WHY A FUNCTIONAL
Although professionals in the field hold a variety of philosophical beliefs, they generally agree that there is no single cause for problem behaviors. The following examples illustrate some of the underlying causes for "acting-out" behavior:
Maurice, a 10 year old who finds multiplication of fractions difficult, becomes frustrated and throws tantrums when asked to complete worksheets requiring him to multiply fractions; and
Kerry, a 12 year old who has problems paying attention, is so overstimulated by what she sees out of the window and hears in the nearby reading group, she slams her text shut and loudly declares that she cannot work.
A conclusion gleaned from these examples may be that, although the topography (what the behavior looks like or sounds like) of the behaviors may be similar, in each case, the "causes," or functions, of the behaviors are very different. Thus, focusing only on the topography will usually yield little information about effective interventions. Identifying the underlying cause(s) of a students behavior, however, or, more specifically, what the student "gets" or "avoids" through the behavior, can provide the IEP team with the diagnostic information necessary to develop proactive instructional strategies (such as positive behavioral interventions and supports) that are crafted to address behaviors that interfere with academic instruction.
To illustrate this point, again consider the acting-out behaviors previously described. Reactive procedures, such as suspending each student as a punishment for acting-out, will only address the symptoms of the problem, and will not eliminate the embarrassment Juan feels, Sumis boredom, the frustration that Maurice is experiencing, or Kerrys overstimulation. Therefore, each of these behaviors are likely to occur again, regardless of punishment, unless the underlying causes are addressed.
Functional behavioral assessment is an approach that incorporates a variety of techniques and strategies to diagnose the causes and to identify likely interventions intended to address problem behaviors. In other words, functional behavioral assessment looks beyond the overt topography of the behavior, and focuses, instead, upon identifying biological, social, affective, and environmental factors that initiate, sustain, or end the behavior in question. This approach is important because it leads the observer beyond the "symptom" (the behavior) to the students underlying motivation to escape, "avoid," or "get" something (which is, to the functional analyst, the root of all behavior). Research and experience has demonstrated that behavior intervention plans stemming from the knowledge of why a student misbehaves (i.e., based on a functional behavioral assessment) are extremely useful in addressing a wide range of problems.
The functions of behavior are not usually considered inappropriate. Rather, it is the behavior itself that is judged appropriate or inappropriate. For example, getting high grades and acting-out may serve the same function (i.e., getting attention from adults), yet, the behaviors that lead to good grades are judged to be more appropriate than those that make up acting-out behavior. For example, if the IEP team determines through a functional behavioral assessment that a student is seeking attention by acting-out, they can develop a plan to teach the student more appropriate ways to gain attention, thereby filling the students need for attention with an alternative behavior that serves the same function as the inappropriate behavior.
By incorporating functional behavioral assessment into the IEP process, the IEP team can gain the information needed to develop a plan or include strategies in the IEP, and IEP team members can develop a plan that teaches and supports replacement behaviors, which serve the same function as the problem behavior, itself (e.g., teaching Maurice to calmly tell the teacher when he feels frustrated, and to ask for assistance when he finds a task too difficult to accomplish). At the same time, strategies may be developed to decrease or even eliminate opportunities for the student to engage in behavior that hinders positive academic results (e.g., making sure that Maurices assignments are at his instructional level).