Functional Behavior Assessments FBA

In the IEP process, there is little that bothers me more than when I hear about one of our kids repeatedly being suspended, and the group will ask, “Does he have an FBA and behavior plan?” To which the parent responds “What’s an FBA?” Mind you, I’m not mad at the parent, but at the school.

An FBA is a Functional Behavior Assessment. All kids (adults too!) exhibit undesirable behaviors. It’s when those behaviors are interfering with the student’s ability to access and benefit from their education, that parents need to pursue this.

FBA IEP Behavior Plans

When a Parent Should Ask for an FBA

Many parents wait for the school to initiate it, and that’s often when behaviors are already out of control. Parents should request that it be conducted when parents start receiving behavioral referrals/disciplinary action from the school. Or when reports cards indicate that the student is having recurring challenges in school, as related to:

  • social skills
  • impulse control
  • compliance
  • following whole group instruction

Behavioral Issues in School-If your student has behavioral challenges that are impacting his learning or that of his peers, then it is considered best practice for the district to complete a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). It’s important for parents and educators to understand the basics of the student’s behavior before arriving at a plan on how to handle it.

How to Request an FBA

All requests need to be done in writing. A simple email will do. “Dear IEP team, I am requesting that my child receive an FBA. I believe he/she has behaviors that are interfering with his/her ability to access and benefit from their education. They are: (and list them in bullet points).”

That’s it. Doesn’t have to be complicated, and rules for IEP evaluations will apply.

ABCs of Behavior

A – Antecedent – anything that occurs before the target behavior

  • Fast triggers – the event that occurred just before the target behavior
  • Slow triggers – the event that occurred sometime in the past

B – Behavior – the undesirable (target) behavior that needs to be modified

  • Must be operationally defined in observable (can you see it?) and measurable (can you count it?) terms

C – Consequence – any event that occurs after the target behavior

  • Reinforcing – a consequence that increases the likelihood that the behavior will repeat itself
  • Punishing – a consequence that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will repeat itself
  • Form – What does the behavior look like? Must be defined in observable (can you see it?), measurable (can you count it?) terms
  • Function – What purpose does the behavior serve?

All Behavior Tells You Something!

Nearly all behaviors fall into one or more categories:

  1. to gain or obtain something desirable (ie sensory input or attention)
  2. to avoid or delay something undesirable (ie task avoidance)

Once we know the function of the target behavior, we need to identify a replacement behavior that is as effective and as efficient as the target behavior. It’s important to read and heed that previous sentence. If the replacement behavior does not meet or satisfy the need that the undesirable behavior was meeting, the child will still seek to meet that need.

3 Levels of FBAs

In order to determine a behavior’s function, it may be necessary to have an FBA completed. There are three levels of FBA.

  1. Informal – may include record review and interview with key team members
  2. Indirect – may include record review, interview with key team members, behavior checklists and a brief observation
  3. Complex – will include record review, interview with key team members, behavior checklists, a structured, extensive observation across settings and time periods, sophisticated data collection systems and analysis of behavioral data

Functional Behavior Assessment Process

An FBA is a process that will be completed over a period of several weeks. Steps include:

  1. Indirect data collection
  2. Record review
  3. Interview with parents, support staff, individual
  4. Define and prioritize behavior
  5. Direct observation and data collection
  6. Analyze the data
  7. Develop a hypothesis
  8. Design a support plan and test hypothesis
  9. Monitor and evaluate

Who completes an FBA?

Districts don’t always have a qualified person on staff, and typically use the learning support or autistic support teacher. Their evals are not usually very comprehensive and do not include enough empirical data to drive meaningful positive behavioral support plans (from my experience ). If the parents question the credentials of the evaluator, and s/he does not seem qualified, then the parents should request an independent evaluator.

  • School district behaviorist
  • A behavioral health professional/agency with whom your student’s district contracts, in PA this is often the IU.
  • Independent evaluator

Whoever completes the assessment, be sure that they

  1. have experience conducting FBA
  2. they have been properly trained and certified (varies by state)
  3. they have experience with the behavior challenges/diagnosis of your child.

After the FBA is completed.

Depending on where you live, it might be called BP-Behavior Plan, BIP-Behavior Improvement Plan, PBSP-Positive Behavior Support Plan or even some other special education acronym.

Once the FBA has been completed, the next step is to develop a Positive Behavior Support Plan. For the purposes of brevity in the post, I will use BIP (behavior improvement plan) going forward, but it will mean all types of behavior plans.

How to Develop a Solid Behavior Improvement Plan

  • Determine who is going to be collecting data
  • How frequently? (hourly, daily, weekly)
  • What measurement will be used? (frequency, duration, latency, intensity)
  • What tracking tool will be used? (find the tool that will effectively capture the data)
  • Have the data collectors been properly trained?
  • Do all data collectors have the same understanding of what the target and replacement behaviors look like?

When determining what reward will be used to reinforce replacement behavior, consider:

  • Quality: is the reward meaningful to the individual?
  • Quantity: how little can be delivered in order to gain the desired effect?
  • Immediacy: how soon after the desired behavior is demonstrated do we offer the reward
  • Satiation: be careful that the individual doesn’t “get their fill” of the reward and it loses its potency
  • Fading: be sure that the individual doesn’t become too dependent on the reward and only perform the desired behavior as long as he receives the reward

Implementing a BIP

Many students have very large and supportive school teams. It’s important to determine who will be responsible for each aspect of the positive behavior support plan. A solid BIP is worthless if it is not followed with fidelity across all environments.


  • Who will be enforcing the limits?
  • Do all support staff/team members have the same expectations for what behavior is being targeted?
  • Are all support staff/team members consistently enforcing the limits?
  • Are all support staff/team members being proactive and respectful of the individual?
  • What are the norms of the target environment?

ALWAYS pair limit setting with a replacement behavior. What are you trying to teach as an alternative?

Monitoring the Behavior Plan

Be sure the interventions are simple and doable for those enforcing the strategies. The question then becomes who will monitor the implementation of the plan, monitor data collection, graph and analyze data collection, train data collectors, write the PBSP, etc.

If the FBA yielded results to confirm that a student’s behavior is negatively impacting his learning or that of his peers, then a Positive Behavior Support Plan (PBSP) should follow. The PBSP will become part of the IEP. As part of the IEP, the IEP team is then obligated to implement it and to record data on the behavioral goals. To this end, there must be a behavioral goal that is clearly defined and measurable. A measurable goal will include three key components.

  • Condition – describes the setting or environment in which the individual will perform the desired behavior
  • Behavior – describes the desirable replacement behavior to be demonstrated in clearly defined terms
  • Criteria – describes how the replacement behavior will be measured so that we can determine when the goal has been met

E.g., (Condition) When Lydia is invited to play at recess by at least one peer, (behavior) she will accept and engage in a mutually agreed-upon activity (criteria) for a minimum of five minutes in 8 out of 10 opportunities for four consecutive weeks with less than two prompts from supporting adults.

The PBSP may not cover all probable behaviors. We cannot possibly predict and plan for EVERY behavior. To address issues that may exceed the limits of the PBSP, the team may need to develop a Crisis Plan. The crisis plan should be included to cover those more intensive (severe and dangerous) behaviors for which the PBSP didn’t address. It should include the school’s general protocol that addresses how unsafe and severe behaviors would be handled for any student. It should also include strategies that are specific for your student and include strategies to employ before, during and after the crisis occurs.

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Staci McCullough, MS, LBS, Founder, ACT of PA, LLC; 215-801-2501

~Advocacy, Consulting, Training~, Serving Berks, Bucks, Chester and Montgomery Counties

Staci has worked in the behavioral health field for 18 years. In 2014, she shifted her focus on supporting families to become a special education advocate. In this manner, she continues to use her extensive knowledge about Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD and other behavioral challenges to assist parents as they navigate the world of special education, 504 plans, and IEPs. Staci has a master’s degree in counseling psychology with a specialization in child and adolescent therapy and is certified by the Bureau of Autism Services as a trainer in Functional Behavioral Assessments. She lives in Montgomery County with her husband and two school-aged sons.

Thank you so much, Staci! {this post was originally published in 2015 but was recently updated}

Blog Owner’s Note, November 2018: At a recent Chester County Right to Education meeting, we had the pleasure and privilege of hearing Dr. Rich Allen from Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health speak to us about FBAs. He was gracious enough to share the following resource with us, so I am sharing it here.

Also, please note that Dr. Allen and Staci McCullough may disagree on some points and never intended to collaborate on a post. But, posting Dr. Allen’s here made the most sense. The fact that their materials appear together here should not be construed as an endorsement. Thanks.

I love this establishing operations worksheet!


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