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What Is Functional Behavior Assessment and How Can it Be used to Support the Whole Child?

March 24th, 2022

Student behavior can be difficult to address. When students misbehave in the classroom, they can:

  • Disrupt class
  • Have general school refusal
  • Become withdrawn; or
  • Start skipping out on class altogether

As an educator, it is important to determine the cause of the behavior in order to help change it so that all students can be successful in the classroom. A functional behavioral assessment (FBA) may be necessary if a student’s challenging behavior interferes with learning, be it for the student exhibiting the behavior and/or for other students in the learning environment. 

Continue reading to determine if a functional behavioral assessment is needed for students who display disruptive or problematic behaviors. In this article, we discuss: 

  • What is a functional behavioral assessment (FBA)
  • What are the six steps in a functional behavioral  assessment; and
  • More

Table of Contents

  • What Is Functional Behavioral Assessment?
  • Functional Behavioral Assessment Starts With Understanding the ABCs
  • What Is Included in a Functional Behavioral Assessment? The 6 Step Process 
  • When Is a Functional Behavioral Assessment Necessary?
  • What Is an Example of Functional Behavioral Assessment?
  • How Illuminate Education Helps Educators Support the Whole Child Through Functional Behavioral Assessment

What Is Functional Behavioral Assessment?

A functional behavioral assessment (FBA) identifies problem behaviors, and the environmental functions of those behaviors, that interfere with learning in children and provides recommendations to reduce or replace them — it is recommended that FBAs be implemented before placing a child into an intervention. 

Think of an FBA as an evaluation based on a child’s behavior. FBA should identify both positive and negative behaviors, and in addition, get a complete picture of the child. This will allow intervention to be tailored to the student’s unique needs.

During FBA, collect granular data when a behavior occurs, such as:

  • The time the behavior occurred
  • The learning environment
  • Those who were with the child
  • The subject being taught
  • Incident location
  • The antecedent(s) that led to the behavior
  • The function the behavior served (i.e., avoiding group work, etc.) 

The data collected from an FBA is what drives the next steps in providing support to the student. If we want intervention to be successful, we must match the intervention with the function of the behavior.

Functional Behavioral Assessment Starts With Understanding the ABCs

Functional Behavioral Assessments are used to determine the function or purpose of an interfering behavior.

During this assessment, the “ABCs” will be examined: 

    • A (antecedent) — What happens before the behavior
    • B (behavior) — What behavior occurs
    • C (consequence) — What happens after the behavior

To help determine the function or purpose of an interfering behavior, functional behavioral assessments involve six different steps.

What Is Included in a Functional Behavioral Assessment? The 6 Step Process

Step 1: Data Collection

The first step in a Functional Behavioral Assessment is collecting as much data as possible to determine the interfering behavior. 

Collecting this information under various conditions can help determine the context of specific behaviors. This information allows educators to get ahead of problem behaviors by predicting when the behavior may or may not occur. 

There are two methods that can be used to collect data … 

      1. Direct observation
      2. Indirect observation
Direct Observation

The difference between direct and indirect observation is that the data collected during a direct observation is done by observing the student in settings or situations in which the challenging behavior typically occurs. When a direct observation is performed, it is best to also observe the student compared to one or two control students. This provides additional data on how the behavior of the observed student compares to the behavior of other students.

Indirect Observation

Indirect observations involve gathering information via interviews from people that know the student well and interact with them regularly. 

Information obtained during these interviews should include: 

        • How often the behaviors occur
        • How intense the behaviors are
        • What events might be influencing the negative behavior
        • What events occur immediately before and immediately after the behavior; and

The assumed function of the problem behavior (e.g. is it attention-seeking behavior?)

Step 2: Analyze the Data

Once the data has been collected, an analysis of the indirect data should be done to identify any consistent patterns, common responses, or similar observations. 

Next, once indirect data has been collected, review all the direct data as well to identify patterns in:

      • How the student responds to antecedents
      • How any adults or peers respond to the behavior
      • What happens after the behavior
      • Consequences of the behavior

Finally, compare the direct data with the indirect data. If the data is in agreement, it may suggest a strong explanation for why the behaviors are happening. 

If the observations are not in agreement, both types of observations should continue to be conducted.

Step 3: Develop Hypothesis

To create an effective plan, forming a hypothesis about why a student misbehaves is essential. Developing a hypothesis can be broken down into three parts: 

      1. Function — What is the desired response or activity the student hopes to receive? Is it to get attention? 
      2. Skill deficit — Is the student struggling to perform at the behavioral or academic level expected of them? 
      3. Performance deficit — Does the student know the academic or behavioral skill but chooses not to perform it?

The hypothesis should define …  

      • Why the displayed behavior might be occurring
      • The student’s purpose for displaying said behaviors 

… and be used as a guide to creating a Behavior Support Plan.

Step 4: Behavior Support Plan

Observers should create a plan that addresses any behaviors identified in the FBA process and include strategies that will … 

      • Address antecedents of the behavior
      • Teach replacement behaviors 
      • Provide consequences that are maintaining the problem behavior in an appropriate manner

… and specifically addresses a measurable, clearly-stated behavior.

Step 5: Implementing a Behavioral Intervention Plan

Implementing an effective behavioral intervention plan involves providing educators and family members with clear information on: 

      • The one or two target behaviors being addressed
      • Strategies that will be used to change the behavior
      • When the strategies will be implemented
      • Who will implement the strategies
      • How educators and family members will know if the support plan is working; and
      • A schedule to follow up and evaluate the progress and success of the support plan

Step 6: Evaluate

When evaluating a functional behavioral assessment, the evaluator should monitor two main things: 

      1. If the plan is being followed appropriately
      2. How well it is changing the student’s negative behaviors 

Making periodic progress checks is necessary in order to see whether the support plan is making a positive impact. 

If the problem behavior is persistent, moving into the assessment phase may be necessary.

When Is a Functional Behavioral Assessment Necessary?

When a student exhibits behavior that limits or inhibits their ability to learn within the parameters of the classroom or school environment, the assessment is a helpful tool. 

Functional Behavioral Assessments should identify both positive and negative behaviors to get a clear picture of the whole child. This can help inform instruction and intervention for the student.

Typically, Functional Behavioral Assessments are conducted in response to student behaviors that cause concern among:

    • Parents
    • Teachers
    • Educators; and/or
    • Community members

The concern is often that the student may have emotional or behavioral problems — these are behaviors that may interfere with their ability to learn and grow personally.

Functional Behavioral Assessments can be coordinated with other efforts to better understand a student’s situation. For example, in addition to 

    • SAT or ACT prep
    • Confirmation of a disability, or

Development of an Individual Learning Plan

An Example of When a Functional Behavioral Assessment Might Be Used for an IEP

A Functional Behavior Assessment is often conducted as a first step for teachers or practitioners to understand why a learner, including students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), may be engaging in interfering behaviors.

 A few examples of questions asked during the Functional Behavioral Assessment: 

      • How long has this behavior affected the learner’s development and learning?
      • Are there signs of aggression or damage to property?
      • Are environmental factors responsible for the behavior?
      • What time and place does this behavior occur? 

Upon becoming aware of the behavior’s purpose, teachers/practitioners can then develop interventions to reduce its occurrence.

To address these behaviors in learners, teachers/practitioners commonly use:

      • Functional communication training
        • Oftentimes, verbal language can be confusing for students. This is especially true with learners with ASD. To help communicate, consider using picture icons, communication scripts that include visuals, or social stories. 
      • Differential reinforcement
        • It is important to be aware when behavior is reinforced/acknowledged. Be strategic when behavior is recognized. For example: Positively reinforce only the desired behavior when exhibited by the student and ignore undesired behaviors when exhibited. 
      • Response interruption/redirection
        • Students form patterns of behavior. This happens for positive behavior as well as negative behavior. Therefore, when an undesired behavior begins, immediately introduce a prompt or distractor (i.e. redirect the student). This diverts the student’s attention from the negative behavior and limits the “pattern of behavior” for the student. Interrupting the pattern of behavior when undesired behavior is exhibited helps the student form new patterns of positive behavior.
      • Extinction
        • The ultimate goal is to have the negative behavior end and, in turn, have the desired behavior performed and remain. Therefore, take away current reinforcement/consequences (which are typically provided unintentionally) to decrease/extinct the negative behaviors. 
      • Stimulus control/environmental modification.
        • Oftentimes, environmental stimuli can lead to a pattern of behavior. Assess the learning environment and remove stimuli that lead to negative behavior and introduce stimuli that lead to positive behavior.

What Is an Example of Functional Behavioral Assessment?

The table below provides a detailed example of how a Functional Behavioral Assessment works: 

The antecedent: Mr. Smith announces it’s time to clean up the art supplies, wash their hands, and head to lunch. As the school year continues, Mr. Smith notices a trend of behaviors from Marissa:

The hypothesis: Marissa is seeking attention from the teacher. 

The plan for Marissa:  Help Marissa understand that she can gain positive attention by: 

    • Encouraging her to explain to Mr. Smith that she likes to finish what she is working on without feeling rushed
    • Using a stool to promote independence at the hand-washing sink
    • Following directions on the first prompt

How Mr. Smith can Support Marissa: Mr. Smith can further support Marissa by:

    • Allowing Marissa to be the line leader the next time she finishes her task accordingly
    • Positively acknowledging Marissa when she follows directions on the first prompt (and continuing this pattern for continued classes)
    • Ringing a bell for a two-minute warning so Marissa has time to complete her task without feeling rushed

How Illuminate Education Helps Educators Support the Whole Child Through Functional Behavioral Assessment

Data-driven approaches to serving the whole child is at the heart of Illuminate Education.

Our solution combines …

    • Social-emotional behavior (SEB) screening to identify any SEB skill deficits
    • Methods for direct and indirect observations which can be viewed alongside other whole child data
    • Methods to complete FBAs directly within the system
    • Methods for educators to create and monitor interventions that are created from an FBA
    • Actionable plans where progress can be assessed and the next best step can be taken
    • Detailed assessment
    • Management and collaboration of MTSS; and
    • Dashboards in real-time

… and places them in educators’ hands.

As a result, educators can:

    • Continually monitor learning and growth
    • Identify the academic and social-emotional needs of the student, and 
    • Optimize learning for each student by aligning targeted support.

Are you ready to discover the one-stop-shop for all your district’s educational needs? Contact us today.




Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. By combining comprehensive assessment and MTSS management and collaboration tools, the Illuminate Solution enables educators to accurately assess learning, identify needs, align whole child supports, drive system-level improvements, and equitably accelerate growth for every learner.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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