By: Lisa Bundrick, LMSW
The definition of “challenging behavior” varies depending on who is defining it. Through my experiences as a school social worker, I have found that behavior definitions can vary widely among individuals. Nonetheless, when students engage in “challenging behavior,” this can create many issues in the classroom. To help ensure student learning, “challenging behaviors” require carefully planned interventions. One of the assessment methods more commonly used in the school system to help assess “challenging” student behavior is the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). The purpose of this article is to give the reader an understanding of what a functional behavior assessment is, the process that is involved in completing one, and the components included in a thorough one. Upon reading this article, the reader will also begin to learn the possible reasons why students engage in “challenging behavior” and the steps to complete after the FBA is finished.
As social workers, we understand that student behavior affects learning, whether the results are positive or negative. When students are “on target,” one can surmise that they may retain more educational information. However, those who work with children and teenagers know that there are students who struggle to be “on target.” As social workers, we understand that there are students who present with “challenging behaviors,” which require interventions above basic classroom management procedures. One of the most complicated pieces of trying to understand challenging student behavior is trying to determine why students engage in these challenging behaviors. Determining this may be one of the social worker’s responsibilities, especially in a school setting. Whereas understanding behavior is a complex issue that is well beyond the scope of this article, social workers should have an understanding of the process involved in assessing human behavior. An assessment method that social workers may not be entirely familiar with is the functional behavior assessment. This is a strategy that is often utilized in the school system to aid in understanding “challenging behavior.”
A functional behavior assessment is an evaluation to try to gain an understanding of why a student engages in “challenging behavior” and how the behavior relates to the environment. A functional behavior assessment should be completed utilizing a team approach, which includes gathering information from all individuals working with the student (teachers, paraprofessionals, related service providers, administration, and parents), as well as the student her/himself. The information for a functional behavior assessment is usually gathered through indirect and direct assessments, which can include, but are not limited to, staff reports (they know the student the best!), direct observations of the student, parent and student reports, a review of records and available data, completed behavior rating scales, and social history reports (DeLorenzo, 2006).
Furthermore, a functional behavior assessment clearly identifies and defines “challenging behavior(s)” (DeLorenzo, 2006). During the functional behavior assessment process, the definition of the student’s “challenging behavior” is created. In addition, a functional behavior assessment identifies factors that contribute to the behavior and the factors that maintain the behavior (DeLorenzo, 2006). Those who are familiar with functional behavior assessment development usually refer to this as the “ABCs,” or antecedents, behaviors, and consequences (Friedman, 2000). The antecedents include what preceded the “challenging behavior.” The behaviors are the actual “challenging behavior” (defined in clear concrete terms). The consequences are what the student is obtaining by engaging in the “challenging behavior.” In addition, the functional behavior assessment documents settings where the “challenging behavior” occurs (classroom, hallway), people involved (teachers, paraprofessionals, peers, administration, parents) and times of day it most often occurs (DeLorenzo, 2006).
A functional behavior assessment also includes a numerical baseline of the “challenging behavior,” which helps one to measure for behavioral change (DeLorenzo, 2006). This data collection process can be challenging and time consuming, but is essential to understanding student behavior. A baseline can be measured by frequency (how often does the behavior occur?), duration (how long does the behavior last?), or intensity (low, medium, high).
After all of the information has been gathered, a hypothesis (the team’s best educated guess based on the information compiled for the assessment) is then formulated. When formulating a hypothesis, it is important for the team to remember that students usually act the way they do to get something or to avoid something. Some possible functions of student behavior include:
- Attention—student seeks to draw attention, positive or negative, from adults or peers by his or her actions
- Escape—avoidance of tasks, objects, people, attention, consequences
- Sensory—touching others, objects, difficulty with noise, sounds, seeing
- Tangible—wanting concrete objects
- Power or control—students may want to dominate or control setting, situations, activities, and people
- Justice or revenge—hurt feelings, lack of trust, lack of security or safety, student wants to settle the difference (Arner-Costello, 2004; Cafferata, 2005; Conroy, 2004).
Social workers may ask: Why do we need to do a functional behavior assessment, versus another type of behavior assessment? The reason is that many states have Department of Education regulations maintaining when and why a functional behavior assessment must be completed. (Check your state’s guidelines for additional information.) However, the foremost reason to complete a functional behavior assessment is to write an effective behavior intervention plan.
The behavior intervention plan includes strategies to help the student, with the help of his or her teachers, improve behaviors. Generally, one to two challenging behaviors are targeted when writing the behavior intervention plan. The behavior intervention plan includes prevention strategies (how can we modify things so the behavior doesn’t happen in the first place?), teaching new behavior strategies (what can the student do that is safe and healthy to meet his or her needs?), and consequences for behaviors (if the student continues to engage in the challenging behavior, what will happen? and if the student stops, how can we reinforce this?). The behavior intervention plan also includes, in clear and concrete terms, what the desired alternative behavior is that the student is expected to display. Finally, a behavior intervention plan includes a system of monitoring the chosen intervention(s) and a schedule to review and revise the plan (DeLorenzo, 2006).
Communication is needed between staff members to make the behavior intervention plan successful. Lastly, it generally takes four to eight weeks to see a change in behavior, and the behavior may get worse before it gets better. Be patient and consistent, and follow the behavior intervention plan.
This article provides a short overview of the functional behavior assessment and behavior intervention plan process for social workers. Examples are included. There is much more information for the reader to learn by exploring additional readings and trainings to become proficient in this complex topic.
References and Additional Reading
Arner-Costello, F. (2004). 1,2,3,4,5,6 Positive behavior support made simple. Venture County SELPA.
Cafferata, G. (2005). Behavior support planning. (March 21 & April 1).
Center for Effective Collaboration (1998). Addressing student problem behavior- part II: Conducting a functional behavioral assessment (3rd Ed.). (May 12). Available: http://cecp.air.org/fba/problembehavior2/Functional%20Analysis.PDF.
Conroy, M. (2004). Addressing challenging behavior in early childhood: Strategies for teachers and trainers. (September 24). Available: http://challengingbehavior.fmhi.usf.edu/presentations/DEC_Presentation.ppt.
DeLorenzo, J. (2006). New requirements for behavioral intervention plans, including the use of aversive behavioral interventions. The State Education Department/The University of the State of New York, Albany, NY.
Friedman, S. G. (2000). The ABCs of behavior. Available: http://www.mawebcenters.com/soaringspirit55426/abc.html.
Sample Functional Behavior Assessment
Student Name: John Anystudent
Date of Report Completion: 12/26/09
Review Date: 12/26/10
The information for this assessment was gathered through:
Information gathered from school staff members who work with John.
A review of attendance records.
A review of discipline referrals.
A review of the Social and Developmental Form completed by John’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Anystudent.
An assessment of John’s preferences for reinforcement.
Teacher responses on the Motivation Assessment Scale.
Reason for Referral:
John is a 12-year-old student attending the seventh grade at the ABC School District.
John was referred for a Functional Behavior Assessment by the Committee on Special Education in October 2009, as a result of the behaviors he demonstrates while in school. John currently receives special education in the area of Other Health Impaired with services identified in his Individual Education Plan, implemented at the beginning of the school year (September 2009). During a recent meeting with John's teachers about his school behaviors, it was discussed that John struggles with self-expression, following directions, and completing given tasks. It was discussed that John engages in behaviors such as yelling and appears to need to get the “last word” in after being given a directive he does not wish to comply with. It was also discussed that John might have low self-esteem, resulting from possible impairments in his social interactions. John has been a student at the ABC School District since the 2008-2009 school year. Prior to that, John attended XYZ School District, where he displayed similar behaviors in school. A Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plan is not currently in place. The purpose of this assessment is to assist the school to better understand John and some of the behaviors he may engage in while in school. This assessment will also provide John’s teachers and school staff with strategies to help John with his school progress.
Review of Records:
As of 12/26/09, John has received 20 referrals to the principal’s office for behaviors such as insubordination (refusal to follow staff member’s directives and instructions) and verbal aggression, during his time at the ABC School District.
As of 12/26/09, John has missed five days of school for the 2009-2010 school year, and two days for the 2008-2009 school year, which were due to a suspension out of school.
Social and Developmental History Form:
Mr. and Mrs. Anystudent did not note any specific areas of concern regarding John’s birth or developmental histories. John appears to have good general health, and no concerns with his vision or hearing have been noted. John has a medical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and has been prescribed Concerta by his pediatrician. Mr. and Mrs. Anystudent report that they are aware of John’s “defiant” school behaviors and report experiencing similar behaviors at home.
Student Reinforcement Responses:
In conversations with John, he acknowledged that he needed to improve his listening skills and completing his assignments in a timely manner. He did not note any particular reasons for his school behaviors, other than reporting that the assignments were hard, but he would not elaborate further. He noted the following items that may serve as possible behavior reinforcers for him:
• Friend time
• Verbal praise
• Privileges (walk around the school)
• Snacks (chips, gummy bears)
• Board games
• Card games
• Dirt bike magazines
Disruptive Behavior—John will openly defy, yell at school staff, and question most directives given to him by school staff (for example, “Why do I have to do this?” “This is stupid, I am not doing it”). He frequently seems to need to have the last comment in most conversations (example, “Whatever,” “Ughhhh”) after a directive is given.
Frequency and Duration:
Over a period of five days, eight classroom observations of forty-five minutes in length of John in various academic settings were completed. John appeared to be noncompliant at times and working on his own agenda. He struggled to complete tasks without much adult support. His attention appeared to be poor, and he appeared to not understand the expectations for classroom behavior. John appeared to be off-task several times (fidgeting with a pencil and paper clip). Based on these observations and teacher reports, it was determined that John engages in disruptive behaviors on average 1-3 times per class period. Each incident lasts 1-5 minutes. The behaviors appear to occur at various times throughout the school day.
Intensity of Behavior Rating Rubric:
Behavior is confined only to the named student (possible examples: not completing work, scowling, crossing arms, pouting, muttering under his or her breath, or quietly fidgeting).
Behavior disrupts others in the student’s immediate area (possible examples: fidgeting with an audience, slamming textbook closed, dropping objects on the floor, name calling, using inappropriate language/gestures, refusal to follow staff directions, or trouble with social peer interactions).
Behavior disrupts everyone in the class (possible examples: throwing objects, yelling, open defiance of teacher directions, or leaving the classroom).
Behavior disrupts other classrooms or common areas of the school (possible examples: throwing objects, yelling, open defiance of school personnel’s directions, or leaving the school campus).
Behavior causes or threatens to cause physical injury to student or others (possible examples: threats of hands-on contact with others, actual hands-on contact with others, or display of weapons/perceived weapons).
John’s behaviors range in intensity from medium to high.
Settings, People Involved Where Target Behavior Occurs:
According to teacher report, observations, and discipline records, the disruptive behavior generally occurs in the classroom settings during independent work times. The disruptive behavior tends to occur at various times during the day, but more so during academic classes (math, science, social studies, English), rather than in special classes (art, physical education, computers, music).
Antecedent Behaviors to Target Behavior:
The disruptive behavior appears to occur after John experiences negative interactions with his peers or after John perceives he has experienced a negative interaction with his peers. The disruptive behavior also occurs after John is assigned an independent academic task.
Consequences of the Target Behavior:
As a result of the disruptive behaviors, the teacher issues a warning to John and/or sends John to the principal’s office, with a discipline referral for his behaviors, at which time his parents are contacted. John has received time spent in the school’s alternate learning environment room, after school detention, and both in-school suspension and out-of-school suspension as consequences to his behaviors. In response to the disruptive behaviors, his peers laugh at the situation and appear to encourage him to continue the disruptive behaviors.
John is a 12-year-old student attending the seventh grade at the ABC School District.
John was referred for a Functional Behavior Assessment by the Committee on Special Education in October of 2009, because of the behaviors he demonstrates while in school.
John appears to have an inability to stop and think before acting, which may be influencing some of his disruptive behaviors. John also appears to be lacking in social skills and appears to have low self-esteem. According to staff member responses on the Motivation Assessment Scale, John may engage in disruptive behaviors to obtain attention. John may find the disruptive behavior rewarding, as it gives him the attention he appears to crave. It is also hypothesized that John may engage in disruptive behavior because he does not have mastery of the necessary basic academic skills.
Sample Behavior Intervention Plan
Provide clear expectations and rules for behavior (verbally and visually) and refer to classroom rules often.
Provide John with a consistent daily routine that is visual and gone over verbally.
Seat John in a location with minimal distractions, near a positive role model.
Immediately reinforce (“Great job,” thumbs up, high five) all appropriate attempts at communication and other appropriate behaviors.
Contract with John to complete a certain amount of work, then allow John the opportunity to engage in a preferred activity.
Call John by his name and establish eye contact before providing directions.
After giving directions to the entire class, privately approach and ask John to repeat the directions to check for understanding.
Break assignments into smaller more manageable parts.
Break down longer directions into smaller parts.
Provide consistent encouragement to acknowledge difficult tasks.
Defer control to avoid power struggles (example, blame the schedule, the program, the rules).
Wait until there is more privacy and tension is low to talk to John, if he is being oppositional.
Deflect arguing—“nevertheless” here is what must happen.
Use controlled choices—“You can do A or you can do B.”
Use “I need you to” rather than “You need to” statements.
Ask John to complete a minimum of three behaviors with which he has a high probability of compliance (example, “Please help me hand out papers,” “Please help me pass back papers,” “Please help me straighten chairs,” “Please erase the board for me”) in succession immediately before making a request with which he has a low probability of complying. (Once the momentum of compliance is started, it is more likely to continue with low probability responses.)
Teaching Alternative Behavior(s):
Teach John to self-monitor his behavior by asking him how he thinks he did, then explaining how you think he did, then coming up with a plan for improvement (if needed).
Teach John problem-solving skills (this is the problem, these are possible choices, what will happen if I…, make the best choice possible).
Role play challenging situations and appropriate actions.
Teach John to ask for help if needed.
Consequences for the Targeted Behavior(s):
If John is off-task, prompt with, “What’s supposed to be happening right now?”
Speak in a calm, emotionless voice if John is defiant. You may have to sound like a broken record.
Preferred activities will be contingent upon John making positive behavior choices.
Non-verbal redirection (clearing of the throat, the “eye”)
Loss of privilege
Contact with parents and discipline referral with consequence per school policy
John will improve his communication skills and calmly express his point of view or thoughts when disagreeing with a school staff member.
Behavior Evaluation Method:
Teacher reports and data collection sheets (a tally sheet with the number of times John displays disruptive behaviors, as defined in this report) will be submitted weekly, as progress monitoring will be ongoing. John’s behavior intervention plan will be discontinued when the frequency of the disruptive behavior decreases by 90 percent from the present level of 1-3 times per class period.
Lisa Bundrick received her MSW from the University at Albany, State University of New York, a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Plattsburgh State University of New York, and an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Adirondack Community College. She holds her New York State permanent certification as a School Social Worker for grades K-12 and her license in New York State as a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Lisa also received a Certificate of Completion in Field Instruction for social work field instructors from the University at Albany, State University of New York.
Her career related experiences in the field of education include working with students and staff in charter and public schools, as well as in a community college. As a school social
worker, she works with students in individual, small group, and classroom settings. She has also been the field instructor of an undergraduate and graduate social work intern. In addition, she is a published author on several topics relating to school social work. She is currently employed as an elementary school social worker in a public school district.
This article if from the Spring 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2010 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.