Functional behaviour assessment (FBA) is a process for collecting information and devising effective behaviour support plans. It is particularly useful as an intervention in individual cases where standard disciplinary procedures have failed to reduce problem behaviour, but is also a valuable tool that provides information for problem solving behaviour issues at a broader, systemic level within the school.
FBA can be simple and quick, involving the input of a small number of adults and a limited amount of data; or it can be comprehensive and complex, involving a larger team effort, the formation of testable hypotheses, and various types of data collection and analysis. As the complexity of the problem increases, so does the complexity of the FBA process.
Relationship of FBA to Schoolwide Positive Behaviour Support
Functional behaviour assessment is a cornerstone of schoolwide positive behaviour support. Whether we are considering the behaviour of individual students or large numbers of students, attention to "function" is a key to successful intervention and support. Functional behaviour support plans focus attention on the specific purpose of problem behaviour in the context in which the behaviour occurs. The plan allows for environmental changes that make the behaviour unnecessary or irrelevant, and seeks to avoid aversive and punishing events to reduce problem behaviour by teaching students acceptable ways to get their needs met instead. Because FBA is most often used to treat chronic severe and challenging behaviour, it is especially important as an intervention at the secondary and tertiary levels (the 'yellow' and 'red' zones) of the schoolwide positive behaviour support triangle. One of the important reasons why the problem of 'white noise' (in the form of unnecessary and time-consuming office discipline referrals) is addressed in the primary stage of schoolwide positive behaviour support, is to free up resources needed for functional behaviour support in the secondary and tertiary stages.
Behaviours are Complex Interactions
Functional Behaviour Assessment is firmly grounded in behavioural theory, applied behaviour analysis, and positive behaviour support. The outcome of any intervention in positive behaviour support must include an increase in the person's quality of life. There are three impediments to quality of life: problem behaviour, skills deficits, and dysfunctional systems. Applied behaviour analysis has provided us with research validated procedures for reducing problem behaviours and for teaching the skills necessary for quality of life, and these are used extensively in FBA-based support plans.
The use of research-validated support procedures, however, often fails to ameliorate the problem behaviour in any sustainable way, thus leading to the common perception that the student is somehow "broken" or that the problem behaviours have become so entrenched and intractable that improvement is no longer possible. This is the point at which systemic approaches within positive behaviour support shift the focus to the actual context in which the research-validated interventions are being applied, to see if there are environmental factors that might explain the persistence of the problem behaviour. In other words, we are now going to apply our "PBS lens" to a consideration of those factors that potentially render the context - whether it be classroom or playground - "dysfunctional" and thus into an ineffective and inefficient environment in which to apply evidence-based practices.
Research in applied behaviour analysis informs us that behaviour is functionally related to the teaching environment. Every part of the school is a potential teaching environment. There is something the student is either trying to get or trying to avoid in that environment, and the goal of FBA is to discover what those things are, and what variables in that environment either inhibit or facilitate access or escape to those things. Such variables are not necessarily restricted to the various physical factors such as lighting, noise, or school and classroom layout, but include also factors such as school, playground and classroom behavioural management policies; and school and classroom management skills or lack of skills.
Overview of Functional Behaviour Assessment
The PowerPoint presentation below is designed to:
- situate functional behaviour assessment within the schoolwide positive behaviour support heuristic
- provide awareness of the importance of considering factors that occasion and maintain problem behaviour
- highlight the importance of identifying the functions or purposes that challenging behaviour serves for the learner
- ensure best practice in function-based support planning
View the PowerPoint presentation at the bottom of this page: "Summary of Function Based Behavioural Assessment"
Data Collection in Functional Behaviour Assessment
Data collection in functional behaviour assessment is the systematic observation and recording of behaviour. There are two types of data collection in FBA, direct observation data collection and indirect data collection
A. INDIRECT ASSESSMENT
In indirect assessment, questionnaires, interviews, inventories and rating scales are used to obtain information from the student and from adult mediators, such as the student's teachers and parents, guidance officers, and specialist teachers such as those in behaviour management or disability who are working with the student. This information is particularly important in the initial stages of the functional assessment.
View the PowerPoint presentation at the bottom of this page: "Indirect Data Collection in Functional Behaviour Assessment"
B. DIRECT OBSERVATION ASSESSMENT
Direct observation assessment is more accurate than indirect assessment, because an observer records each instance of the behaviour immediately it occurs. This method is usually more accurate than indirect assessment becasue a tarined observer can identify the various aspects of the target behaviour rather than having to rely on memory. The drawback for some classroom teachers is that they find it difficult to adjust to teaching and recording direct observation data simultaneously.
View the PowerPoint presentation at the bottom of this page: "Direct Observation Data Collection in Functional Behaviour Assessment"
Appendix 1: Aversive Events
"An aversive event is a stimulus or event one would ordinarily act to avoid" (LaVigna, 1992).
Aversive natural events occur in our lives all the time. For example, if I don't like walking and one day I forget to refuel my car, I might have to complete my journey doing something I would normally act to avoid. Other aversive events are decidedly unnnatural. For example, if each time I reached for an alcoholic drink I was given a contingent electric shock!
LaVigna and Willis argue from a values position against the use of aversive natural consequences for teaching individuals with chronic severe and challenging behaviour:
Such people have demonstrated their frequent inability to learn from natural consequences, and relying on these as a primary means of teaching social competencies is to "restart the downward cycle of experiences that have contributed to their current reputations."
Natural consequences may lead to situations of danger or to even further exclusion for people with severe reputations. For example, being separated from one's peers, being excluded from school, or being forced into a dangerous home situation as a result of one's behaviour.
To the extent that natural consequences are aversive they may serve to escalate problem situations involving people with severe and challenging behaviour. For example, some children may become aggressive following the delivery of an aversive natural consequence. (Willis and LaVigna, 1996:15)
Because they are things that a person would normally choose to avoid, aversive events are often built in to interventions involving punishment. This is a cultural nuance and has no basis in behavioural theory. It is a pity that Skinner chose to retain the term 'punishment' to describe an essentially neutral procedure (see Appendix 2, below).
Appendix 2: Punishing Events
Punishment is defined by its outcomes, not its intention
Punishing events are events following a behaviour which reduce the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again. Punishment may also bring a behaviour under rapid control - although usually only temporarily. Many teachers mistakingly believe that punishment is merely the presentation of an unpleasant consequence.
Punishment is "a consequence immediately following a particular behaviour with the result that the behaviour is less likely to occur again in the future" (Miltenberger, 2001).
Punishment is "an environmental change contingent on behaviour that produces a decrease in responding over time (Michael, 1993).
Punishment can be an applied consequence.
For example, when students are observed littering, the duty teacher instructs them to pick up their litter plus all other litter in the playground (a technique called 'overcorrection'). If this stops their littering and reduces the likelihood of their further littering in the future, then the punishment has been an applied consequence.
Punishment can be a naturally occurring consequence.
For example, confusing two small bottles in a medicine cabinet and putting solvent-based eardrops instead of eyedrops into one's eyes. Now that hurts! If the insertion of eardrops is immediately stopped and the future confusion of the two bottles is reduced, then the punishment has been naturally occurring.
Punishment can be positive.
'Positive' refers to the addition of some stimulus or event to a situation. The administration of an electric shock to the person reaching for the glass of alcoholic beverage, with the result that the person stops reaching for glass, is an example of 'positive' punishment. There are of course many more benign examples!
Punishment can be negative.
This is the opposite of negative punishment, in that a stimulus or event is removed - rather than added - to a situation. A teacher repeatedly withdrawing attention to a student raising their hand, with the result that the student stops raising their hand and reduces future hand-raising, is an example of negative punishment.
Punishment is not necesssarily aversive.
For example, a teacher observes a student in violent play and intervenes by talking to the student about pleasant things (a technique called 'stimulus change') with the result that the violent behaviour stops. Technically speaking, this intervention is punishment.
Punishment is an effect, not a thing.
The failure to understand this little point is very common. The statement by some teachers and parents, "I've tried punishment and it doesn't work" is oxymoronic (Maag, 2001:178) because, by definition, if an intervention did not function to decrease a behaviour then it was not punishment.
Punishment is reinforcing for many teachers.
For example, sending a student out of the room following problem behaviours often results in a 'balance' being restored to the classroom. Even if this outcome is only temporary and not assured each time a student is sent out it is often sufficient to increase the likelihood of the teacher's behaviour being repeated in the future. The teacher's punishing behaviour has been negatively and intermittently reinforced.
Problems with punishment.
View the PowerPoint presentation at the bottom of this page: "Problems With Punishment"
Appendix 3: Reinforcement and Reward
Reinforcement is a process that strengthens a behaviour. Reinforcement is therefore defined by its outcomes, not its intention.
Reinforcement strengthens behaviour, i.e. it increases the probability that the behaviour will occur in the future. This outcome is the opposite to that of punishment. Many teachers mistakeningly believe that positive reinforcement involves nothing more than giving out rewards consisting of stickers, lollies or certificates. Rewards are only potential reinforcements.
Reinforcement can be an applied consequence.
For example, a student experiencing difficulties in maths takes a problem to the teacher and the teacher praises her for seeking assistance. If the student increases the frequency of asking the teacher for help, then the praise can be considered reinforcing.
Reinforcement can be a naturally occurring consequence.
This is often the case with everyday interactions. For example, if a person asks someone a question and that person responds in a friendly and positive manner, then question asking has probably been reinforced and the interaction is likely to continue. (Maag, 2001:181).
Rewards and reinforcement are not the same thing.
Teachers often misunderstand this point. For example, a student may demonstrate acceptable behaviour in order to win a teacher award at the end of the week. If the student collects the reward and then stops demonstrating acceptable behaviour then the reward has not been reinforcing of good behaviour. A reward is therefore only a potential reinforcer. When good behaviour is only demonstrated when the reward is present then the condition of bribery applies.
Reinforcement is an effect, not a thing.
As for punishment, the statement by teachers, "I've tried positive reinforcement but it doesn't work" is oxymoronic because, by definition, if an intervention did not result in the strengthening of a behaviour then it was not reinforcement. The example of the reward (above) is a typical case in point.
Reinforcement can be positive.
Here, the occurrence of a behaviour is followed by the addition of a stimulus or event or an increase in the intensity of a stimulus or event, with the result that the behaviour is strengthened (Miltenberger, 2001). For example, a teacher rewards children for hand-raising with the result that hand-raising increases. As a result the teacher increases or strengthens her behaviour of rewarding the children.
Reinforcement can be negative.
In negative reinforcement, the occurence of a behaviour is followed by the removal of a stimulus or a decrease in the intensity of a stimulus with the result that the behaviour is strengthened (Miltenberger, 2001). For example, a teacher removes a disruptive student from the classroom with the result that the disruption is eliminated. As a result the teacher increases or strengthens his behaviour of removing disruptive students.
Negative reinforcement can be a cyclic trap.
For example, the teacher might well be negatively reinforced for sending a disruptive student from the classroom. However, if the student does not like the classroom anyway, then her disruptive behaviour will be negatively reinforced by the removal of an odious and boring 45 minutes in the room. This situation constitutes a trap called 'negative reinforcement cycle'.
Reinforcement strenghthens internal motivation.
This will always be the case as long as rewards and reinforcements are not confused. It is ironic that many teachers who claim that applying external reinforcement stifles intrinsic motivation have no qualms that applying external punishment will do the same thing.
Reinforcement is a science.
Like good behaviour management, positive reinforcement involves "analysing behaviour, deciding what to change, collecting information on the behaviours of concern, using schedules of reinforcement and monitoring progress - not to mention the plethora of techniques based on positive reinforcement that run the gamut from those that are teacher-directed to those that are student-directed" (Maag, ibid: 181-182)
Irvin, L.K., Tobin, T.J., Sprague, J.R., Sugai, G., & Vincent, C.G. (2004). "Validity of office discipline referral measures as indices of school-wide behavioural status and effects of school-wide behavioural interventions," Journal of Positive Behaviour Interventions Vol.6 No.3, Summer, 131-147.
LaVigna, G.W. (1992), 'Module One: A model for non-aversive behaviour management,' Positive Approaches to Solving Behaviour Challenges: A Video Training Series. Los Angeles: Institute for Applied Behaviour Analysis.
Maag, J. (2001). 'Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools.' Exceptional Children, Winter 2001; 67, 2;pp.173-186
Michael, J.L. (1993). Concepts and Principles of Behaviour Analysis. Kalamazoo, MI: Society for the Advancement of Behaviour Analysis.
Miltenberger, R.G. (2001). Behaviour Modification Principles and Procedures. Belmont CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Willis, T.J. & LaVigna, G.W. (1996). "Behavioural assessment: An overview," in Positive Practices [IABA newsletter] Volume 1 Number 3, 1; 11-19.