What is a Functional Behavior Assessment?

What is a Functional Behavior Assessment?





(And Why Does it Matter to My Child?)

Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs) are probably most often found on the charts in the Special Education department at your child’s school. However, they are great tools for all parents and educators – even for the brightest and most adaptive kids in the classroom – because even those bright and capable kids have moments and phases when we might not be sure how to help them navigate their emotions and their reactions. Even if your child has no diagnosed learning or behavioral issues, behavior assessments are great tools to learn about what makes your child tick – and how you can help him keep ticking on track.

It All Begins with ABC

Often when negative behaviors became disruptive in classrooms, the ABC approach was used in order to determine how to help students be more successful in classrooms. Originally schools, physicians, and parents assessed children’s behaviors on the ABCs of behaviors:

Antecedent (what is happening right before the behavior)

Behavior (what it involved, how long it lasted, etc.)

Consequences (what were the responses around the child, including by people and the environment)

This simple model is an easy and effective strategy for parents to specifically isolate behaviors they wish or need to change in their children. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with the emotions that misbehaviors cause that we fail to recognize these basic ingredients.

If your preschooler has been throwing toys lately, give the situation the ABC assessment.

  • Are there one or two things that usually happen before the toy-throwing? (frustration with a sibling, awakened from a nap, etc.)  
  • Are the toys being thrown at people? Is it one toy or a whole barrage of flying teddy bears and blocks?
  • Who is impacted by the behavior and how do they respond? (siblings fight back, cry, run away, etc.)

Once you can isolate all of these factors you have a better likelihood of positively impacting the factors and the outcomes.

From ABC to FBA

In 1997 the federal government revised the methods that school officials used to address behavior issues and moved from the ABC method to the FBA – Functional Behavioral Assessment. This new and improved model looks more closely at the relationships between the behaviors and the possibilities for the children to be successful in the tasks at hand. It involves biological, social, environmental, and emotional contributions that all lead to the behaviors and the responses to those behaviors. It is a stepped up model of the ABC approach, but parents can still learn from the basics of this approach.

The FBA plan requires more detailed collections of information regarding the behaviors, including the steps of the ABCs, as well as forming hypotheses about why and how the child receives a payoff. Payoff is an important idea, as kids will pursue behaviors that work. The FBA approach also includes assessing the abilities of kids – do they have the skills and abilities to behave differently? Are there learning disabilities? Are there skills that need to be learned or enhanced? Some of these might just be issues of age appropriateness – as a toddler just might not have the verbal communication skills of a 3rd grader. This totallic viewpoint helps to formulate a plan for success.

Imagine you’re a parent of a child who has learned to yell when communicating in order to get the point of a conversation across, especially when that child is confronted with opposing ideas.

  • What is the behavior that needs to be changed? (yelling as a way of communicating)
  • What new behavior is needed instead? (speaking respectfully instead of yelling)
  • What is the payoff for the bad behavior? (quick attention and control)
  • What are the consequences of the behavior? (parents get upset, friendships are struggling)
  • What usually precedes the yelling? (a disagreement, especially about following rules or ideas of the misbehaving child)
  • Is the child capable of speaking respectfully? (there are no medical reasons for yelling, child can communicate calmly when the situation isn’t confrontational)

Developing answers to the kinds of questions listed above can help parents determine how to use behavior management tools to improve the behaviors. While I’m usually the last one in line to serve up tests and diagnostic acronyms for our children, I do think there can be a lot learned from these basic assessment tools, and they are valuable for parenting all types of kids in varieties of situations. The next time your child repeats a negative behavior, remember to try the FBA assessment. Then just make sure to also provide the LOVE from MOM.

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