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Conducting a Functional Behavioral Assessment (3rd edition)

May 12, 1998


Rationale for Using Functional Behavioral Assessments to Develop Positive Behavior Interventions
Functional Assessment is a Team Effort
A Method for Conducting a Functional Behavioral Assessment
Direct and Indirect Measures of Student Behavior
Summary of Steps to Conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment
The Behavioral Intervention Plan
Additional Information on Functional Assessment
Appendix A: Scatterplots
Appendix B: ABC Charts
Appendix C: Functional Assessment Interview Forms
Appendix D: Sample Teacher and Student Interviews
Appendix E: Problem Behavior Questionnaire
Appendix F:  Data Triangulation Chart

Indirect Assessment

We know that student behavior usually is related to the context in which it occurs. However, the IEP team will not always be able to directly observe all the events that bring about or maintain specific student behavior. So-called "setting events" (sometimes referred to as slow triggers) can exist within the classroom (e.g., Charles is asked to join a new reading group), or be far removed from it but still exert a powerful influence over student behavior (e.g., Charles has an argument with another student at the bus stop before school). External events of this nature may increase the likelihood of conflict in the classroom, especially if the student is struggling academically and/or dislikes the subject matter. These setting events (or specific antecedents for the behavior) often may not be directly observable. In other cases, the behavior may be serious but not occur frequently enough in settings accessible to adults to be readily observed (e.g., verbal or physical aggression). In these instances, the behavior must be assessed by using indirect measures.

Methods of indirect assessment. Indirect or, as it is sometimes called, informant assessment, relies heavily on the use of interviews with teachers and other adults (e.g., bus drivers, cafeteria workers, office staff) who have direct contact with the student. (See Appendix C for a sample interview form.) In addition, a semi-structured interview with the student, himself, could provide insight into the student’s perspective of the situation and yield a more complete understanding of the reasons behind the inappropriate behavior. It may be useful to follow the same interview format with both the student and significant adults (e.g., special and regular classroom teachers, support personnel) and to compare these two sources of information. Even elementary aged students can be credible informants, capable of sharing accurate information about contextual factors that influence their behavior. Indirect measures can yield valuable information, but they usually are not as reliable as direct observation measures. For this reason, IEP teams must be careful not to put too much faith in information derived from informant accounts alone. Examples of interviews conducted with teachers and students to help determine the likely function of a student’s behavior are included in Appendix D.

Surveys or questionnaires are another source of indirect information. For example, a Problem Behavior Questionnaire can be administered to one or more teachers who have day-to-day contact with a student of concern (see Appendix E for sample Problem Behavior Questionnaire forms). Recalling a typical behavioral episode, teachers read 15 statements and circle a number on the questionnaire that corresponds to the percent of time each statement is true for that student. A second form is used for recording and interpreting the responses from everyone who completed a questionnaire for that student. Any item marked with a three or above on this profile form suggests the potential function of the problem behavior. If there are two or more statements scored as three or above (i.e., (50% of the time) under a particular sub-column (e.g., escape under peers or attention under adults), then it may indicate a possible primary function of the behavior.

In collecting information regarding the context of a behavior problem, it is important to understand that contextual factors may include certain affective or cognitive behaviors, as well. For instance, Juan repeatedly acts out and is verbally threatening during instruction when given lengthy and difficult assignments. Even so, it may not be the assignment itself that triggers the acting-out behavior. Rather, it may be the fact that he knows he doesn’t have the skills necessary to complete the work that prompts an anticipation of failure or ridicule. Or, he may have a family member who is critically ill; therefore, he finds it difficult to concentrate.

Accuracy of Behavior Measurement

There are a number of ways that accuracy in observing and recording student behavior and the social/environmental conditions that surround it can be jeopardized. Common problems include:

  • a vague definition of the behavior (e.g., Charles sometimes gets upset);
  • untrained or inexperienced observers;
  • difficulty observing multiple student behaviors (e.g., out of seat, off task, and rude gestures);
  • potential observer bias regarding the student’s behavior (e.g., the observer is subjected to repeated teacher complaints about the severity of the student’s classroom conduct); or
  • difficulty precisely capturing classroom interactions (e.g., observing a group learning activity in which students move about the classroom).

In the end, the usefulness of functional behavioral assessment depends on the skills and objectivity of the persons collecting the information. Accordingly, if the information is to be helpful to IEP teams, it must be reliable and complete information about the behavior. Those conducting the functional behavioral assessment must: a) clearly define the behavior of concern and regularly review that definition; b) have sufficient training and practice to collect observation and interview data; c) select the most appropriate assessment procedure(s) for both the behavior and the context; d) collect information across time and settings using multiple strategies and individuals; and, e) conduct routine checks of the accuracy of observer scoring/recording procedures.

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