ABA Therapy

ABA Therapy Explainer: What’s a Functional Behavior Assessment?

When your child starts ABA therapy, there are a lot of vocabulary words and acronyms that seem to get thrown around, and it can take some type to truly get a grasp on it all. Functional Behavior Assessment, or FBA, is the one we’re going to focus on here.

A Functional Behavior Assessment is one of the primary ways our behavior therapy team works to identify a certain problem behavior, and then we develop a plan to address them – ultimately eliminating them or at least reducing them to a point they aren’t so prevalent.

Going through the process step-by-step helps our Cleveland ABA therapy team to get to the source of the behaviors so that we can start introducing replacements. The problem with trying to tackle a problem behavior without an FBA is that then you lack the “why.” WHY were they engaging in that behavior in the first place? Every behavior has a function. Trying to effect the extinction of a behavior without first figuring out its function is going to create a gaping opportunity other difficult behaviors to take root in its place. An FBA helps us figure it out first.

FBAs can be used in IEPs or as part of an ABA program. We only initiate them when the behavior has become an impediment. We’ll be looking at it as a team – in collaboration with parents too – to assess whether it’s urgent (is there a risk of harm to self or others?), whether there’s an underlying medical reason, whether it’s cyclical, and if it appears to be new or if this is a long-standing issue that has maybe just gotten worse. Finally, we want to know if this is something that is happening on a consistent basis. If it was a random, one-off reaction to a substantial – and uncommon – change in the environment, we probably don’t need to develop a plan to treat that, though we may note it. In cases where there may be multiple unexpected and detrimental behaviors, we’re likely to target them one at a time, beginning with the one likely to have the most significant adverse outcomes.

  • Define the behavior. After we identify the behavior, we have to define it. This sounds like the same thing, but it’s not. Defining the behavior means looking at how it shows up in a variety of contexts – at school, with different RBTs and BCBAs in ABA therapy, at home, in the grocery store, etc. It might not look exactly the same in every place, but with a clear definition, anyone on the team would be able to clearly know it for what it is. This is important because it allows us to accurately observe and treat it.
  • Measure the behavior. This is where we look at the ABCs of behavior – antecedent, behavior, and consequence. What comes right before the behavior? Are their certain triggers or times of day? What are the indicators that it is the defined behavior? How long does it last? And what happened immediately after? Even though the word “consequence” tends to have a bad connotation, the reality is that even a “bad” consequence can equal a desired outcome for some kids. For example, if a child shouts out of turn until they are removed from the classroom, they could be getting exactly what they want: Avoidance of the task.
  • Determine the behavior function. There is a reason for all behaviors. Our goal is to figure out what it is. It might, as we mentioned before, be avoidance, also sometimes referred to as escape. It could be for attention. It could be to gain access to certain items or activities. Or the motivation might be sensory. Bear in mind: A behavior can have more than one function.
  • Develop an action plan. Once we understand the why, our Cleveland ABA therapy team can start developing various strategies to steer the child in a different direction, usually through introduction of a replacement behavior. If the behavior is shouting until they get a favorite toy, our goal is going to be to have them say or sign for that toy instead. But in order to even effectively communicate that, we’re going to need to consider their functional level of communication, which perhaps is part of the issue. If they are unable to say or sign for the toy, we may need to start by teaching them how to do that before we start addressing the behavior itself. Then when they do it – or even begin making earnest attempts to reach the goal – we reward them. Positive reinforcement is key.
  • Monitor and assess. The plan is in place, we know what they want, we’re actively working on the action plan. But in order to know whether it’s working, we have to continue monitoring and assessing. If we’re not seeing improvements, then we need to implement some new strategies. We may even need to start over from the beginning and conduct another FBA.

Sometimes, it can feel like this process is fruitless or that progress is incredibly slow.  We aren’t going to give up just because it gets hard, but it’s important that we do it the right way – so that these are skills and lessons they will carry with them throughout their lives.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Cleveland, Akron, and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

Conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment, The IRIS Center Peabody College Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN

More Blog Entries:

Brecksville ABA Therapists Offer “Time-Out” Alternatives, Feb. 6, 2022, Northeast Ohio ABA Therapy Blog