The Many Flaws of School FBAs and Behavior Plans

FBAs and Behavior Plans

FBAs and Behavior Plans are a common component of IEPs. And, after 12 years of advocacy, I’m seeing the same issues over and over.

Most importantly–they often don’t work. The same kids are being suspended, failing grades, and being ostracized by both peers and staff.

I’m going to outline some common themes that I see in insufficient FBAs and Behavior Plans. I have separate posts on both, if you wish to use the search bar on the right.

Adding: I want to thank everyone who reached out about this post. Yes, it’s a widespread issue. I’m sorry that so many of you are experiencing it, but it’s why I published it.

What is an FBA and Behavior Plan?

Like I just said above, I have a separate post on this, going into much more detail about these IEP components. FBA is an IEP acronym for Functional Behavior Assessment/Analysis (I’ve seen schools use that last word interchangeably).

A behavior plan is a plan developed by the IEP team, based upon information gained in the FBA. The whole process is designed to improve good behavior and eliminate negative behaviors in a child.

If you are considering requesting an FBA or you have a behavior plan that is not working for your child, please read on.

The Problems with FBAs

Here are some of the common issues that I see with FBAs.

Anyone can do an FBA. IDEA and most state regs do not designate this for only one staff person. I mean, who does an OT evaluation? The OT. Who does a PT evaluation? The PT. See where I’m going with this?

Any staff person can do an FBA on a child. Is it best practice to have a behaviorist do it? Sure. But it’s not required. As such, we end up with FBAs that have been done by teachers, OTs, SLPs, guidance counselors, school psychologists….many of whom have had zero behavior training.

ross green quote about discipline

Even when they are done by behaviorists or BCBAs does not guarantee a good outcome or result, but more on that in a bit.

Most FBAs that I’ve seen rarely dig deep enough. This is a summary of an actual conversation I had with a parent recently.

Parent: My son has a FBA/BP and it’s not working.

Me: Ok, what was the issue found in the FBA.

Parent: He has school refusal. (that’s what her BIP said, I saw it)

Me: Ok, so let’s go a step further. Why does he refuse to go to school?

Parent (after she discussed with IEP team): Because he has anxiety.

Me: Ok, again, not digging deep enough. Why does he have anxiety?

Parent (again, after reaching out to staff person who did FBA): She said he has separation anxiety.

Me (again): Could you please ask her to go deeper into the issue….why does he have separation anxiety?

Parent: She said that he said that he doesn’t want to be away from me (his mom).

Me (still doing the &%$#%&* job of the person who was supposedly doing an FBA): Look, she’s not getting it. GO DEEPER INTO THE ISSUE. What, specifically, what feelings does he have at home vs. at school, what are you providing for him at home, as far as safety and security, that he does not get at school? Why does being at school invoke such feelings of anxiety, that he cannot bring himself to attend? What does he get at home, that he’s not getting at school, that we can add to make him feel safe and secure? What coping mechanisms does he need to be taught, that he is currently lacking?

Do you see where I am going with this? Because the school thought it was satisfactory to say “He refuses to go to school because he has school refusal.”

And their spectacular behavior plan included things like: verbally preparing him that it’s time to go to school, rewarding him and greeting him for attending school and things like that.

Yet, they never once asked themselves or this student, why specifically, he did not want to go to school, and what could change. They never once defined, nor targeted the true antecedent to the behavior.

Lather rinse repeat times 1000. Because I see this on so many IEPs, all day, every day.

Which brings me to my next complaint about bad FBAs and Behavior Plans.

Too often, they put the onus on the child to change. Most BIPs that I’ve seen only have tasks for the child. Never the school or school team. Too few ask about the coping mechanisms of the child, or what could be done differently by the teacher or the school. The goals are usually over simplistic, with things like “Child will begin to attend school” and “Child will have fewer meltdowns.”

“Kids do well when they can.” ~Ross Greene

FBAs are often done, and the IEP is not being implemented in the first place. If your child has accommodations and strategies in their IEP, they are there for a reason. And, more IEPs are not followed, than those that are followed with fidelity. I believe this with 1000% of my being.

So parents, before the team makes the move toward an FBA and behavior plan, be 100% sure that the IEP is sufficient and being followed. Because if it’s not, behaviors are likely to erupt.

When you make demands on a child, and they do not have the skills to meet those demands, you’re going to see behaviors.

Two words: Attention Seeking. I swear to god if I see this on one more IEP, I am going to lose my shit. Please tell me what child wants to be mocked, ostracized and stared at by their peers? What kid wants to totally melt down in front of the entire class? For attention?

child having a meltdown at school
This is a stock photo added for effect, not a real child in a real BIP crisis situation.

These kids are begging us, pleading with us…to please make them feel safe, secure and supported. They desperately want to have skills and coping mechanisms so that they don’t stand out. And the school’s typical response–verbal prompts. The attention they are seeking is “Teach me, help me.”

When you call the behavior attention seeking, you’re assuming “won’t” instead of “can’t.” Try reframing it to a cry for help, rather than attention seeking. They just lack the skills to ask for help appropriately, or define and verbalize their struggles appropriately.

And people ask for help because they need help. Not for attention.

ross green skill quote

FBAs rarely address past trauma. In, 12 years, I’ve seen maybe 2 or 3 client IEPs that had childhood trauma listed in their FBA. Yet according to NICHQ, about half of all American children have experienced a trauma of some kind.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) not only reduce our life expectancy by 20 years, but they also cause the following: lead children to spend most of their lives in fight-or-flight mode, making it difficult for them to build healthy relationships, thrive at school or maintain future employment.

Sound familiar? But guess what? We can heal from trauma! Divorce, death, job loss, pandemic, there are all kinds of trauma. Food insecurity, domestic violence, alcoholic parents, bullying…again, HALF of all kids have experienced an ACE of some kind.

Issues with Behavior Plans

There’s going to be a lot of overlap here, but I see a lot of issues with behavior plans. Of course, the adage of “garbage in, garbage out” applies here. If you have a crappy FBA, you’re going to have a crappy behavior plan.

They address the behavior rather than the lack of an underlying skill. Tell me if this sounds familiar–your child struggles with activities, like preferred vs. non preferred activities.

This is the type of garbage I see on behavior plans: The FBA determines that the undesired behavior appears most often during or preceding a non-preferred activity. Let’s say, reading/LA class. And the behavior plan calls for stupid things like ‘verbally preparing the child for the transition to LA class’ and “gets a sticker for attending LA class without incident.”

Or, one of my favorites, “Child will get 15 mins on ipad at the end of the day if they attend LA class without incident.”

MEANWHILE THE CHILD CAN’T &**&$^&$ READ.

This IS WHY the child HATES reading class. They cannot read and it feels like everyone else around them can. And they feel isolated and lost….and don’t know how else to ask for help, so they act out.

But back to above–the FBA too often doesn’t dig deep enough.

ross greene quote

The child has to “earn” the accommodations and supports they need to be successful. Schools should be embarrassed at how often this one happens. “If child exhibits {desired behavior} they then get a sensory break.”

“If adult navigates an auto accident without injury, they then get the reward of being able to wear a seatbelt.”

Ok, I’m struggling to find a good analogy here. But you get what I mean–support the child!

sensory break

Behavior strategies often force a child through their interoception. (click the word interoception if you don’t know what that is) Again, piggybacking on a crappy FBA, if you do not identify the sensory issues that a child might be having, all the stickers and ipad time in the world is not going to change it.

We have to acknowledge and validate and address that many kids have sensory experiences that we do not have. Doesn’t matter if it’s noise, visuals, temperature, movement, vestibular or whatever…you cannot reward a kid out of a negative interoceptive experience. Forcing them through it will likely only make the situation worse.

And when I suggest this at IEP meetings, I get a lot of sighing and pffft from staff. I’m not suggesting you change the entire classroom environment. There are small changes you can make, like sound canceling headphones. A different chair. And, teach the kid coping mechanisms!

punitive quote ross greene

Because lemme ask you this, schools–are your current strategies working? To force kids through things?

I’d argue that they are not. Believe me, I’d love for my job to be obsolete.

Next Steps for Parents

Look, a child doesn’t get suspended or expelled from school because they didn’t eat lunch or have Cs in a class.

They get suspended because of behaviors.

I know that many parents are going to read this and do a lot of head nodding, and have a lot of “aha!” moments.

aha moment oprah animated gif

So what next?

First, read up and learn all of your parental rights in the IEP process. Read your procedural safeguards. Be an active IEP team participant all year long, not just during the IEP process.

Use your rights to make sure that your IEP is sufficient and being followed. Be relentless.

Do not agree to an FBA unless you are certain that the IEP is being followed with fidelity. Use the old “IEP wait and see” on them.

Instead of consenting to the FBA, do a “well, let’s wait and see what happens after the IEP is followed consistently for 2 months to see if supportive accommodations reduce behaviors.”

Communicate everything in writing and use their language.

Most importantly–ask your child! This may not happen in one dinner conversation or car ride. But keep asking–why are they doing this? What do they like and dislike about school? What is hard about school? What would they like to change about school?

Remember, “Kids do well when they can.”

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