Functional Behavior Analysis:

FBA sounds much more complicated than it really is and anyone who tells you different is mistaken. However, there are a few basic elements that you must understand to do them properly.

Functional Behavior Analysis requires one to determine the purpose of the behaviors being examined. Usually we only examine behaviors when they are causing trouble for us in some way. However, the value we place on the behaviors has nothing to do with assessing their purpose. For example, we could easily perform a functional assessment of an adaptive behavior such as raising one’s hand to ask a question. Here is how that might look:

As the basic initial step, we must clearly define the behavior of concern. We do this by describing in detail that is sufficient to allow any reader to recognize the behavior when it occurs. “Hand raising occurs when the subject extends his or her arm vertically so that the bottom of the hand is held at least two inches above the top of the subject’s head and remains in this position for five seconds or longer.”

After we have clearly defined the behavior, we then are able to say with certainty whether or not it has occurred within a specified time of observation. In this way, the frequency of the behavior can be recorded and described. This is important because it allows us to then learn with reasonable certainty if a specific behavior change intervention has resulted in an increase or decrease in the frequency or intensity of the behavior. While this process alone will go quite a way toward helping you in practical applications such as a behavior modification plan, it does not yet reach what is meant by “Functional Behavioral Assessment (or “Analysis”).

To do this, only a few more steps are necessary. First, you must identify the antecedents of the behavior. As you recall, antecedents are the events that occur immediately before the behavior of interest is observed. What we really mean here is noting the most salient events, those that you can use your own judgment to determine are probably important factors influencing the behaviors of concern. Let’s consider the following sequence of events, representing one of the most common problem behaviors that interferes with instruction time.

An instructor tells a class of students to begin working on a paper and pencil task at their desks. Approximately five seconds after the teacher has completed giving the instruction, one student loudly exclaims “Teacher! I don’t have a pencil! I can’t work without a pencil! Do you have one I can use?” The teacher then responds by lending the student a pencil, having the student return to her locker to get one, or perhaps by ignoring the student’s verbalizations. In this case, the undesirable behavior is the inappropriately loud verbalization and demand for a pencil. The antecedent or salient trigger for the behavior is the teacher instructing the class to begin working.

What are the possible functions of this behavior? There are really only a few basic functions that any behavior can serve. Here is a simple list of those that are most likely to be related to problems in the classroom or home:

Escape/Avoidance: The function of the behavior is to avoid unpleasant, frustrating or anxiety-provoking situations or demands.

Self-soothing/Calming: The function of the behavior is to provide the individual with feelings of relaxation and reduction of unpleasant tension states.

Tension Release: The function of the behavior is to directly or indirectly express negative emotional experience that has caused a feeling of internal tension.

Arousal/Stimulation: The function of the behavior is to provide the individual with some type of sensory experience that is pleasurably exciting.

Power/Control: The function of the behavior is to give the individual a feeling or sense of control and efficacy that s/he finds rewarding.

Social Interaction: The function of the behavior is to provoke socially interactive behaviors that are inherently rewarding.

Acquisition of Desirable Objects or Activities: The function of the behavior is to increase the likelihood that the individual will obtain some desired object or privilege. (This function is actually a slightly more complicated drive that is composed of one, several or all of the basic functions above.)

Please be aware that many of the behaviors that are disruptive or otherwise undesirable often have more than one function. For example, when a student screams angrily shortly after the teacher gives the instruction to begin working on an assignment, then refuses to quiet down and is eventually sent to the principal’s office, the behavior has several functions. One is clearly tension release (through screaming loudly), a second is escape/avoidance (avoiding the task of completing the assignment at the time) and probably power/control (drawing attention to herself, eliciting behavioral indicators from the teacher that he or she is becoming frustrated, angry and/or frightened.)

Because individuals derive different qualities of satisfaction from similar behaviors it is necessary to carefully observe and record the patterns of behavior so that you can be reasonably sure you have identified the primary functions that drive the individual. When you have adequately determined what factors drive the behavior you can help the person satisfy the need in a more acceptable manner. For example, if the primary function of a behavior is tension release, you could provide the person with a resistant squeeze toy that he or she could use to exert some muscular force in response to increased emotional or phsyical tension.  If the primary purpose and function of the behavior is to increase the sense of power and control, consider using a formal behavior modification program to let the person experience a greater sense of predictability and reward in response to more adaptive behaviors.  You can create your own individualized plan quickly and easily here:

Individual Behavior Plan Creator.

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