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Functional assessment: What it is and how it works

By The Understood Team

At a Glance

  • Some students struggle to learn in school because of behavior challenges.

  • Schools use a process called functional behavioral assessment (FBA) to figure out what’s causing the behavior.

  • An FBA can lead to a plan for how to change the behavior.

When students have trouble in school, it’s not always because of academics. Often, behavior is the reason kids struggle. Kids may disrupt class, become withdrawn, or even not go to school. To help, schools use a special process to understand student behavior and decide what to do. It’s called a or FBA.

Learn about FBAs, what they can do for kids, and who has the right to get one.

What is a functional behavioral assessment?

An FBA is an approach to figuring out why a student acts a certain way. It uses different methods to understand what’s behind behavior challenges.

The basic idea is that a student’s behavior serves a purpose. Whether they know it or not, kids act in certain ways for a reason. If schools and families can understand what’s causing a behavior, they can find ways to change it.

Here’s a real-life example.

Aaron has strong math skills. But when the teacher hands out a math worksheet, Aaron gets angry, crumples up the paper, and throws it at classmates. He’s sent to the principal’s office, but the behavior continues and the teacher doesn’t know what to do.

The school does an FBA and learns that although Aaron is good at math, he has trouble showing his work on word problems. This is why he’s acting out — to avoid this stressful math situation. Now, the school can decide how to help.

A school team works on the FBA. The team is led by a person trained in understanding behavior, like a school psychologist or a behavior specialist. The FBA team may also include:

  • Teachers (both general and )

  • School administrators

  • Professionals who work with the student (counselors and speech therapists, for example)

  • The student and their family

The steps of a functional behavioral assessment

During an FBA, the team gathers information and uses it to make a plan to help with behavior. Here are the steps the team takes.

1. Define the behavior.

An FBA starts by defining a student’s behavior. Using vague or general language makes it hard to understand what’s happening. That’s why it’s important for the team to be specific and objective. For example, instead of saying the student is “disruptive” or “defiant,” the team can say the student “rips up worksheets and doesn’t respond when asked to show work in math class.”

2. Gather and analyze information.

After defining the behavior, the team pulls together information. It may look at school records, interview school staff who know and work with the student, and screen or test the student. The goal is to answer questions like:

  • When and where is this behavior happening?

  • Where is it not happening?

  • How often is the behavior occurring?

  • Who is around when it occurs?

  • What tends to happen right before and right after the behavior?

The student can help provide this information, too. Only kids know how they feel in the moment. Asking the student to try to keep track of feelings and emotions could help the team. It can also help for the team to note the reactions from classmates.

3. Find out the reason for the behavior.

Using the information collected, the team makes a best guess about what’s causing the behavior. It’s the team’s job to figure out what the student is getting from the behavior. It may be that the student is trying to escape or avoid something, for example.

4. Make a plan.

Next, the team tries to see if its best guess is right. The school psychologist or behavior specialist leads this part. It includes making changes at school to see if the behavior changes. To do this, the school creates a behavior intervention plan (BIP) to teach and reward positive behaviors by the student.

Using the above example about Aaron, it might help to give him the chance to explain work out loud rather than writing it. Or have the option to show work on some, but not all the problems. As the school learns more, they can adjust the plan.

Who gets a functional behavioral assessment

Not every student gets an FBA, even if there is a behavior problem. There are two situations when schools generally use FBAs.

First, an FBA is often part of a school evaluation for special education. An evaluation looks at all aspects of a student’s learning. If the evaluation team thinks that a student’s behavior is getting in the way of learning, it may do an FBA.

This can also happen if kids already have an or a , but the school has new behavior concerns. Legally, for these kids, the school must do an FBA if not doing one would deny the student an appropriate education.

Second, federal law requires an FBA in some cases when a student is disciplined or removed from school. (Sometimes schools do an FBA even when it’s not required.) It’s often done to evaluate risk for students who have serious behavior issues. This may involve threats, drugs, or even weapons.

What about kids who don’t have an IEP or a 504 plan, and who aren’t being removed from school? An FBA isn’t commonly used for these kids. The law doesn’t required it, either. But the student’s family can still ask for an FBA.

Your role in a functional behavioral assessment

An FBA may not be a quick solution to a student’s behavior challenges. But it can give a more complete picture of why kids are struggling. Together, schools and families can work together to take any next steps.

Are you an educator? Learn more about how to apply positive behavior strategies in your classroom. And find out why kids may act out as a way to communicate.

Are you a parent or family member? You can help by observing your child and telling the school what you’re seeing at home. Use a frustration log to help you keep track of behavior patterns.

Key Takeaways

  • Not every student with a behavior challenge gets a functional behavior assessment (FBA).

  • During an FBA, the school collects information and makes its best guess about the cause of the behavior.

  • Families and teachers have a role to play in the FBA process.


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