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Functional behavioral assessment: a school based model.


Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) procedures, when based on behavior analytic principles, are useful in identifying factors associated with problematic and adaptive behavior for students with disabilities. In addition, interventions based on the results of a FBA are likely to be effective and durable. The 1997 amendment of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a FBA must be conducted in the school setting when a child exhibits significant behavioral difficulties. Currently, it is not clear what constitutes an appropriate FBA. Applied behavior analysts have the unique opportunity to assist school personnel to develop effective and appropriate assessment services. We describe a comprehensive model for the application of behavior analysis in the schools. The model includes descriptive assessment, functional analysis, intervention, and involves the participation of teachers and parents.

DESCRIPTORS: applied behavior analysis, functional behavioral assessment, schools, in-home, problematic behavior


When a behavior analyst offers services in a school setting, school personnel may expect a traditional and quick behavior management approach. There is obviously an important place for interventions that result in immediate behavior change, but often a more in depth analysis and understanding of the behavior is more useful for long-lasting behavior change. The approach to functional behavioral assessment (FBA) described herein is focused on applied behavior analysis procedures designed to identify specific environmental events that are associated with both appropriate and problematic behavior. A good FBA can result in hypotheses that can be developed about the reasons that a particular behavior occurs. Rather than attributing the occurrence of behavior to underlying pathology or basing treatment on the form of behavior (e.g., self-injury versus aggression), applied behavior analysis tends to focus on the operant function of behavior (e.g., behavior maintained by positive reinforcement versus behavior maintained by negative reinforcement).

Regardless of the form of problematic behavior (e.g., self-injury, aggression, destruction, noncompliance or repetitive vocalizations), applied behavior analysis procedures focus on identifying important antecedents to behavior and reinforcing consequences. Thus, a treatment for self-injurious behavior (SIB) that is reinforced by attention may be very similar to a treatment for aggression reinforced by attention. Conversely, a treatment for SIB reinforced by attention may be very different than a treatment for SIB reinforced by escape from instructional demands. Carr (1977) proposed that typical consequences of problematic behavior, such as increased attention, escape or avoidance of demands, and sensory stimulation, may serve as reinforcers. It is important to note that Carr's hypotheses were not an attempt to explain why problematic behavior initially emerged; but rather, to explain why problematic behavior continued to occur. Carr's proposal that problematic behavior is influenced by reinforcement has led to substantial research and to the subsequent development of functional assessment techniques.

From an intervention standpoint, the critical issue is to determine the purpose or function of problematic behavior on an individual basis in order to develop appropriate interventions (Iwata, Pace, Kalsher, Cowdery, & Cataldo, 1990). Consider a student who engages in aggressive behavior when he is directed to respond to a teacher's request. The teacher might be inclined to remove the demand and direct the child to a quiet area of the classroom (i.e., time-out). If escape or avoidance of task completion reinforces the child's aggressive behavior, the teacher has inadvertently strengthened the behavior. In this example, time-out is not an appropriate intervention, because it increases the likelihood that aggressive behavior will continue to occur under similar circumstances in the future.

The specific purpose of a FBA should be to identify why behavior occurs within a specific context in order to develop appropriate interventions. When conducted appropriately, FBA can be used as a data-driven method for the identification of functional relationships between problematic behavior and the environment. Research in applied behavior analysis has demonstrated the success of these procedures with a variety of populations (e.g., Wacker et al., 1998; Northup et al., 1997), behavioral topographies (e.g., Thompson, Fisher, Piazza, & Kuhn, 1998; Lindberg, Iwata, & Kahng, 1999; Vollmer & Vorndran, 1998), and across a variety of settings such as hospitals, clinics, schools, and homes (Asmus et al., 1999; Cooper et al., 1992; Northup et al., 1991; Piazza et al., 1998).

IDEA Requirements/Current Interest in FBA

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (P.L. 94-142) was later reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA) (P.L. 101-476) and ensured all children with disabilities the right to a free public education in the least restrictive environment. In 1997, several amendments were proposed to IDEA (P.L. 105-17). One of the significant areas of change within the 1997 amendments was the increased focus on assessment requirements for children who exhibit behavioral difficulties. As a result of these amendments, a FBA is now mandated to address the target behavior of a child who is suspended or whose educational placement has been changed due to behavior difficulties. In addition, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams are required to identify strategies and supports necessary to address behavioral difficulties when they interfere with the child's ability to learn (Quinn, Gable, Rutherford, Nelson, & Howell, 1998). However, the regulations do not specify techniques and strategies to use when assessing problematic behavior; as a result, assessment formats seem to vary considerably from state to state and school district to school district.

The inclusion of FBA into IDEA was not the first time that a federal agency has highlighted practices related to applied behavior analysis. In 1991, for example, a consensus statement on destructive behavior displayed by persons with developmental disabilities through the National Institutes of Health determined that it was "best practice" to conduct a functional analysis in order to (a) determine the reason problematic behavior occurred, and (b) to identify the most appropriate and effective treatments (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1991). Again, specification of what constituted a functional analysis was not provided. The focus of this paper is to describe the FBA methods that we are currently using in school and home settings to prescribe effective behavioral interventions for children with problematic behavior. Prior to this discussion however, we describe the empirical base upon which our model was developed.

Basis for an Applied Behavior Analysis Approach to FBA

An applied behavior analysis (ABA) approach to FBA is based on Carr's (1977) theoretical model in which operant mechanisms are hypothesized to maintain problematic behavior. Carr proposed three potential operant mechanisms underlying the motivation for aberrant behavior: positive reinforcement (social attention, tangible items, or preferred activities), negative reinforcement (escape, avoidance or attenuation of nonpreferred stimuli), and sensory reinforcement (behavior develops/persists in the absence of social reinforcement). Carr's proposal has led to substantial research and the subsequent development of assessment techniques to identify the operant mechanisms underlying problem behaviors.

The methodologies used in an ABA approach to FBA range from interviews (e.g., O'Neill, Horner, Albin, Storey, & Sprague, 1990) and rating scales (e.g., Motivational Assessment Scale; Durand & Crimmins, 1988) to well-controlled analog experimentation (e.g., functional analysis; Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, & Richman, 1982/1994). A comprehensive approach to FBA includes both a descriptive assessment of natural conditions and a functional analysis using analog conditions (Mace & Lalli, 1991).

Descriptive Assessment

Bijou, Peterson, and Ault (1968) presented the first empirical demonstration of a methodology for conducting descriptive behavioral assessments. Bijou et al. proposed an objective method for the quantification of data obtained during descriptive observations that contained the following key elements: (a) specification of the environment, (b) specification of behavior, (c) measurement and assessment of inter-observer reliability, and (d) methods for collection, analysis, and interpretation of the obtained data. Despite the many technological advances that have occurred since the methods developed by Bijou et al., variations of descriptive analysis procedures typically include the same general elements. Descriptive assessments have been designed to identify variables related to aggression (Vollmer, Borrero, Lalli, & Daniel, 1999), bizarre speech (Mace & Lalli, 1991), disruption, (Lalli, Browder, Mace, & Brown, 1993), pica (Mace & Knight, 1986), SIB (Carr & McDowell, 1980; Maurice & Trudel, 1982), and stereotypy (Repp, Singh, Karsh, & Deitz, 1991), among other behaviors. The scatterplot (Iwata, Kahng, Wallace, & Lindberg, 2000; Kahng et al. 1998; Touchette, MacDonald, and Langer, 1985) and A-B-C assessment (Bijou et al.) are the two most common direct observation descriptive assessments conducted in naturalistic settings. Direct observation, in our view, is more desirable than the sole reliance on interviews and checklists for initial hypothesis development.

In addition to the more common descriptive assessments described above, data from naturalistic observations can also be analyzed using conditional probabilities (Lalli et al., 1993; Lerman & Iwata, 1993; Mace & Lalli, 1991; Repp & Karsh, 1994). Conditional probabilities identify the probability of one event (e.g., a reprimand) given some other event (e.g., disruptive behavior). Stated differently, the probability of a reprimand in the previous example is conditional upon the occurrence of an instance of problem behavior. Thus, conditional probabilities provide information regarding the probability of a response X contingent upon the occurrence of environmental event Y, or vice versa. For example, Lalli, Browder, et al. conducted descriptive analyses for 3 students in classroom environments. Subsequent to the observations, the authors evaluated: (a) the probability of observing a student's problem behavior given the occurrence of some antecedent event (e.g., 1:1 instruction) and (b) the probability of a studen t's problem behavior followed by some subsequent event (e.g., discontinuation of academic demands). Based on the conditional probability analyses, the authors developed hypotheses about the behavioral function. These hypotheses eventually were tested in a functional analysis.

Although conditional probability analyses have been quite successful in identifying potentially reinforcing environmental events, Watson (1997) has suggested that analyses of conditional probabilities (i.e., the probability of event X given event Y) must be contrasted with the background, or unconditional probability of an environmental event (i.e., the probability of event X without consideration of event Y, and vice versa) in order to fully understand the phenomenon of interest. Unfortunately, background probability analyses have received little attention from applied behavior analysts. In order to illustrate the importance of the background probability of an event, consider the following example. If the probability of teacher attention following problem behavior is .20, one might erroneously conclude that a reinforcement contingency is in effect (such as a variable-ratio 5 schedule, because an average of every fifth response is followed by attention). However, if the background probability of teacher atten tion is also .20, (i.e., the probability of teacher attention without regard to disruptive behavior) a reinforcement contingency is unlikely because engaging in problem behavior does not increase the probability of receiving teacher attention. Stated differently, in the natural environment a particular event (e.g., teacher attention) might occur at various times both following and independent of the problem behavior. It is most likely that the event could only serve as a reinforcer if the probability of gaining access to that event increased when problem behavior occurred (Catania, 1992).

Although the direct observation method provides several advantages over the use of interviews and checklists (e.g., direct behavioral measures versus verbal report), there are some limitations. First, entering a student's home or classroom may be an intrusive event for care providers, teachers, or the student. Second, reactivity effects are almost certain to occur under some circumstances. That is, the mere presence of an unfamiliar person may influence the child's behavior (or, perhaps more likely, the adult's behavior). Finally, some problematic behaviors may occur at such low frequencies (but perhaps high intensity), that they are not amenable to direct observation. For example, if severe aggression occurs only once per month, the likelihood of direct observation is low. Under such circumstances parents or teachers may need to be used as observers to record the estimated number of instances of behavior or duration of behavior observed during a predetermined interval of time.

Functional Analysis

Descriptive assessments and interviews can help identify environmental events correlated with the occurrence of problematic behavior. However, cause-effect relations between environmental and behavioral events cannot be inferred from correlations identified in descriptive observations. A functional analysis of behavior involves the experimental manipulation of environmental events (independent variables) to test the effect on behavior (dependent variable).

Iwata et al. (1982/1994) developed the first method for identifying functional relationships between specific environmental variables and SIB. For nine individuals with developmental disabilities, SIB was measured during conditions of escape, attention, free play, and alone. Multiple sessions of each condition were conducted to identify patterns of responding across and within conditions. The condition that resulted in the most consistent and highest rate of SIB was used to identify the class of consequences (positive or negative reinforcement) that served to maintain SIB. Environmental reinforcement contingencies were identified for 6 of 9 individuals. For example, two of the participants engaged in the highest level of SIB during the escape condition, indicating that SIB served a negative reinforcement function.

There are two primary reasons that functional analyses are not conducted more frequently in natural settings such as homes and schools. The first is lack of training by those responsible for conducting the FBA. While it is true that direct training is needed in order to conduct functional analyses correctly and safely, most adults can learn the procedures in a very short time period (Iwata, Wallace, et al., 2000). The second reason is that there is a perception that functional analysis is too time consuming and cumbersome to conduct. However, the use of brief functional analyses has recently proven to be a practical alternative to extended functional analyses, at least under some circumstances.

A number of studies have examined the validity of using brief functional analyses in outpatient clinics (Cooper, Wacker, Sasso, Reimers, & Donn, 1990; Cooper et al., 1992; Harding, Wacker, Cooper, Millard, & Jensen-Kovalan 1994; Northup et al., 1991). These procedures were identified as "brief" functional analyses because they were conducted within typical outpatient clinic evaluations (e.g., 90 mm.). For example, Northup et al. demonstrated that the functional analysis procedures of Iwata et al. (1982/1994) could be adapted to a briefer analog format for both aggressive behavior and appropriate communication. Similarly, Vollmer, Marcus, Ringdahl, and Roane (1995) demonstrated that similar procedures could also be adapted to the school setting (i.e., during brief assessment appointments).

Even if a more extended analysis is required, the benefits of a direct functional analysis of problem behavior may outweigh the time expense. Consider the amount of time that might be spent refining inadequate treatments that were not based on systematic observations. Even if the amount of time spent on a functional analysis equals the amount of time spent on refining inadequate treatments, a functional analysis leaves the intervention team with knowledge about why the behavior occurs.


Consequence Based Interventions

Prior to the development of functional analysis methods, researchers and practitioners concerned with the treatment of problem behaviors often chose punishment-based procedures, (e.g., time-out, aversive stimulation) over reinforcement-based procedures, presumably because of their immediately observable effects (Pelios, Morren, Tesch, & Axelrod, 1999; Scotti, Ujcich, Weigle, Halland, & Kirk, 1996). Subsequent to the publication of Iwata et al. (1982/1994), however, treatment selection has shifted toward reinforcement-based procedures directly linked to the results of a functional analysis. For instance, if the results of a functional analysis indicate that an individual's problem behavior is maintained by social attention, specific manipulations of attention can be made during the course of treatment.

Thus, the primary advantage of a pretreatment functional analysis is that the reinforcer(s) known to maintain problem behavior can be minimized contingent upon problem behavior and whenever possible, provided contingent upon the occurrence of some adaptive behavior (Vollmer & Iwata, 1992). Treatment development based on functional analysis research has emphasized three general areas: extinction, differential reinforcement, and noncontingent reinforcement (NCR).

Extinction. When a functional analysis identifies one or more reinforcers maintaining problem behavior, the most straightforward treatment approach is to eliminate the source of reinforcement. Extinction involves the termination of a reinforcement contingency. When behavior is reinforced by attention or access to materials (positive reinforcement), extinction involves withholding access to attention or materials when problem behavior occurs (Iwata, Pace, Cowdry, & Miltenberger, 1994). When a behavior is maintained by escape from an instructional activity, extinction involves continuation of the instructional activity despite the occurrence of problem behavior (Iwata et al., 1990). When a behavior is maintained by automatic reinforcement, extinction involves blocking the sensory products of behavior, such as through the use of protective equipment for SIB (Rincover, Cook, Peoples, & Packard, 1979).

The advantage of extinction is that it directly eliminates the source of reinforcement maintaining problem behavior. In the absence of reinforcement, the behavior will eventually cease to occur. The application of extinction is greatly enhanced by a successful functional analysis because, without such an analysis, it would not be known which type of reinforcer to withhold following the occurrence of behavior.

The disadvantages of extinction include the possibility of extinction bursts (temporary escalations in the frequency, intensity, or duration of behavior), emotional behavior, and response variation (Lerman & Iwata, 1996). These side effects can be extremely damaging if the target behavior is SIB or severe aggression, in which case a parent or teacher can not allow behavior to escalate. Other limitations of extinction include the fact that there is no explicit contingency arranged for teaching new behavior to replace the undesired behavior. Finally, any treatment integrity failure (such as an accidentally reinforced response) turns an extinction schedule into an intermittent reinforcement schedule, perhaps making the behavior more resistant to treatment. Thus, we rarely recommend extinction in isolation as treatment. Instead, we typically propose some variation of differential reinforcement or NCR.

Differential reinforcement. Although differential reinforcement can take a variety of forms (for a review, see Vollmer & Iwata, 1992), we most commonly recommend differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA). The DRA procedure is prescribed by a functional analysis because the reinforcer maintaining problem behavior can be: (a) withheld when problem behavior occurs (i.e., extinction), and (b) presented contingent upon the occurrence of some desired alternative behavior, such as communication or participation in activities. One example of DRA as treatment for problematic behavior is functional communication training (FCT; Carr & Durand, 1985). The FCT approach extends logically from a functional analysis because some communicative response (e.g., vocalization, picture exchange, sign language) produces the same reinforcer previously maintaining problem behavior. As such, the problem behavior is replaced" by an appropriate alternative.

Differential reinforcement has inherent advantages over extinction in that a new response is learned and it is probably, under most circumstances, less sensitive to treatment integrity failures (Vollmer, Roane, Ringdahl, & Marcus, 1999). The reason differential reinforcement may be less sensitive to treatment integrity failures is that when a parent or teacher accidentally reinforces problem behavior the schedule of reinforcement for appropriate behavior could still be much richer than the schedule of reinforcement for problem behavior.

One disadvantage of DRA is that at times the appropriate behavior begins to occur too frequently. However this limitation has been addressed by Lalli, Casey, and Kates (1995) who created a chained schedule, in which participation in a task was required before escape-maintained requesting behavior was reinforced. Similarly, for positively reinforced behavior, Hagopian, Fisher, Sullivan, Acquisto, and LeBlanc (1998) demonstrated that if a child begins to request attention too frequently, a schedule can be arranged such that the response is only reinforced after a set interval of time (e.g., 5 min).

Noncontingent reinforcement. This treatment involves the presentation of a reinforcer shown to maintain problem behavior (e.g., attention) on a response-independent or time-based schedule (Vollmer, Iwata, Zarcone, Smith, & Mazeleski, 1993). NCR and extinction are similar in that both eliminate the contingency between a response and a reinforcer; however, the two procedures differ in that the reinforcer is freely and frequently available in NCR. One attractive feature of NCR as a treatment option is ease of implementation. NCR is a particularly appropriate treatment option for classroom environments because the procedure does not require continuous supervision by classroom staff.

A limitation of NCR is that, like extinction, it does not explicitly teach individuals an adaptive response. However, under some circumstances NCR may be combined with differential reinforcement procedures. Another potential limitation of NCR is the possible occurrence of adventitious reinforcement. Adventitious reinforcement occurs when problem behavior is maintained by incidental pairings between responses and reinforcement. Vollmer, Ringdahl, Roane, and Marcus (1997) addressed this concern by including a momentary differential reinforcement of other behavior (MDRO) requirement, so that if problem behavior occurred in close proximity to a scheduled reinforcer, that particular reinforcer was not delivered.

Antecedent Based interventions

Antecedent events can also be manipulated to reduce the probability of problematic behavior. For example, the degree of task difficulty or frequency of task demands can be altered to reduce the probability of engaging in behavior maintained by escape. Schedules of enriched attention can be arranged to reduce the motivation to engage in behavior maintained by attention. The environment can be enriched generally with preferred activities to reduce behavior maintained by automatic reinforcement.

Parent and Teacher Training

Recent longitudinal studies have also shown that environmentally based treatments can lead to the long-term reduction of problematic behavior and improve parent-child interactions. Wacker, et al. (1998), for example, conducted assessment and treatment in the homes of 28 young children who were diagnosed with developmental disabilities and severe behavior problems. Parents conducted all assessment and intervention procedures with coaching. Results showed that the most dramatic reduction in problematic behavior occurred within 3 months of intervention (90% reduction in behavior). Also, there were concomitant increases in positive parent-child interactions. In a similar approach, Northup et al. (1994) evaluated the long-term maintenance of treatment based on functional analyses for 5 children with disabilities between the ages of 5 and 11 years who exhibited problematic behavior in school settings. The students, diagnosed with severe to profound developmental disabilities, participated in the study with their cl assroom teachers. In-service training and technical assistance were provided to each teacher to assist in carrying out direct assessment and treatment recommendations. A descriptive assessment and functional analysis was completed for each student to determine the function of problematic behavior. For 4 of the 5 students, the functional analysis was used to develop individualized FCT treatments. In each case, treatment proved to be successful for up to 17 months.


Although descriptive and functional analyses of behavior can be conducted independently of one another, a combination of these methodologies should improve the effectiveness of assessment. A large body of research suggests the utility of functional assessment across a wide variety of behaviors, populations, settings, and using a variety of people as therapists.

Brief Overview of the School-based FBA Model

We are currently using a school-based model for the assessment and treatment of problem behavior (such as self-injury, aggression, property destruction) exhibited by individuals with developmental disabilities. The model consists of three major phases and several sub-components. The three phases are (a) descriptive assessment, (b) functional analysis and treatment evaluation, and (c) parent and teacher training. The approach that we have adopted is time-consuming. Once a referral is initiated, our objective is to identify a behavioral intervention plan and teach it to all relevant care providers and teachers within one academic year. Thus, the overall objective of the program is long range, not a "quick fix."

The following model is based on a collaborative effort of university researchers, school personnel, and parents working together. The model includes the utilization of graduate students in psychology and school psychology programs, who are responsible for conducting and carrying out the assessments and interventions with university faculty supervision. Faculty supervisors and graduate students provide a forum for discussion and communication of behavioral data to school personnel and parents via monthly meetings. These monthly meetings involve various school personnel (e.g., nurses, counselors, and principals) and provide an opportunity for individuals who work with the student to report on various aspects of his or her behavior, as well as an opportunity for the behavior analysis team to report on the student's progress.

The program and resources described in this model have been provided to the school system and parents at no cost. These types of resources would not be available for all school systems, but the model is presented here so that the reader can evaluate features that may be relevant to his or her objectives. What follows is first a very brief overview of Phase 1, and then specific components are described in greater detail.

Phase 1

When students are referred to participate in the behavioral evaluation program, an initial meeting is scheduled with the family and teacher. During the initial meeting, family members and teachers are encouraged to identify behaviors that they view as problematic and to provide specific descriptions of those behaviors. After identifying the behaviors targeted for change, family members and teachers guide the selection of intervention goals for the student. For example, one goal may be to reduce the level of problem behavior by 80% of current baseline levels. Another goal might be to increase alternative communicative responses by some specified amount. The information obtained during the initial meeting is then used to formulate working operational definitions of the target behavior, which can then be used during the initial naturalistic or descriptive observations. Descriptive observations are conducted in either the student's home, the student's classroom, or both, depending on where the problem reportedly occurs and depending on the approval of both the family and teacher (and, when appropriate, the student). After conducting several observations (i.e., three to five 1-h observations) in one or both of the above settings, the data are evaluated via conditional probability analyses (described previously and in greater detail in Vollmer, Borrero, Wright, Van Camp, & Lalli, 2001). Based on both anecdotal information, as well as data obtained during the descriptive observations, initial hypotheses are formulated about the function of the student's problem behavior.

Initial Interview

During the course of the initial meeting, parents, care providers and school personnel are asked specific questions in order to gain information and to develop hypotheses regarding the function of the student's problem behavior. For example, a parent may be asked questions about possible positive reinforcement contingencies, such as, "Does your child engage in problem behavior when he or she is trying to get your attention?" Similarly, a parent may be asked, "Does your child engage in problem behavior when you have something that he or she wants?" Questions regarding negative reinforcement may include the following; "Does your child engage in problem behavior when he or she is asked to do something that he or she does not want to do?" Finally, we typically ask questions about the persistence of the problem behavior in the absence of socially mediated contingencies, such as, "Does your child engage in problem behavior when he or she has nothing else to do?" We have found that asking direct questions about the behavioral function reduces ambiguity in the discussion.

Table 1 lists several FBA interviews and checklists that we have found helpful under some circumstances in guiding our discussions with parents and teachers. For example, the MARS (Wieseler, Hanson, Chamberlain, & Thompson, 1985) and the MAS (Durand & Crimmins, 1988) consist of either statements or questions that are answered by the respondent on a Likert scale ranging from either 0 to 6 (MAS) or 0 to 4 (MARS). The common feature of each of the interviews and checklists listed in Table 1 is ease of implementation. With the exception of the FATE (O'Neill, Homer, Albin, Storey, & Sprague, 1990), each of the interviews can be completed in less than 1 h. However, the initial interview and the formal interviews listed in Table 1 are intended to serve only as an adjunct to more direct assessments including descriptive assessment, functional analysis, or both. That is, in our view, conducting these interviews in the absence of additional assessments, such as descriptive analysis and functional analysis, does not con stitute a FBA.

Descriptive Analysis

The primary component of the descriptive assessment is to determine the typical antecedent and consequent events. Usually descriptive data are collected for up to five total hours or until multiple instances of the target behavior are observed. As an illustrative example, some details of a descriptive assessment will be described for a student named Don. After receiving the approval of Don's mother and teacher, trained graduate and undergraduate students conducted observations in Don's home and classroom environment. Observers sat as unobtrusively as possible in these environments and collected data on laptop computers. Data were collected on several behaviors: (a) instances of problem behavior (e.g., aggression or disruption), (b) requests for teacher or care provider attention (e.g., "talk to me"), (c) requests for tangible items ("toy please"), and (d) compliance with instructions. Data were also collected on three antecedent events: (a) periods of low attention, (b) periods of instruction, and (c) periods in which access to preferred items were restricted. Finally, data were also collected on several potential reinforcers including (a) attention, (b) reprimands, (c) instruction termination, and (d) access to tangibles. After several hours of observation in Don's classroom environment, we did not observe a single instance of the problem behavior, therefore, we began to focus on his behavior at home.

The data presented in Figure 1 represent observations conducted exclusively in Don's home while he interacted with his siblings and his mother. These data represent the proportion of times Don's mother delivered each of the possibly reinforcing events recorded (i.e., escape from instructional demands, attention, or tangibles) either within 10 s after a behavior occurred (i.e., the conditional probability) or within 10s following some randomly selected point in time during periods of low attention, restricted access to materials, and instruction respectively (i.e., the background probability). The upper panel of Figure 1 shows an example of a (potential) positive contingency between problem behavior and parental attention. A potential positive contingency exists if the probability of receiving attention is higher following instances of problem behavior compared to the background probability of attention. The center panel also shows an example of a possible positive contingency between problem behavior and acce ss to tangible items. In other words, Don was more likely to receive preferred tangible items following problem behavior than he was independent of problem behavior. The lower panel shows an example of a potentially negative contingency. The term negative contingency is used to describe a situation in which the probability of reinforcement actually decreases following an instance of the behavior. For example, in a differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO) schedule, the probability of reinforcement decreases following an instance of the target response, and increases following an interval of "nonresponding." To return to the case of Don, the conditional probability of receiving a break (i.e., the probability of a break following an instance of problem behavior) during instructional activities was actually slightly lower than the background probability (i.e., the probability of a break without regard to the target response). As noted previously, information regarding the probability of an event should influence hypotheses about behavioral function: It is unlikely that Don's behavior was reinforced by escape (there was a negative contingency), but attention and tangibles were not ruled out (there were positive contingencies).

A secondary goal of descriptive assessment is the identification of idiosyncratic variables that may contribute to behavioral maintenance. For example, problem behavior may occur exclusively in the presence of a particular classroom aide who has been repeatedly paired with a difficult task. Similarly, problem behavior may occur with a greater likelihood when a particular stimulus (e.g., a red ball) is restricted, rather than when other structurally similar stimuli are restricted (e.g., a white ball).

Phase 2

The second phase of the assessment model consists of an intensive one-on-one functional analysis of the variables maintaining a particular student's behavior. Also, the effectiveness of interventions is tested.

Functional Analysis

We have adapted the method developed by Iwata et al. (1982/1994), and typically conduct a series of 5- to 10-min assessment sessions testing possible reinforcement effects of attention, tangible items, or escape from task demands. In addition, alone/ignore conditions are conducted to test whether the target behavior persists in the absence of social reinforcement. Finally, a play condition is used as a control. The play condition involves free attention, access to preferred activities or materials, and no instructional demands (see Table 2 for a summary of conditions). Problematic behavior is measured across each of these conditions, usually using a multielement design, and the effects are evaluated in terms of relative changes in the occurrence of the target behavior.

As an illustrative example, some details of a functional analysis will be described for a student named Nate. As a result of the descriptive phase of assessment, it was hypothesized that Nate's problematic behavior of aggression (hitting, pinching, and biting) and destruction (throwing items across the room) was reinforced by both attention and escape. Nate's mother agreed to bring him to school one day per week for 2 hours each day over a two-week period during the summer. In a vacant school classroom we conducted a series of 5-mm sessions using a multielement single-subject design, counterbalancing the order of conditions presented until a stable pattern of behavior emerged. The escape condition consisted of directing Nate to place a peg into a container. (This task was selected based on consultation with his teacher and as a result of descriptive observations). At anytime, if he engaged in aggression or destruction, the task was removed for 15 s by telling Nate "OK, break time." The attention condition con sisted of a therapist providing Nate access to preferred play items and then ignoring him unless he engaged in problematic behavior, then brief attention in the form of social disapproval was provided for 15 s. In the tangible condition, Nate was initially allowed 1-min of access to a preferred item (radio), then the session began, and the therapist removed the item saying "my turn to listen to the radio." If Nate engaged in problematic behavior, the radio was returned for 15s, then it was the therapist's turn again. In the ignore condition, all toys were removed and Nate was left with nothing to do. All behavior was ignored. Finally, during the free play condition, Nate had access to preferred items, no demands were presented, and attention was provided noncontingently every 15-s. As seen in the top panel of Figure 2, Nate engaged in problematic behavior most often during the escape condition (M = 35%) in comparison to the attention (M = 9 %), tangible (M = 0%), ignore (M = 0%), and free play (M = 2%) condit ions. This analysis confirmed that Nate's problematic behavior was reinforced by escape from task demands (negative reinforcement). This assessment was also conducted, in the same manner, with Nate's mother as the therapist in his home. Results were similar and are presented in the bottom panel of Figure 2.

The total time needed for each analysis (home and school) was 4 hours over a 2-week period of time. This phase of assessment was critical to intervention selection because the descriptive assessment led us to hypothesize that escape and attention maintained Nate's problematic behavior. If we had based intervention on the attention hypothesis, our time would have been wasted and it is likely that the resulting intervention would not have decreased Nate's problematic behavior. Consider Nate's functional analysis results: The problematic behavior was literally "turned on" and "turned off" as a function of the test conditions in effect. Therefore, intervention was only focused on eliminating the reinforcer for problematic behavior (extinction) and teaching Nate a more appropriate alternative to request a brief break after compliance to part of the task (via functional communication).

In our view, the inclusion of a functional analysis of problem behavior is critical to the EBA process in order to identify the consequences maintaining problem behavior (e.g., positive, negative, or automatic reinforcement). Correct identification of the function of the behavior has the distinct advantage of leading the behavior analyst to select an intervention that has a high likelihood of reducing problem behavior and increasing an appropriate alternative behavior.

In some cases, session termination criteria must be established to protect the student or therapist. At times, there is a risk that self-inflicted or other injuries may occur to the child or other persons involved during assessment. In these cases, we work closely with the school nurse to develop a protocol for terminating sessions to prevent injuries or minimize the possibility of injuries occurring.

Treatment Analysis

Our interventions are first systematically evaluated in analog settings prior to their introduction into the classroom or home setting. If a treatment is ineffective in a highly controlled setting, it is likely to be ineffective in a more complicated setting. Thus, our strategy is to identify a treatment that works in at least a highly controlled setting, and then to generalize to a more complicated setting. At the completion of Phase 1 and after the functional analysis is completed in Phase 2, we select an intervention based on the reinforcer that is maintaining problem behavior. For example, with Nate, described above, we selected an intervention to disrupt problematic behavior (extinction) and taught him a more appropriate way to request a break via functional communication training (DRA). We then tested that intervention in the context of a single subject design to determine the effect on behavior over a period of time. This manipulation of the intervention continues until we see a significant reduction i n problem behavior from baseline levels, and concomitant increases in appropriate behavior with minimal prompting and assistance from staff.

Crisis Management

Understandably, parents and teachers often seek a resource for rapid behavior change, especially when the behavioral difficulty is potentially dangerous to the student or others in the environment. As indicated, our view of assessment is that it needs to be thorough, which often means it occurs over a longer period of time. We do recognize that for children with significant behavior problems, interim assistance is often needed. We often provide suggestions and general recommendations throughout the assessment process to address critical needs.

For example, at the completion of Phase 1, we may have gathered useful data regarding difficult transition times for a student, such as boarding the bus after school. We can then devise a plan based on objective data and meet the acute needs of the student and school. As additional data are generated, those initial recommendations may be modified or additional problem areas can be addressed as school personnel identify them. While acute needs may be addressed in this manner, we typically wait until assessment and initial intervention evaluation is completed before training or discussing implications of a comprehensive intervention plan.

Phase 3

For a child with problematic behavior, family interactions and social activities can become quite strained (Lucyshyn & Albin, 1993; Turnbull & Turnbull, 1996). One tenet of the behavior analysis approach is that generalization is enhanced when individuals are assessed and trained in their natural environments and when parents or other primary care providers (e.g., teachers) are included in the assessment and intervention process (Matson, Benavidex, Compton, Paclawskyj, & Baglio, 1996).

At the beginning of Phase 3, a meeting is scheduled with the family and teacher(s). The purpose of this meeting is to: (a) review the goals identified at the initial meeting, (b) evaluate the progress that has been made for each goal, (c) offer family and teacher training, and (d) schedule follow-up visits in the home and school. The remainder of Phase 3 is spent promoting generalization of the intervention via family and teacher training. When generalization is successful, follow-up observations are conducted with booster training and treatment modification as needed.

Parent and Teacher Training

The treatment-training component begins after we have experimentally demonstrated sufficient reductions in problem behavior with the identified intervention components. When an effective intervention is identified under highly controlled conditions, the procedures are presented to the parents, teachers, and other care providers to begin the generalization process. If they are in agreement with the procedures, all relevant individuals are offered training. In our program, training typically follows procedures developed by Vollmer, Marcus, and LeBlanc (1994). Usually, training meetings are conducted 1 to 2 times per week for about 1 hour each. The training occurs in 6 phases, with advancement from one phase to the next occurring when the trainee (i.e., parent, teacher, or other care provider) has no further questions and has demonstrated proficiency. The phases involve didactic interaction to explain the functional analysis outcome and treatment analysis, role play, modeling, trainee-conducted sessions with imm ediate feedback, trainee-conducted sessions with delayed feedback, and follow-up with booster training (e.g., one month follow-up) to modify treatment or to conduct booster training if needed.

During the didactic interaction, the trainee is provided with a written protocol. This protocol provides step-by-step instructions on how to implement the treatment. After they have read the protocol, the trainer provides instruction about the logic of the procedure and attempts to explain why the treatment is likely to be effective. For example, the trainee may be shown summaries of the functional analysis outcome (e.g., showing that behavior is reinforced by attention) to support the reason for an extinction component (e.g., do not provide attention) and a differential reinforcement component (e.g., strengthening communication as an alternative response). When the trainee confirms that he or she has no questions and agrees with the procedures, he or she is asked to verbally describe the procedures. When he or she describes the procedures without corrective feedback, the training moves to role-play.

During role-play, the trainee is asked to "act like (student)" and is prompted to display responses similar to the problem behaviors and similar to the desired alternative behaviors. The trainer then models correct implementation of all procedures. Next, the trainee is asked to implement the procedures while the trainer acts like the student. Role-play continues until all procedures are followed without corrective feedback.

After role-play, the trainer models implementation of the procedures with the actual student while the trainee observes. When the trainee has no questions, he or she is asked to implement the procedures with the student. All correct responses are met with verbal approval and any incorrect response is met with corrective feedback (e.g., "You forgot to acknowledge her when she tapped your shoulder." or "Remember do not reprimand her when she breaks things.") When the trainee is able to conduct all procedural components without corrective feedback, the trainer monitors an extensive interaction between the trainee and the student. At that stage, all feedback is given after a time delay when the observation is complete, and we attempt to match every corrective feedback response with a praise statement (e.g., "Remember when she put her own shoe on You forgot to give her a break. But it was amazing how you remembered to give her a break every other time.").

When corrective feedback is no longer needed, the trainer schedules a follow up visit, usually two to four weeks later. At the follow-up visit, the trainer only provides delayed feedback (if necessary) and offers a "booster session" if the trainee is making enough errors to erode the treatment effects. Also, if any procedural components require adjustments, the trainer can accommodate at that time.

This training model provides the opportunity for long term follow-up via the use of "booster sessions" as needed throughout the school year. In this way, parents, teachers, and other care providers have access to consultation when problems arise. Maintaining involvement beyond the initial improvement stage also communicates that the lengthy investment in the assessment and treatment process was worthwhile and necessary to demonstrate lasting changes for that child.


We have presented information and procedures detailing an approach to FBA utilizing applied behavior analysis techniques in the home and school environments. Our purpose was to highlight a data-driven model of assessment. One of the hallmarks of applied behavior analysis is to link assessment information to treatment decisions. As discussed, this can be accomplished when indirect methods (i.e., descriptive assessment) are combined with a direct method of assessing behavior (i.e., functional analysis), prior to implementing treatment.

We also have discussed the benefits of a team approach by including relevant care providers (e.g., parents and teachers) in gathering information for assessment and treatment. Although this overall approach is time-consuming, we believe that when this type of comprehensive model is followed, there is an increased likelihood for long term success. We believe it is a worthwhile goal for schools or school districts to employ behavior analysts or comparably trained personnel to provide comprehensive services of this sort. Until this goal is attained, some practitioners may find particular components to be more practical or useful for their specific situation. It is hoped that the information provided would assist those who set policy for FBA and those who are responsible for implementing FBA in the schools.


Table 1

Indirect assessment instruments and relevant citations.

Motivation Analysis Rating Scale Wieseler, Hanson, Chamberlain, &
(MARS) Thompson (1985)
Motivation Assessment Scale (MAS) Durand & Crimmins (1988)
Behavioral Diagnosis and Treatment Bailey & Pyles (1989)
Information Form (BDTIF)
Functional Analysis Interview Form O'Neil et al. (1990)
Stimulus Control Checklist (SCC) Rolider & Van Houten (1993)
Questions About Behavioral Function Matson & Vollmer (1995)
Table 2.

Functional Analysis Condition Descriptions

Condition Description Contingencies

Free Play An adult provides No programmed
 attention to the child consequences are
 as the child plays with provided for
 a preferred toy. No task problematic behavior.
 demands are presented.

Attention The child is told to The adult provides
 play alone. An adult attention to the child
 is present in the room. only when the child
 engages in problematic
 behavior. Appropriate
 behavior receives no
 programmed consequences.

Tangible An adult provides The preferred
 attention to the child. item is delivered
 A preferred item is to the child only
 visible but out of reach when the child engages
 for the child. No task in problematic behavior.
 demands are presented. The item item is removed
 following a set period of
 appropriate behavior.

Escape The child is given difficult The task is removed
 academic or functional when the child engages
 tasks to complete. in problematic behavior.

Alone/Ignore The child is left alone without All behaviors receive
 toys or activities. An adult no programmed
 is present or immediately consequences.
 outside of the room.


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Corresponding Author: Jennifer M. Asmus, The University of Florida, Department of Educational Psychology, PO Box 117047, Gainesville, FL 32611-7047.

Author Notes: The preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by Grant H324D990024 from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education and by Grant HD38698 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the funding agencies.
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Author:Asmus, Jennifer M.; Vollmer, Timothy R.; Borrero, John C.
Publication:Education & Treatment of Children
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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