What to Expect from a Functional Behavioral Assessment
You’ve taken the important step to seek help to address your child’s challenging behaviors. You’ve talked to a primary care physician or maybe a psychologist or counselor at your child’s school and received a recommendation that a functional behavior assessment should be conducted by a certified professional. Now you are preparing for the assessment. What should you expect?
The short answer is: an in-depth evaluation to understand the behavior and what may be causing or contributing to it, as well as recommendations to address it. Typically, the functional behavioral assessment involves these steps:
The investigation phase includes interviews – which are really just conversations with different people – along with observations to see the behavior in action, what might trigger it, and how the child responds.
If the child’s behavior is getting in the way of interactions with his or her environment or learning at school, the clinician first meets with caregivers and others the child interacts with, such as teachers and family members. Specific questions are asked to learn what they are seeing and to explore insights on what triggers the problem behaviors.
Second, the behavior is observed directly to see what the consequences are. Usually this requires visiting the child at home, in the community or in a school setting. The purpose of the observation is to really get to know what maintains the problem behavior and determine the best replacement behavior to teach.
The child’s environment is also investigated, including home, community and/or school. This often includes exploring furniture, spaces, sounds, noises, light, etc. to identify any factors that could be triggering or worsening problem behaviors. The clinician asks about life changes at home, in school or the community that might also be contributing factors.
As the clinician works through the process, he or she will test different theories and potential causes of the problem behaviors. Maybe certain environmental conditions are causing the behavior. Maybe the behavior only happens in specific situations.
Part of testing is to engage with the child directly to understand their communication ability and style of communicating, and to see how they relate to others. How does the child communicate and in what forms: words, signs, pictures, noises? How expressive and receptive is the child with the people around him or her? Does he or she have any physical limitations?
Testing will also look at all the current skills the individual has and areas where they will need support. This is useful when teaching replacement behaviors so the child can use and/or strengthen skills they already have.
Depending on the level of problem behavior, there may be additional testing that will look directly at what is maintaining the problem behaviors. This may seem intrusive, but it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what is going on so that appropriate supports can be put in place.
In the analysis phase, the clinician will identify what works well in the child’s home life and school setting, what supports are present, what the child finds reinforcing and what the child enjoys doing. This can include what kind of play and with what toys or entertainment or activities works well with the child.
At the end of the assessment there is a report that summarizes what has been learned and insights on why the behavior is occurring. Usually, behaviors occur for one of these reasons:
- To escape from something the child doesn’t like
- To get access to something preferred
- To get attention from others; or
- Because of something automatic, something within the child… like feeling an itch and the natural response to scratch it
Based on the conclusions determined through the process and detailed in the report, and reflecting upon an understanding of the situation, the clinician will recommend an individual treatment plan for the child. The plan is specific, with the goal of addressing the maintaining cause of problem behaviors while teaching or strengthening replacement behaviors and teaching new skills.