What is a Functional Behavior Assessment?

A functional behavioral assessment (or FBA) is a process that identifies a specific or target behavior that interferes with a student’s education. The assessment attempts to designate the particular behavior, identify the factors that support the behavior, and determine the purpose of the behavior. The process leads to an intervention plan and steps that one can test to improve the student’s situation. The functional behavioral assessment informs a teaching plan that can develop a more acceptable alternative behavior for the student that will not interfere with the student’s education.

When to do a Functional Behavior Assessment?

There is no precise formula for determining when to do a Functional Behavior Assessment. The assessment is a useful tool whenever a student shows behavior that limits or inhibits his and her ability to learn within the framework of the class or a school structure. The basis for conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment is student behavior that creates concerns from parents, teachers, and other educational professionals that the student may have emotional or behavioral problems. The problems and difficulties must be serious and not playful. They are behaviors that impact his and her ability to learn. The timing of a Functional Behavioral Assessment can work with other efforts to help understand the student’s circumstances. The assessment can be part of the Individual Learning Plan, the SAT Process, and as confirmation of a disability.

The Functional Behavior Assessment as part of the Individual Education Plan (IEP)

Under the IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), federal rules provide federal funds to state and local agencies to guarantee access to special education and related services to children with disabilities. The rules require a written plan called the IEP plan (Individualized Education Plan). A similar section of the law is section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that forbids discrimination against persons with disabilities. Both laws seek to place the child in an educationally productive environment with the least restrictive framework for learning.

The Functional Behavior Assessment as Part of the SAT Process

The SAT or Student Assistance Team is a group composed of parents and experts in education. The Team’s purpose is to respond to reports or observations of a student’s behavior. The SAT can include the school nurse, guidance counselor, Principal, classroom teacher, social worker, and many types of special education specialists. The SAT is a functioning group centered around the reports and observations of a student’s behavior. The behavior must interfere with the ability of the student or those around him and her to learn.

The SAT Process begins with a discussion with the team by the referring party or parties. These are neutral observers that can describe the student’s behavior. The meeting involves a presentation of observations and other information relevant to the student’s situation. The group then discusses the concerns that caused the SAT action. The preliminary plan typically involves some types of interventions. The group schedules further meetings to discuss the results of interventions, plan new or additional interventions, and create new ideas. The goal is to avoid referral to special education or other more restrictive learning environments. The group forms a preliminary plan, advises the parent, and proceeds with the initial steps. The SAT appoints a case manager to oversee the steps of the plan and to keep the SAT informed of progress and efforts.

Verification of A Developmental or other Disability

The Functional Behavior Assessment can provide helpful information to determine or verify a disability. The assessment information may be combined with other facts obtained by observation, reports, and discussions among parents, educators, and learning specialists. The determination of a disability is a critical step for opening appropriate financial support and educational access. The laws that protect children with disabilities such as the IDE and Sec 504 of the Rehabilitation Act rely upon a determination of emotional or behavioral conditions that create a learning disability.

What Happens During the FBA?

There are two types of assessment processes called the Direct FBA Process and the Indirect FBA Process. The FBA uses five assessment and intervention development steps. The goals are to perform the below-listed functions.

  • Identify the target or suspect behavior
  • Gather unbiased information and Observations
  • Develop intervention plans to change the target behavior

Indirect vs. Direct FBA

The Indirect FBA

When one compacts the five steps into a smaller format, then that may be an indirect assessment. The indirect assessment is appropriate in urgent circumstances when there is no time for a more deliberate process. Overall, the Indirect FBA is less time consuming; it is appropriate for situations that need immediate action, behavior that is not severe, and as part of an early intervention such as in an SAT process. Some experts consider the indirect approach appropriate for small assessment teams such as a parent, teacher, and school administrator.

The indirect approach is more informal, uses simple language, and is far less technical. The primary tool is the interview and discussion. The interview supports a hypothesis of the purpose of the suspect behavior. The discussion seeks to identify related conditions or environmental factor. Based on the interview and discussion, the group forms a plan. The follow-up and evaluation process will also rely on interviews and discussions.

The Direct FBA

Experts recommend the Direct FBA when the suspected behaviors are severe, persistent, and frequent. This method works well with students that present intense episodes, complex behavior patterns, and deeply-ingrained behaviors. The factors include the intrusive nature of the assessment and the critical nature of the decisions such as verifying a disability.

Five Steps of the Assessment Process

Identifying the Suspect Behavior

The SAT or IEP team can research the available information to determine the most severe of the behavioral problems presented by the student. This suspected behavior will be the target behavior.

Gather Information and Facts

The data must be observable, and to the extent possible it must be measurable. The assessment will use the framework of the place where the behavior occurs. The study will connect the behavior to the environment and try to determine its purpose. Observations must include environmental factors if any. The process must Chart information regarding the frequency and duration of the suspect actions. Charted observation is the main method for data collection. Reliable data include periodic samples through the day and continuous charting, or flow charts done through one or more days. This information may help pinpoint critical times and situations in which the behavior occurs. The direct observation and charts of narratives and information will provide a baseline for later comparison. The below-listed items are examples of the data needed.

  • Locations where the behavior occurred, and the persons involved in them.
  • Whether those involved were peers or adults.
  • The events that happened just before the behavior as possible predictors or triggers.
  • The events immediately after the behavior and the consequences.
  • What, if anything, was attempted to prevent or interrupt the behavior?
  • Did the conduct resolve? How did it end?
  • Possible reasons for the behavior such as attention getting, avoidance, or opposition to some action
  • The class room or other environments, structure, and level of adult attention at the time of the behavior
  • The instructional delivery used and academic and behavioral expectations at the time of the conduct
  • Recent changes in a student’s life in or out of school, community, medical, or other related issues. Were appropriate public or private agencies involved?

Supporting the Hypothesis

The review must make a reasoned guess at the link between the conduct and its apparent purpose. This hypothesis can guide the initial efforts to plan intervention and test its accuracy by the results. Best practices suggest using the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and history of responses to various interventions.

Developing Interventions and Strategies

The written plan must identify the changes that the effort seeks to make in the student’s behavior. The Behavior Intervention Plan must specify the new skills and behavior modifications involved. The plan must discuss needed modifications to the learning environment including curriculum and behavior management approaches. The strategy must have a clear focus and a named person in charge of carrying out the recommended steps.


The data originally collected shall be a useful baseline and repeating the collection can be an initial measure of progress. Evaluation is a critical step as it closes the connection between the planned treatment and the next step in behavior modification. The effectiveness of the previous step must guide the application of the next step. Favorable data should reinforce the approach, and negative impacts should force a reconsideration and promote change.

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