Addressing the Educational Needs of Children with Challenging Behaviors: Educational Research on Functional Behavior Assessments

The best practice for a functional behavior assessment is to determine the underlying “functions” of a student’s problem behaviors. This approach incorporates a variety of techniques and strategies to identify biological, social, affective, and environmental factors that initiate, sustain, or end problem behaviors. After collecting data, and developing a hypothesis of the likely function of that behavior, the best practice is to develop a behavior intervention plan, which includes positive strategies, program or curricular modifications, and supplementary aids and services to address a student’s disruptive behaviors.

Functional Behavioral Assessment

One definition for a functional behavioral assessment is Aan approach that incorporates a variety of techniques and strategies to diagnose the causes and identify likely interventions intended to address problem behaviors.@ A functional behavioral assessment looks beyond the overt symptoms of behavior; it identifies biological, social, affective, and environmental factors the initiate, sustain or terminate the questioned behavior.[i]  In other words, the purpose is finding the root cause of the behavior.  This holistic approach provides a better foundation upon which to develop a behavior intervention plan because it reveals why the student misbehaves.

Another definition for a functional behavior assessment is a process for analyzing the cause of a specific behavior exhibited by a student. By using this technique, an evaluator can observe events that take place before (antecedents) and after the behavior occur (consequence). The evaluator also records and collects systematic data to show the environmental components that could contribute to the occurrence of a target behavior.[1]  In essence, the purpose of the functional behavior assessment is to determine the reasons for the behavior and to develop a comprehensive treatment plan (behavior intervention plan) for the student.[ii]

The four main outcomes of a functional behavioral assessment are: (a) a definition of problem behaviors, (b) descriptions of the conditions under which problem behavior is and is not likely to be observed, (c) identification of the function of the problem behavior, and (d) direct observation data to support these outcomes.[iii]

By applying these definitions, an IEP team can determine the function of a student=s behavior. This can be accomplished through a functional behavioral assessment to determine, for example, why is a student is attempting to seek attention from a teachers. A student may seek positive attention from a teacher by obtaining good grades. On the other hand, a student may seek negative attention from a teacher by misbehaving. In both cases, the student is trying to gain attention from the teacher. The object of correcting the later behavior is to fill the student=s attention with an alternative or replacement behaviors that serves the same function as the inappropriate behavior Strategies may also be developed to decrease or eliminate opportunities for the student to hinder positive academic outcomes. [iv]

Functional Analysis

A functional analysis is Aa specialized process in which specific environmental factors are manipulated systematically to confirm the hypothesized functional relationship between the occurrence of the problem behavior and those environmental factors.@[v] Functional analyses should not be conducted unless (a) highly trained personnel are conducting the analyses, (b) data are collected continuously, (c) appropriate consents are secured from the parents or guardian, and (d) adequate safeguards are in place to protect the student and others from harm.[vi]

Methods for Conducting a Functional Behavioral Assessment[vii]

Seriousness of Problem To determine the behavior that is impeding the student’s learning, it is necessary to verify the seriousness of the problem. By observing others students, the IEP team will be able to determine the seriousness of the problem by comparing the present behavior of the student with what is considered by other students are acceptable behavior. If there is widespread misbehavior among students, then the solution may be changing classroom practices. The IEP team may want to take in account the teacher’s expectations for the student academic as well as classroom conduct. The IEP team may also want to consider cultural, ethnic, or gender differences in assessing behavior. School personnel should respect those differences and work to adopt the parent’s perspective when considering the student’s behavior. The IEP may want to ask the following questions:

Does the student ‘s behavior different significantly from the behavior of other students?

  • Does the student’s behavior interfere or impede the learning of other students?
  • Have past efforts to remediate the behavior been unsuccessful?
  • Does the student’s behavior represent a behavioral deficit rather than a cultural difference?
  • Is the student’s conduct persistent and serious or a threat to the safety of other students?
  • If the behavior persists, is disciplinary action warranted?[viii]

Refine the Definition of the Problem Behavior In order to identify the specific characteristics that are interfering with the student’s learning, a precise definition that includes examples and nonexamples of the behavior. This will eliminate the measurement problems stemming from an ambiguous description (e.g. poor behavior control) of the behavior.  The IEP team should collect data and observe student in a variety of settings (social, academic, cafeteria), during different types of activities (large, small, individual, group).  The IEP team should discuss the student’s behavior in with other school personnel and the student’s parents. This process will increase the likelihood that the IEP team will be able to assess the relevant dimensions of the behavior.

Once the assessment is complete, the IEP team should define the behavior. For example, Michael exhibits off-task behavior such as making inappropriate and irrelevant comments during science class. The team should consider whether the student is engaging in multiple rather than single behavior problems, for instance, Tonya “call-outs,” interrupts, and degrades other classmates. Separating and defining each of these behaviors may be helpful[ix].

Collect Information on Possible Functions of Problem Behavior The 1997 Amendments to the IDEA did not recommend specific assessment techniques and strategies for developing a functional behavioral assessment. Collecting and analyzing information about the student’s behavior will likely result in developing more meaningful interventions. This information should include the student’s academic and medical records, sample of student’s class assignments and homework, questionnaires for teachers, parents, cafeteria staff, and other school personnel, and interviews with student.[x]

 Ways to Categorize Student Behavior One method is to categorize the student’s behavior according to its function e.g. what is student getting that is positively reinforcing for him such as adult approval or what is the student avoiding such as classroom assignments. Another approach is to consider whether the student’s misbehavior stems from multiple rather than single sources. Another different method is to distinguish between behaviors that stem from a skill deficit as opposed to those that result from a performance deficit. A skill deficit results when the student does not have the ability to perform the appropriate behavior. A performance deficit, on the other hand, means that the student has the ability to perform the desired behavior but fails to do so when specific conditions exist. Both of these deficits can co-exist as well.

  1. Alternative Assessment Strategies
  2. Educators should ask themselves if the behavior problem is linked to a skill deficit? If so, students who lack sufficient skill to perform the required task may exhibit behaviors to avoid or escape that task. If the student cannot perform the task, the IEP team could devise a functional behavior assessment plan to determine the answer to the following questions:
  •  Does the student understand the behavioral expectations of the situation?
  • Does the student realize that he or she is engaging in unacceptable behavior, or that the behavior has become a habit?
  • Does the student have will power to control the behavior, or does he or she need support?
  • Does the student have the skills necessary to perform the expected new behaviors?[xi]

The next question educators should ask themselves is does the student   have the skill, but for some reason, no desire to modify his or her behavior? Sometimes the student possesses the skill but does not use it consistently. This is often referred to as “performance deficit.” For example, students who can, but do not perform certain tasks may be experiencing consequences that affect their performance. If the IEP team suspects that the behavior is the result of a performance deficit, the team should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is it possible that the student is uncertain as to the appropriateness of the behavior (e.g. a student ‘s behavior of clapping loudly and yelling at a sports event is appropriate but clapping loudly and yelling in a classroom when playing academic games is inappropriate).
  • Does the student find any value in engaging in appropriate behavior?
  • Is the behavior associated with certain environmental or social conditions?
  • Is the student attempting to avoid a task that is dull, boring or low-interest?
  • What routines and rules does the student consider to be dull, boring, and irrelevant?[xii]
  1. Variables and Functions Identified Through the Functional Assessment Process
  2. Techniques for Conducting the Functional Behavioral Assessment
  3. Direct assessment involves observing and recording situational factors surrounding a problem behavior. This includes the observation and recording of antecedent and consequent behaviors.
  4. “The purpose of the scatterplot is to identify patterns of behavior that related to specific contextual conditions.”[xiii] A scatterplot can be a chart or grid on which an observers records single events or a series of events that occur within a given context. The scatterplot requires the sequential recording of various events by category (e.g. teacher’s behavior, student’s responses, likely purpose of student’s reaction).[xiv] 
  5. ABC Charts. A member of the IEP team can record data using an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence or Antecedent-Response-Consequence (ABC) approach.[xv] This approach allows an observer to organize anecdotal or descriptive information on the student’s interactions with other students and adults so that patterns of behavior become clearer. An ABC chart can be individualized to contain predetermined categories of teacher or student antecedent behavior, student responses, and consequence events along with narrative recording of classroom observations.[xvi]
  6. Using scatterplots and ABC charts together. The scatterplots and ABC chart are useful in identifying environmental factors, activities, or times of the day that may influence a student’s behavior (e.g. seating arrangements, independent study and afternoon). These procedures are also useful in identifying problem behaviors, and the classroom conditions that may trigger or maintain the student’s behavior. The IEP team can use this information to compare and identify conditions in which the student maintains appropriate rather than inappropriate behaviors. The IEP is then better able to grasp the problem behavior, determine its dimensions, develop a definition of the behavior, select the best assessment tools, and develop an effective behavior intervention plan. In sum, information gathered through repeated observations across settings will likely produce more accurate information than a single measurement.[xvii]
  7. Amount versus quality of behavior. It is important to know how often a behavior occurs, (frequency measure), and how long the behavior occurs, (duration measure). For instance, frequency measure might focus on how many times a student gets out of his seat, while duration measure would determine how long each time the student stays out of his seat.[xviii]
  8. Severity of disruptive behavior rating rubric. A severity of disruptive behavior rating rubric determines the severity and measure of a behavior by using a rubric to show the magnitude and amount of variation in the behavior.[xix]

targeted behavior

  1. collection of baseline data

Indirect Assessment or informal assessment relies heavily upon the use of structured interviews with students, teachers and other adults have direct responsibility for the student. The IEP team develops a questionnaire that addresses the following issues:

The settings in which the behavior is observed

  • The settings in which the behavior does not occur
  • Who is present when the behavior occurs?
  • What antecedents take place before the behavior?
  • What happens immediately after the behavior?
  • What replacement behaviors might be appropriate?
  • What the student was thinking prior to the behavior?
  • What activity precipitated the student to engage in the behavior?
  • How the student perceives his or her behavior after the activity?[xx]
  1. interviews with teachers and other adults; interview with student; surveys or questionnaires
  2. functional assessment interview form 
  3. Functional Assessment 
  4. Accuracy of behavior measurement. Ultimately, the usefulness of a functional behavioral assessment may depend largely upon the skill and objectivity of the persons collecting the information. The information must be reliable and complete. The following guidelines are necessary for those persons who are responsible for conducting a functional behavioral assessment: (1) clearly define the behavior and regularly review the definition of that behavior; (2) person collecting information and data must be sufficiently trained and experienced; (3) select the most appropriate assessment procedure; (4) collect information and data across time and settings by using multiple strategies and individuals; and (5) conduct periodic checks of the accuracy of observer scoring and recording procedures.[xxi]


  1. Data triangulation chart. This chart permits the IEP team to visually compare information collected from a variety of sources (e.g. questionnaires, scatterplots, ABA chart). This chart can assist an IEP team in attempting to identify patterns of behavior, conditions that trigger the behavior, consequences that maintain or continue the behavior, and the likely functions the problem behavior serves for the student. [xxii]


  1. Problem behavior pathway chart. This chart allows the IEP team to organize information under the following categories: setting events, antecedents, behavior itself, and likely maintaining consequences for the behavior. From this information, the IEP team can develop a hypothesis statement regarding the likely function of the behavior and identify one or more variables that may be precipitating or maintaining the behavior.[xxiii]


  1. Hypothesis statement regarding probable function of problem behavior. From an analysis of the triangulation or pathway data, the IEP team can develop a hypothesis statement regarding the possible function of the student’s behavior. This statement can be used to predict the social or environmental settings and conditions in which the behavior is most likely to occur. Unless and until the team can establish the function of behavior, it is not possible to effectively develop an appropriate behavioral intervention plan. An example of a hypothesis statement is: when Judy does not get what she wants from other students, she calls then names and slaps them until her demands are met. Thus, when X occurs, Judy does Y, in order to achieve Z. [xxiv] The Z is the function of her behavior which is to gain attention from the classroom teacher.


  1. Test hypothesis statement regarding the function of the problem behavior. An IEP team should test the hypothesis before developing a behavioral intervention plan. In Judy’s situation described above, the team may manipulate the variables to test the hypothesis. The classroom teacher might intervene and substitute a positive behavior intervention for Judy that may reduce or eliminate her negative behaviors to other students. If this manipulation produces a positive change in Judy’s behavior, the team can assume that the hypothesis is correct and develop an appropriate behavioral intervention plan to address this behavior. If, however, Judy’s behaviors do not change, a new hypothesis should be developed. The team should be cognizant of behavioral changes resulting from the novelty of the change and those related to specific intervention.[xxv]


A procedure known as analogue assessment is one way to verify the team’s hypothesis regarding the function of the student’s behavior. This procedure permits school personnel to substantiate that a relationship exists between specific classroom events (e.g. an aversive assignment) and the student’s behaviors (e.g. disruptive behavior). A teacher can manipulate specific instructional variables (e.g. oral versus written responses, or complexity of learning tasks), introduction or withdrawal of variables (e.g. teacher attention), or other changes that are believed to trigger the problem behaviors. This will help determine the precise conditions under which the student is most or least likely to misbehave.  There may be times, however, that the IEP cannot identify the exact mix of variables (e.g. academic subject area) that cause the student to misbehave, or the exact amount of specific setting or antecedent variable that triggers the behavior (e.g. repeated teacher criticism). Since problem behaviors can have multiple sources and change across time, IEP teams should continue to evaluate and modify a student’s behavior. [xxvi]

  1. Summary of Steps to Conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment

First, the IEP team should identify and define the problem behavior broadly and then in specific terms. Next, the team reviews information from a variety of sources (questionnaires, scatterplots, ABC charts, interviews with teachers, students, and others, and observation). The team then examines the information received in order to determine the function of the student’s behavior and next steps. The team may adopt a hypothesis of the function of the behavior and test it. The team will collect and analyze different types of information and examine multiple clues regarding the source of the problem behaviors such as antecedents that trigger the behavior and consequences that maintain misbehavior.[xxvii]

  1. Functional Behavior Assessment Matrix

III.   How To Address Challenging Behaviors

Positive Behavior Supports understanding challenging behaviors


  1. research


  1. communication connection


  1. use of positive behavior support


  1. definition of challenging behaviors


  1. reduction of challenging behaviors


  1. teaching communication



  1. new skill building


  1. environment and system change


  1. individualized curricular modifications


  1. Assessment-Based Intervention. Research has shown that using preferred activities or embedding elements of preferred activities within nonpreferred activities can dramatically improve the likelihood of appropriate behavior. [xxviii]


  1. Linking Positive Behavior Supports and Person-Centered Planning


  1. When Positive Behavior Supports Do Not Work


  1. Reinforcement of Appropriate Student Behavior


  1. interventions teach student set of skills


  1. cognitive mediation


  1. fading


  1. discipline/punishment: what is definition of discipline?


  1. system-wide discipline curriculum


  1. school-based prevention program


  1. reducing violence in schools


  1. positive behavioral self-management systems


  1. monitoring


  1. token economies


  1. effective use of time-out


  1. time-out evaluation checklist


  1. accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative


  1. antecedent-based and consequence-based procedures


  1. Behavior Prevention Program



  1. academic tutoring


  1. social skill instruction


  1. behavior management


  1. behavior support team


  1. behavior strategies for children with developmental disabilities


  1. behavioral strategies for children with ADHD. A variety of behavioral interventions such as contingency management, token reinforcement, and response cost have been successful with students with ADHD/ADD.[xxix]


  1. behavioral strategies for children with conduct and emotional disorders


  1. longitudinal use of teacher report form in tracking outcome for students with serious emotional disturbances


[i] Quinn, Mary Quinn, Gable, Robert A., Rutherford, Robert B., Nelson, C. M., Howell, Kenneth W. (1998), Addressing Student Problem Behavior: An IEP Team’s Introduction to Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plan. Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice at p. 3. At the core of a functional behavioral assessment is change the focus of the student’s behaviors to the functions the student is trying to meet. The functions of a student’s behavior falls into four different categories: (1) the function to is to get, e.g. social reinforcement (response from a teacher for call out during classroom lecture) or tangible reinforcement(access to a preferred activity); (2) the function is to escape or avoid, e.g. an aversive task (boring assignment) or situation (interaction with adults or peers); (3) the function is both (e.g. to get attention of teacher and escape from a boring lesson); and (4) the function is to communicate something, e.g. (student does not understand the question or he does not want to answer question in front of class). Further, student may engage in a behavior to accomplish one purpose that might lead to the realization of a completely different function, e.g. student fights to avoid teasing but finds that fighting itself can be reinforcing. Quinn, Mary M., Gable, Robert A., Rutherford, Robert B., Howell, Kenneth W., and Hoffman, Catherine C. (1998). Addressing Student Problem Behavior, Part III- Creating Positive Behavioral Intervention Plans and Supports.


[ii]. Independent Sch. Dist. No. 2310, 29 IDELR 330, 333 (SEA Minn. 1998).


[iii]. Horner, R.H. (1994). Functional assessment. Contributions and future directions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 401; O’Neill, R.E., Horner, R.H., Albin, R.W., Sprague, J.R., Storey, K. & Newton, J.S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for program behavior. A practical handbook (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole; Sugai, g., Lewis-Palmer., & Hagan, S. (1998). Using functional assessments to develop behavior support plans. Preventing School Failure. 43(1), 6-13.


It is interesting to note that there is empirical evidence to support the use of a FBA with persons with severe and profound intellectual disabilities, but the validity of a FBA with students with average intellectual ability as not yet been established. Hartman, R., & Sage, Scott, A. (2000). The Relationship Between Social Information Processing and In-School Suspension for Students with Behavioral Disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 25(3), 183-195. See also, Sasso, Gary M., Conroy, M. A., Stichter, J.P., & Fox, J.J. (2001). Slowing Down the Bandwagon: The Misapplication of Functional Assessment for Students with Emotional or Behavioral Disorders, 26(4), 282-296.


[iv]. Quinn, Mary Magee et al. (1998), at p. 3.



[vi].   Quinn, Mary Magee et al. (1998).

[vii]   See Weinberg, Lois, Ph.D., What is a Functional Behavior Analysis, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA). Second Annual Conference, January 29-31, San /Diego, California (1999), Section Q.  Functional assessment procedures consist of two phases: descriptive analysis and experimental analysis. Descriptive analysis consists of collecting information for the purposes of developing a hypothesis about the functional relationship that affect targeted behaviors. An evaluator may use rating scales, interviews, and direct observation. To perform an experimental analysis, variables identified in the descriptive analysis are directly manipulated to verify the hypothesis statements. Penno, D.A, Frank, A.R.. & Wacker, D.P. (2000). Instructional Accommodations for Adolescent Students with Severe Emotional or Behavioral Disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 25(4), 325-343. See Heckman, K., Conroy, M., Fox. J., & Chait, A. (2000). Functional Assessment-Based Intervention Research on Students with or at Risk for Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in School Settings. Behavioral Disorders, 25(3), 196-210).


A functional assessment serves two primary purposes. First, it links to the selection of effective preventive strategies for problem behavior by identifying antecedent variables. Second, functional assessment identifies specific consequences that maintain problem behaviors. The results of functional assessment of consequence variables is to develop positive intervention strategies that focus on manipulating those consequences to decrease or eliminate problem behaviors, Choi, H.S., & Kim, U.J., (1998). Research Digest: Functional Assessment for Individuals with Problem Behaviors. Diagnostique, 23(4), 227-242.

[viii] Quinn, Mary Magee et al. (1998), at pp. 4-5.


[ix] Id. 7-8


[x]   Id. at 8.


[xi] Id. Quinn, Mary Magee et al. (1998), at p. 5.


[xii] Id. at p. 6.


[xiii]   Id. at 9. A sample scatterplot is attached as Appendix A.


[xiv] Id. at 9,12.


[xv] Id.


[xvi] Id. at 12.  A sample ABC Chart is attached as Appendix B.


[xvii] Id.


[xviii] Id. at 13.


[xix] Id.


[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id. at 14.


[xxii] Id. at 15.  A sample triangulation chart is attached as Appendix C.


[xxiii] Id.   A same problem behavior pathway chart is attached as Appendix D.


[xxiv] Id.


[xxv] Id. at 16.


[xxvi] Id. at 16-17.


[xxvii] Id. at 17. See Deveres, Leigh, Pitasky, Vicky, Esq.,  Ruesch, Gary, Ph.D., Understanding Student Behavior: A Guide to Functional Behavior Assessments. LRP Publications (1999) at p. 13.


[xxviii]   Clarke, S., Dunlap, G., Foster-Johnson, L., Childs. K., Wilson, D., White, R., & Vera A. (1995). Improving the conduct of students with behavioral disorders by incorporating student interests into curricular activities. Behavioral Disorders, 20, 221-227; Foster-Johnson, L., Ferro, I., & Dunlap. G. (1994). Preferred curricular activities and reduced problem behaviors in students with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 27, 493-504; Umbreit, J., & Blair, K.C. (1996). The effects of preference, choice, and attention on problem behavior at school. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 31, 151-161; Vaughn, B.J. (1994). Effects of student selection of tasks on problem behavior during instruction for students with severe disabilities. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Oregon.


[xxix]    DePaul. G.J., & Ervin, R.A. (1996). Functional Assessment of behaviors related to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Linking assessment to intervention design. Behavior Therapy, 27, 601-622; Fiore, T.A., Becker, E.A., & Nero, R.C. (1993). Educational interventions for students with attention deficit disorder. Exceptional Children, 60, 163-173.