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Functional behavior assessment in classroom settings: scaling down to scale up

Scott, T., Alter, P. & McQuillan, K. (2011). Functional behavior assessment in classroom settings: scaling down to scale up. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46(2), 87-94.

Objective: Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) was first mandated by federal law in 1997 with the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and was again authorized in 2004.  FBA has a long history in the field of behavior analysis and a predominant use in clinical based settings.  Upon the authorization of IDEA 1997 FBA became known in the more applied settings of schools.  It is the hallmark strategy for assessment and intervention when designing interventions for challenging behaviors.  Rather than examining the topography, or what the behavior looks like, FBA examines the function or purpose of the behavior within the context that the behavior occurs.  There are five identified critical components of FBA although there is much debate about the necessary and sufficient actions within each phase.  The general agreement is that FBA includes (a) an operational definition of problem behavior, (b) identification of predictable antecedent-behavior-consequence chains, (c) determination of stimulus control and operant function, (d) determination of an appropriate functional replacement behavior, and (e) manipulation of antecedent and consequence events to facilitate the replacement behavior.  Research indicates that FBA is demonstrated as an effective practice for students with disabilities although it is identified that most teachers do not possess the training required to effectively implement FBA using the current complexity and formality of how FBA is conceptualized. “ It is a reasonable contention that scaling FBA up to be appropriate for typical classroom application will require scaling down- simplifying both the conceptualization and practices associated with an effective FBA.”

Discussion: The authors discuss how to potentially scale down the FBA process to make it more conducive for teachers in the classroom setting.  They identify that first the jargon-laden language and professional vernacular are difficult for those outside the field to understand therefore simplifying language and the use of acronyms will make the process easier to conduct.  Second, the use of obtuse statements should be avoided because these types of statements may be meaningless to those who are not behavioral experts.  Third, the simplification of the procedures while maintaining the integrity required for effective intervention is key.  Next they look at clarifying realistic FBA practice.  The categories the authors looked at were defining behavior, describing context, constructing a functional hypothesis, teaching replacement behavior, and functional consequences.  In defining behavior they state that asking a teacher to provide a functional hypothesis is the epitome of turning an easy task into a difficult one.  All that is really required in this step is a description of the behavior that is clear enough that anyone could replicate the behavior based on the description. In describing context it should be asked about when the behavior is most likely to occur and not occur.  The when/where provides the setting events while the second is what would be happening provides the antecedent trigger.  A functional behavior pathway can be used to help illustrate this.  The constructing of a general hypothesis basically focuses on why people behave the way they do specifically looking at if the behavior helps the person get what they want or helps them to get away from things they do not like.  FBA is not complete until an intervention plan is in place. The intervention plan includes teaching a replacement behavior that achieves the same outcome as the problem behavior.  Teaching a replacement behavior tells the student what is desired, when it should occur, and why it should occur.  The remaining part of a completed FBA is the development of functional consequences for both the problem and replacement behaviors.


The authors associate the process to that of an academic procedure of error analysis. The steps taken to perform an error analysis are similar to those taken to conduct an FBA.  The process for both is more efficient and effective when people using the process speak the same language, use a variety of prompts and reminders, provide graphics to the process and coach as necessary to mastery.


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