When to Ask for a Functional Behavioral Assessment to Address Behaviors?

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by Paul Livelli, Ph.D.

Why Would He Want to Do That?
As a behavioral and educational consultant, I am often asked to come into schools to look at programming for students with autism. Sometimes the behavior of a child becomes a barrier to his or her learning. We want our children to learn when they go to school. We want them to be able to share that knowledge and make generalizations. We want them to get As. I frequently ask educators and parents, what makes these achievements possible?

In behavioral terms, we want our children to sit in their hard plastic seats for as long as 60 minutes, raise their hand when the teacher asks a question and not get called on even though they have the right answer, do copious amounts of repetitive practice work on cluttered worksheets both at school and then later at home—all to get an A?

My question to educators, parents, and other stakeholders is why would they want to do that? After I give the examples of what we are asking our kids to do, especially our kids with autism who are not often motivated by a letter of the alphabet, the look on their faces often gives the impression that they have no idea why.

If we are going to change a behavior in a child to be more socially appropriate for school, home, and community, we have to give them a reason to do this that is more powerful than the reason for not engaging in the “inappropriate” behavior. For example, if we want a child to sit in his seat for 45 minutes, the reason we give the child to do this has to be more reinforcing than being able to get up and run around the classroom or go visit a neighbor or go get a toy off the shelf. As educators we sometimes assume that the child wants to do well enough in school that he or she will inhibit all these other (often more powerful) desires. The children I work with often do not care too much for inhibition. So what do we do?

As a behaviorist, the first thing I look at is the environment. Can we remove the toys from the shelf? Can we schedule movement breaks during periods of tasks requiring prolonged sitting? Is there something I can change in the environment that will make the occurrence of the behavior less likely? Next, behaviorists look at the behavior the child is engaging in. If he or she is running around the room during instruction, can we take a picture of him running, cut it into five pieces, and have him earn pieces for sitting appropriately for shorter periods of time? When he earns the whole picture, we take him for a run.

These are just a few of manytechniques for looking at behavior in ways to help children, especially those with autism, become more available for learning. In the future, we could teach the value of a grade coupled with more specific reinforcement, but for now there are simple things we can do in our classrooms, homes, and communities to answer the question: Why would he want to do that?

Once a parent or an IEP team has identified behaviors such as distractibility or noted that a child is struggling due to distractions or lack of motivation, how can a parent ask for help? Ask for a Functional Behavioral Assessment.

How and When to Ask for a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) at Your IEP Meeting?
First of all, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the IEP team to consider five special factors when writing an IEP, one of which is behavior. IDEA states: (i) In the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.

So when a team member states something like he doesn’t seem to be paying attention or he is easily distracted or he doesn’t seem to be motivated, it is the perfect opportunity to bring up an FBA. It is all about availability for instruction. I use this language all the time in meetings. “It sounds like he is not available for instruction.”

Behavior that impedes learning comes in many forms and does not always manifest itself in aggressive incidents. Off-task behavior can and does impede learning. Continual self-stimulation can and does impede learning.

When a team claims that a child is off-task or distracted or not motivated, I ask for baseline data. Often these are generalized statements that are not yet quantified by the IEP team, so a question is posed that calls for data collection. What is he doing that is off-task? How many times per minutes? In what parts of the day is the team seeing these behaviors more often? What is he doing that makes it seem like he is not motivated?

With these questions, you have initiated the FBA process. What are the behaviors you want to change in specific measurable behavior terms? The rest of the process should follow, but this critical baseline measurement will be used to determine if any intervention changes the data. Remember to ask teams to quantify their generalized statements. Sometimes what children are doing when they are not doing their work is often the best reinforcer.

An FBA is just the start of a collaborative process with your IEP team. Asking the team to complete the FBA will allow them to collect data and then to evaluate through the Behavior Intervention Plan how those behaviors can be addressed.

Paul Livelli, Ph.D., began his career in special education as a one-to-one aide for a student with autism. Later, he became the vocational coordinator for students with developmental disabilities. He has been a special education teacher for students with autism, emotional disturbance, and juvenile offenders in both public and private programs. Livelli worked for eight years at Sheppard Pratt Health System, supervising special education schools for students with autism throughout the state of Maryland.

Currently, he is an educational and behavioral consultant for families and school systems in Maryland and Virginia. He is a research associate for the University of Maryland, College Park where he teaches courses on autism, classroom management, and social communication.