When I first learned about Functional Behavioral Assessment, I thought it was great.

FBAs help adults to better understand children with challenging behavior by objectively observing students, noting antecedents to challenging behaviors, and naming the “function” that the challenging behavior serves. Sources vary on the “true number” of possible functions, but it’s generally between 2 and 4. From the North Shore Pediatric Therapy site:

The four main functions that maintain behaviors are:

  • Escape/Avoidance: The individual behaves in order to get out of doing something he/she does not want to do.
  • Attention Seeking: The individual behaves to get focused attention from parents, teachers, siblings, peers, or other people that are around them.
  • Seeking Access to Materials: The individual behaves in order to get a preferred item or participate in an enjoyable activity.
  • Sensory Stimulation: The individual behaves in a specific way because it feels good to them.

Once you have identified what function or functions are maintaining the behavior, you can start to implement an intervention that will help decrease the problem behavior and increase more appropriate behaviors.

But what if FBAs that seek to name the function of a child’s behavior, while well-meaning, are actually asking the wrong question?

From Ross Greene’s Lost and Found:

Key Theme 2: Doing Well Is Preferable

Doing well is preferable makes it clear that we’ll be moving well beyond the traditional belief that the primary function of challenging behavior is getting, escaping, and avoiding. The true function of challenging behavior is that it communicates that a student is lacking the skills to handle certain demands and expectations.

Question: Does the alternative definition of function mean that we should stop doing functional behavior assessments (FBAs)?

Answer: No, FBAs are a wonderful thing, but only when we stop coming to the automatic belief that a student’s behavior is “working,” and that the behavior is effective at helping the student get, escape, and avoid. FBAs are a lot more meaningful and informative when we view challenging behavior as the means by which the student is communicating that he’s lacking the skills to meet certain demands and expectations, and then document which skills the student is lacking and which expectations the student is having difficulty meeting.

Greene’s issue with FBAs is that by designating the function of challenging behavior as either getting, escaping, or avoiding, we are focusing only on what’s “downstream,” i.e., the behavior itself, rather than the cause–the lagging skills and unsolved problems.

Is this a semantical issue? Greene takes issue with the word “working” because of course in a general sense the behavior isn’t really “working”–the behavior is in fact very much “broken.” But I guess the difference is that FBA proponents do actually believe the behavior is working for the student. But this seems to me to give too much agency to the student in this situation. It seems to paint a picture of  world in which kids make complex choices about which behaviors to exhibit in a given situation based on their needs and wants.

Like Greene, I think it’s more likely that behaviorally challenging students are working with extremely limited options (if there is even more than one) in any given situation, and would do better if they could do better. Traditional FBAs hint at more manipulation on the student’s part than I think is possible.

On top of that, by only seeking to implement adult-imposed replacement behaviors rather than truly understand and problem-solve around students’ missing skills, FBAs carry the possibility of missing the opportunity to foster independence in challenging students.


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