FBA. 

Get the Support Your Child Needs

An FBA can support your child’s team in learning more about your child’s target behaviors and how to better support them. With a BIP created from the FBA, your child can develop new behavioral skills. If you believe your student would benefit from an FBA, request an IEP meeting to discuss how it may help them meet their academic goals.

I hope this guide gives you everything you need to understand how the FBA process works. Do you have experience getting an FBA for your child? What was it like? Let me know in the comments or send me an email! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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