An Overview of Conducting a Functional Assessment of Challenging Behaviors

By: MaryAnn Demchak & Jill Grattan 

Step 1: Identify challenging behaviors

  • Use structured interviews to identify the behavior(s), the setting the behavior(s) occur in, the times the behavior(s) occur, ongoing activities/tasks, setting events (e.g., hunger, thirst, fatigue)

Step 2: Prioritize challenging behaviors

  • Which behaviors should be targeted immediately? Which behaviors should be monitored for future interventions?
  • Behaviors that are a danger to the individual or to others should be targeted for intervention prior to other behaviors

Step 3: Define challenging behaviors

  • Operationally define challenging behaviors. Challenging behaviors should be defined in terms that are specific, observable, and measureable (i.e., one can see and count the behaviors). Be specific enough that a person who does not know the child could read the definition and know exactly which behavior is targeted for intervention (i.e., what an instance of the behavior looks like, and what are not instances of the behavior).
  • Refine the definition until all members of the team agree that a specific behavior has occurred or has not occurred. The team should discuss the definitions until there are no more questions such as, “Should we record that?” or “Was that an instance of the behavior?”
  • It is often helpful to list instances in which a behavior should not be recorded as part of the operational definition (e.g., the definition of tantrum does not include aggression in the absence of crying/screaming).

Step 4: Gather data to form hypotheses about the challenging behavior(s)

  • Conduct systematic observations across multiple days in all times in which the behavior occurs and during times in which behavior does not occur
  • Identify setting events that might affect the behavior. Setting events are more distant in time to the challenging behavior occurring but that may still have an influence on the behavior. A few examples of things that occur more distant to the behavior that can be setting events are fatigue, hunger, thirst, illness, etc. For example, on days in which John does not eat breakfast, he is more likely to engage in challenging behavior.
  • A helpful way to collect data is through ABC analyses (antecedent-behavior-consequence)
    • Antecedent: what happened (or was going on) before the behavior occurred (e.g., what is going on in the environment? Who is the child working with? What is the setting? What is the task? What was the specific demand? etc.)
    • Behavior: What did the child do? (e.g., operational definitions are key here)
    • Consequence: What happened immediately and for several minutes after the child engaged in the challenging behavior? Record all actions and statements made by the person(s) interacting the child, both positive and negative. Be sure to record even subtle actions such as eye contact, watching the child, etc.
    • Take data BOTH when the challenging behavior occurs and when it does not occur
  • Review the data collected from the ABC analyses to identify patterns to the antecedents and consequences. These patterns will help you to identify potential functions of the problem behavior. Key potential functions include: gaining attention (e.g., teacher, aide, or peer attention), obtaining a tangible item (e.g., object, food, activity), escape (from person, task, situation, activity, from a difficult task or boredom, etc.), or avoidance (of an activity, task, event, person, place, etc.).

Step 5: Link the results of the functional behavior assessment to develop a positive behavior support plan.

  • Modify the environment to set the child up for success. Address setting events and antecedents that may increase the occurrence of the challenging behaviors(s). (See the positive behavioral support plan guidelines below for examples.)
  • Select replacement behaviors. The replacement behavior must (1) match the hypothesized function of the challenging behavior, (2) be easier to perform than the challenging behavior, and (3) be reinforced more frequently than the challenging behavior (i.e., the replacement behavior must work better than the challenging behavior).
    • The student should be prompted to use replacement behaviors (e.g., asking for attention, to end a task, asking for a tangible, etc.) during all antecedents to the challenging behavior. You want to try to prevent the challenging behavior from occurring. You want to teach use of the replacement skills at appropriate times (i.e., antecedents). You also want to ensure that the replacement behaviors are being reinforced on a stronger schedule than the challenging behavior.
      ○ For example, John hits to gain attention. A replacement behavior might be to teach John to ask for attention through his communication device. John must get attention more frequently and more rapidly when he uses his communication device than when he hits.
  • Reinforce the replacement behavior(s). Discontinue or minimize the consequences that are currently maintaining the challenging behavior.

Step 6: Collect data daily on the occurrence of each challenging behavior and on each replacement behavior

  • Graph data daily and examine trends and variability in the data. Ideally, the replacement behavior should be increasing (i.e., happening more frequently) and the challenging behavior should be decreasing (i.e., occurring less frequently)
  • If the challenging behavior is not decreasing, evaluate the behavior support plan. Ensure all team members are implementing the plan as outlined. Look for situations in which to teach the replacement behavior more frequently. In general, examine all parts of the plan and how it is being followed.
    • If the challenging behavior does not decrease, then collect additional ABC data, review the new data, and then revise the support plan.

Helpful Guidelines for Positive Behavioral Support Plans

  1. Identify and reinforce other socially appropriate behaviors. Be specific in praise of the socially appropriate behaviors. For example, when praising a child for using her words to ask for a toy, “Thanks for using your words to ask for the ball.” Other examples: “Great job working quietly in math.” “Excellent job finishing your worksheet.”
  2. The student should be prompted to use replacement behaviors (e.g., asking for attention, to end a task, etc.) during all antecedents to the challenging behavior so that the behavior does not occur and the replacement skills are being taught and are being reinforced on a stronger schedule than the challenging behavior.
  3. Do not reinforce unacceptable behavior by attending to it unnecessarily. That is, provide minimal attention to problem behaviors.
  4. Be consistent in the delivery of reinforcers and specified consequences; follow the behavior plan consistently.
  5. Anticipate antecedents (i.e., events or situations that seem to “cause” a specific behavior to occur) and be proactive in putting supports in place to reduce impact the antecedents may have. For example, if the child does not like assemblies, discuss the assembly, exactly what is to happen in the assembly, what the child is expected to do, reinforcers that can be earned for good behavior, etc.
  6. Use supports to help the child understand what is going on throughout his/her day: visual schedules, object schedules, time timers, token charts, consequence maps, auditory timers, if/then cards, etc.
  7. Provide both within-activity choices (e.g., “Addition or subtraction?” “Red chair or blue chair?”) and between-activity choices (e.g., “Math or reading?”).
  8. Please see the project tip sheet on “Using Reinforcement Appropriately” for additional helpful information.