How to find the underlying reasons for challenging behaviour with functional behaviour assessment

How to find the underlying reasons for challenging behaviour with functional behaviour assessment

Monash University and ABA for Change

The number of students diagnosed with severe behaviour disorders is rapidly rising, and many teachers report they struggle to adequately respond. As well, schools suspension rates are increasing, even though research shows suspensions do more harm than good. Research consistently shows the most effective behaviour support strategies are those that are informed by a functional behaviour assessment, and emphasise the teaching of new skills.

Monash’s Erin Leif and Alexandra Ahlgren-Berg break down the steps of what’s involved.

Challenging behaviour in the classroom is like an iceberg. On the surface might look like hitting, screaming, running out of the classroom, ripping up materials or refusing to participate. A functional behaviour assessment (FBA) helps discover what’s going on below the surface.

It’s based on five basic assumptions about challenging behaviour.

  1. Challenging behaviour is learned
  2. It serves a purpose for the student
  3. It is not a part of the student, but the result of an interaction between that student and his or her environment
  4. There are no challenging students, just contexts that support challenging behaviour
  5. The answer to how to help students with their challenging behaviour lies in understanding the function of the behaviour for the student

What thinking functionally looks like in practice

The iceberg of behaviours
The iceberg of behaviours. Image: vladwel

What is a functional behaviour assessment (FBA)?

A functional behaviour assessment collects information about a student and their challenging behaviour. It identifies where, when and with whom it is most — and least — likely to occur. An FBA also identifies how the challenging behaviour helps the student communicate their wants and needs.

It’s a problem-solving strategy and it is designed to inform the design of an individual behaviour support plan. These strategies help the student participate in learning, and communicate their needs in more appropriate ways.

Research shows that behaviour support strategies that are informed by the results of an FBA are more likely to bring about meaningful and long-lasting positive changes in behaviour.

Who can conduct an FBA?

An FBA is generally conducted by a team of people, and led by a board certified behaviour analyst or psychologist. Teachers, parents, school leaders, and allied health professionals will work with the lead clinician as partners in the process.

How is an FBA conducted?

An FBA is not completed in the same way every time, it is a flexible and dynamic process adapted to suit the needs of the student, teacher, and classroom. The type of information collected will vary depending upon the student’s behaviour, strengths, and needs. The level of complexity needed to complete an FBA varies as well. There are common components.

Step 1: Gather information from people who know the student well

Interviews are conducted with people who know the student well. Open-ended questions are asked: ‘What does the behaviour look like?’ ‘When is the behaviour most likely to occur?’ and ‘What do you usually do to help him calm down?’

The answers provide rich information about the unique factors that may be causing the challenging behaviour. They help the team identify what the behaviour looks like, and what usually happens before and after the behaviour.

Results of previous assessments and previous support strategies are also reviewed. Information about the student’s health, diet and sleep is also collected, as these can also influence behaviour.

The Kansas Center for Positive Behaviour Support provides an example Functional Behaviour Assessment Interview Form that can be used by teachers and school leaders to guide conversations about challenging behaviour.

Step 2: Look at the environment

The classroom set-up is examined, and ways to rearrange the environment to better support the student are identified.

Seating arrangements, lighting, temperature, noise level, and location of classroom materials are assessed, particularly to see if they cause any discomfort.

During this step, it is important to identify if the student can see and hear their teacher, independently retrieve needed materials, and successfully transition between different activities throughout the day.

The National Behaviour Support Service provides a Learning Environment Checklist for teachers and school leaders to use to plan, monitor, and evaluate the quality of their learning environment.

Step 3: Look at the curriculum

The purpose of this step is to identify if the student has the foundational skills to successfully participate in instructional activities in the classroom and whether the curriculum needs to be modified.

Sometimes, children display challenging behaviour at school because learning activities are too difficult, or they lack important skills to be able to fully participate.

These are skills that go beyond basic academic skills, and include being able to pay attention to the teacher, follow group instructions, independently retrieve materials in the classroom, and ask for help.

For a student who is having trouble learning a new skill, it is best to break the skill down into its smallest teachable parts.  By teaching one step at a time, the teacher can reward the student for the successful completion of the smaller steps in the chain.

These component skills can be gradually scaffolded into larger composite skills, and can help make learning more fun, easy, and rewarding.

This article from E-Learning Heroes describes in detail how to break down a skill into small teachable components.

Step 4: Directly observe the student in the classroom

Direct observations should take place during times when challenging behaviour is most likely to occur. During these observations, data are collected.

This is called ABC data:  Antecedent (A) – Behaviour (B) – Consequence (C).

Antecedents (or ‘triggers’) refer to the things that happen right before challenging behaviour. Example antecedents include:

  • The teacher delivered an instruction to complete a reading activity
  • A peer snatched a toy from the student
  • The bell rang, signaling a transition from recess to maths class
  • The teacher tells a student that the computer is not available

The challenging behaviour data should describe the student behaviour in observable and measurable terms. Example behaviours include:

  • Pushed over chair
  • Ran out of the classroom to the playground
  • Threw pencil
  • Kicked teacher

Consequences refer to the things that happen right after the behaviour. Example consequences include:

  • The student was sent to the principal’s office
  • The other students in the classroom laughed
  • The teacher asked the student to stop
  • The teacher removed the maths worksheet and allowed the student to read a book

Along with the ABCs, it is also a good idea to record the time of each instance of challenging behaviour, the activity in progress, and who was present.

This allows the team to track whether challenging behaviour is more likely to occur at certain times of day, during certain activities, or with certain people.

It is also a good idea to write down how often challenging behaviour occurs during the school day (for example, how many instances of the behaviour were observed, or for how long did the behaviour last for?). This information is useful because it will allow us to determine if the behaviour support strategies are effective for decreasing challenging behaviour at school over time.

The Autism Helper provides several ABC data sheets that can be downloaded for free.

Step 5: Develop a hypothesis

Using the tools above, and reviewing the information collected, a hypothesis can be developed about the causes of the student’s challenging behaviour.

For example, if challenging behaviour is frequently followed by attention, it may very well be that the student has a history of accessing adult or peer attention by engaging in this specific behaviour. If the presentation of a specific instruction or task is consistently followed by disruptive behaviours, the student may be communicating that they find this skill to be difficult.

Missouri State University provides a worksheet describing how to generate a hypothesis (or summary statement) about the function of challenging behaviour.

What happens after the FBA?

Simply conducting a functional behaviour assessment does not improve behaviour in the classroom.

However, it does allow teachers to determine what needs to change. This may be

  • Aspects of the environment
  • Individualised instructions
  • New skills to focus on

The hypothesis about why challenging behaviour occurs informs the design of an individual behaviour support plan.

Behaviour support strategies that are directly linked to the function of challenging behaviour bring about more meaningful and long-lasting behaviour change.

Some examples of behaviour support strategies linked to the function of challenging behaviour include the following:

Typical AntecedentTypical BehaviourTypical ConsequenceHypothesisBehaviour Support Strategy - What to do Instead?
The teacher delivers
classroom academic instructions
The student pushes over chairs and screamsThe student is sent
to the principal’s office
The student is able to avoid participating in difficult or non-preferred classroom learning activitiesTeach a replacement behaviour Teach the student request a break from, or help with, the difficult task.

Make a curricular revision Analyse the academic task to identify what parts are difficult or non-preferred for the student. Break the task down into smaller, easier components for the student so they can be successful, and richly reinforce the student’s participation in the activity. Gradually increase the difficulty of the task.
The student enters the playground at recess and approaches a group of peers who are playing soccerThe student hits peers and grabs the soccer ballThe peers chase the student and try to get the ball back, and the student laughsThe student is able to obtain the attention of his peers, and initiate a social interaction with peersTeach a replacement behaviour Teach the student to join in the play activity by asking for a turn or saying ‘chase me!’

Other skills to teach
Help the student learn to wait for a turn, or to identify an alternative, available toy or activity when his preferred activity is not available

This example of a detailed Functional Behaviour Assessment Report, includes a summary of information collected via interviews and direct observations, a hypothesis about the function of each challenging behaviour, and a description of new replacement behaviours to teach and reinforce.



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