child assessment

Functional behavior assessment (FBA) is a method of determining the causes of negative behaviors in children that may interfere with their education. Once the driving force behind an unwanted behavior is identified, a therapist can propose solutions for improvement. Read on to learn more about how ABA therapists use functional behavior assessment. 

What Is a Functional Behavior Assessment? 

Functional behavior assessment (FBA) is a process of identifying challenging behaviors, particularly within a classroom setting. Negative behaviors, such as refusing to work on a task, responding in an inappropriate way, or having angry outbursts, may get in the way of the child’s ability to learn and hinder the academic progress of other students. 


The purpose of conducting a functional behavior assessment is to better understand the relationship between the inappropriate behavior and the environment in order to develop strategies for improvement.

When is it done?

An FBA may be conducted for a child with autism when they are displaying challenging behaviors that are interfering with their ability to learn, communicate, or participate in daily activities. These behaviors may include aggression, self-injury, tantrums, noncompliance, and other disruptive behaviors.

The decision to conduct an FBA is typically made by a team that includes the child’s parents, teachers, and other professionals, such as a behavior analyst or psychologist. The FBA process typically involves collecting data on the behavior, conducting interviews with the child and those who interact with them, and analyzing the data to determine the function of the behavior.

How does it work?

Functional behavior assessment is based on the belief that every behavior serves a specific purpose or a function. The most common functions of a child’s behavior are:

  • Escaping a situation
  • Seeking attention
  • Gaining access to something 
  • Automatic reinforcement.

In functional behavior assessment, a behavior is never simply labeled as “bad.” By understanding why a child behaves in a certain way, it is possible to develop effective improvement strategies.

Functional behavior assessment can be done at school, at home, or another place where the child receives mental health services. 

When is it used?

Functional behavior assessment is used when typical school interventions are not effective in controlling the child’s problematic behavior. The method is employed with both regular and special education students, and may serve as confirmation of a child’s disability. Functional behavior assessments are also the starting point for creating positive behavior support plans for children in special education and applied behavior analysis (ABA) autism treatment plans.

The assessment can be completed at school, at home, or in another setting where the child receives mental health services. 

Below, we explain how ABA therapists use this method when working with autistic children with behavioral challenges.


Direct vs Indirect FBA

Functional behavior assessments can be direct or indirect, depending on the nature of the behavior that needs improvement. 

Direct FBA

A direct functional behavior assessment is an objective way of gathering information. It is a thorough evaluation used to identify and replace severe, persisting, and frequent negative behaviors. Direct FBA is also used to verify a disability, make placement decisions, or choose intensive or intrusive intervention methods.


In this type of assessment, a therapist directly observes a child’s challenging behavior on several different occasions and takes note of the following: 


  • Circumstances surrounding the behavior
  • The frequency and duration of the behavior
  • The time of day when the behavior occurs
  • The location where the child usually displays the behavior
  • Activities related to the behavior
  • People present.


This method is also known as an ABC functional assessment because the gathered data is analyzed based on the ABCs of behavior: antecedents, behaviors, and consequences.

Indirect FBA

An indirect functional behavior assessment is used to assess behaviors that are less frequent and less severe. It consists of gathering information about the challenging behavior from parents, teachers, service providers, and other individuals who closely work with the child. 


To help identify the target behavior and its function, indirect FBAs rely on using tools such as: 


  • Rating scales
  • Questionnaires
  • Interviews
  • Discussions


The indirect approach is not as technical as the direct one, it uses simpler language, and is less time consuming. That’s why it is typically used in urgent situations that require immediate action and when there is no time to do a more detailed assessment. If needed, the therapist will suggest a more comprehensive direct FBA.


How Do ABA Therapists Use Functional Behavior Assessments?

A functional behavior assessment is typically conducted by a licensed professional such as an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist. The therapist may work together with the school counselor, the child’s teacher, and parents to create a treatment plan.


The therapist starts by analyzing the child’s behavior and making a hypothesis about the functions that the behavior serves. Consequently, they can create a targeted intervention plan that will help modify the negative behavior.


Through functional behavior assessment, an ABA therapist: 


  • Identifies interventions necessary to reduce the undesirable behavior
  • Proposes alternative behaviors that the child can use instead of the unwanted ones
  • Determines the appropriate placements and services.


Continue reading to learn more about the different stages of a functional behavior assessment.

child playing

Steps of an FBA

A functional behavior assessment takes about 30 days to complete. It consists of the following steps:

  • Define the challenging behavior
  • Gather and analyze information
  • Find out the reason for the negative behavior
  • Make a plan to encourage positive behavior.

Define the challenging behavior

The first step of an FBA is to observe and describe the challenging behavior. The observation must be fact-based and should not represent an assumption about the child’s feelings. For example, the therapist may note that the child throws objects in the classroom instead of stating that the child is not interested in the lesson. 

Gather and analyze information

During the second stage of an FBA, the therapist will try to answer the following questions:

  • When does the behavior occur?
  • Where does the behavior occur? 
  • In what circumstances does the behavior not occur?
  • How often does the behavior occur?
  • Who is around when it occurs (peers, adults)?
  • What triggers the behavior?
  • What happens after the behavior occurs?
  • What more acceptable behavior can be used as an alternative?

Therapists use various methods to gather the information that will help them analyze the behavior, for example: 

  • Direct observation of the behavior
  • Questionnaires and interviews
  • ABC charts that help collect data about:
    • Antecedent (what happens before)
    • Behavior (describing the behavior itself)
    • Consequences (what happens after).
  • Charts that track the frequency, duration, and intensity of the behavior.

Find out the reason for negative behavior

Using the information that was collected in the second FBA stage, the therapist will outline a hypothesis about the causes and functions of the behavior. 

The hypothesis must be accompanied by a detailed report that includes:

  • Information and data gathered about the behavior
  • A description of the analysis procedures that were used
  • Comprehensive recommendations on how to reduce negative behaviors.

Make a plan to encourage positive behavior 

The final step of an FBA is creating a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). This document explains how to reduce negative behaviors and replace them with more appropriate ones. 

The plan must include the following elements: 

  • Specific changes that are necessary in order to reduce or eliminate problematic behaviors, for example:
    • Modifications in the physical environment
    • Changes in the way the information is presented to the student
    • Introducing other consequences for the unwanted behavior
  • Replacement behaviors that will serve the same function for the child
  • Skills training the child needs for using the appropriate behaviors
  • Support the child needs for using appropriate behaviors
  • The person who will be in charge of carrying out the plan.


If new information is obtained along the way, the therapist will adjust the intervention plan. 


In the following section, we explain the two main types of functional behavior assessments. 

child with therapist


In conclusion, a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) can be an incredibly valuable tool for parents of children with autism who are struggling with challenging behaviors. By identifying the underlying function of the behavior, parents and professionals can develop a behavior support plan that addresses the root cause of the behavior and provides strategies for reducing its occurrence.

It’s important to remember that an FBA is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process that may need to be repeated as the child’s needs and behaviors change over time. By working collaboratively with a team of professionals, parents can help their child to overcome challenging behaviors and achieve their full potential.


If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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