3.1 functional behavior assessment

3.1: Provide teachers/providers with training and tools to conduct functional behavior assessment

FBA icon

Challenging behavior can interfere with a child’s own learning and that of the child’s classmates. It can also be stressful for teachers and caregivers at home and may even be harmful to the child or others. Tier 3 recommendations focus on establishing and implementing a process for providing children with persistent challenging behavior with an assessment-based behavior support plan.

Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is a systematic process for collecting information about why a child’s challenging behavior occurs. The information gathered from the FBA is then used to develop an individualized behavior support plan. The process is most successful when it uses a team-based approach. This team may include the child’s parents, teachers, school administrators and directors, child care providers, behavior specialists, and other caregivers. An FBA gives a clear description of the challenging behavior and its context and helps the team understand why the child engages in that behavior.

The use of FBA is mandated by law and, if used appropriately, can stop or reduce challenging behaviors before they lead to suspensions and expulsions. The implementation of an assessment-based behavior support plan is most suitable for addressing challenging behaviors that are persistent and impede a child’s learning or that of others, when other appropriate approaches (at the universal or targeted level, for example) have not been successful. These interventions specifically target a child’s skills in order to help him or her succeed and participate in daily activities and routines.

How Do I Do This?

Step 1. Discuss and reflect. Discuss with your teachers the importance of using a systematic process to understand how, why, and when a child’s challenging behaviors occur, and how this information can be used to develop an effective behavior support plan.

It is also important to recognize what systems and practices are currently in place to address challenging behavior. Teachers and staff should be supported in reflecting on their own practices. It may be helpful to ask questions such as:

  • What do you currently do when there is a child in your classroom who engages in challenging behavior?
    • What strategies do you use to address the challenging behavior?
    • What’s working well when you use these strategies?
    • Have you encountered any challenges in using these strategies?
  • It can also be helpful to discuss to what extent practices that are specifically relevant to FBA may or may not be present. Teachers may already be engaged in the steps for conducting an FBA, but might call it something different. You may want to ask:
  • Do you have a process for collecting information about:
  • Whom do you typically work with when trying to support a child with challenging behavior?
  • Do you have experience conducting an FBA?
    • Do you encounter any challenges?
    • Are there any supports you would want in the future to help you conduct an FBA?
  • When a challenging behavior occurs in your classroom, how is it being documented? Do you use specific tools or forms to describe the behavior and keep track of the frequency and intensity at which it is occurring?
  • Has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) been developed for this child? If so, how can the existing goals/outcomes of the IEP/IFSP be integrated into this discussion? In what ways can we align the outcomes/goals of the IEP/IFSP with the goals of the proposed behavior support plan?

Step 2. Support teachers and providers in documenting the behavior.

  • The nature of the behavior. The first step of the FBA process is to clearly describe the concerning behavior. What specifically does the child do or say? The behavior should be observable, measurable, and precise.
  • Vignette 1: Shaun’s disruptive behaviors include hitting, pinching, and kicking other children and adults.
    Vignette 2: Sophie’s disruptive behaviors include crying, lying on the floor, refusing to participate (e.g., saying, “no,”), and leaving the assigned area.
  • What happens just before the behavior. Writing down what events lead up to a challenging behavior can help teachers and caregivers understand what predicts or triggers the behavior.
  • Vignette 1: Shaun is playing with the blocks and a dump truck, and another child reaches for a block.
    Vignette 2: Sophie’s teacher announces that it’s time to transition to circle time activities.
  • Under what conditions is the behavior likely to occur. It’s important to understand what setting event (experience, physical or emotional state) increases the possibility that the challenging behavior will occur. Examples include unexpected loss or change in activity, absence of a person, or hunger.
  • Vignette 1: Shaun tends to exhibit challenging behavior in the block area or sandbox when another child tries to take a toy he’s playing with or a toy that is near him.
    Vignette 2: Sophie tends to exhibit challenging behaviors during non-preferred activities like circle time.
  • What adults and peers do when the problem behavior occurs. Observing what events happen right after a challenging behavior occurs can help teachers and caregivers understand what is maintaining the challenging behavior.
  • Vignette 1: After Shaun hits, kicks, or pinches other children, they drop the toy and pick a new one.
    Vignette 2: Sophie’s teacher, Mr. Brown, tries to convince Sophie to join the group on the carpet but eventually asks the teaching assistant to talk and work with Sophie quietly at a table.
  • Why the child might be exhibiting the behavior. It is important to understand the reason or function of the child’s behavior. How is it “working” for the child, and what does the child get out of it? There are two main functions of children’s behavior:
    • To obtain something (positive reinforcement), such as
      • A preferred activity (e.g., playing with a favorite toy)
      • Sensory input (e.g., interesting lights and sounds)
      • Attention (e.g., time with an adult or peer, physical contact)
    • To escape something (negative reinforcement), such as
      • A non-preferred activity (e.g., a difficult task, a boring group activity)
      • Sensory input (e.g., hunger, pain)

Step 3. Use the information to develop a hypothesis. The information from this documentation can then be used to develop a hypothesis statement, or “best guess,” about why the child’s behavior is occurring. It should describe when or under what circumstances the behavior occurs, a description of the challenging behavior, and a statement about the function of the behavior. For example:

Vignette 1: When another child tries to take his toy or a toy that is near him, Shaun hits and pinches the child, and as a result the child drops the toy and finds a new one. Shaun uses this behavior to obtain desired toys.
Vignette 2: When the teacher announces it’s time to transition to circle time activities, Sophie lies on the ground and cries, and as a result, the teaching assistant calmly talks and works with Sophie. Sophie uses this behavior to escape non-preferred activities and obtain attention from an adult.

Step 4. Identify training needs. Support your teachers as they identify their professional development goals and training needs so they feel prepared and comfortable conducting an FBA. Take into account if teachers are brand new to the process of conducting an FBA or if they have some experience. For teachers who have not done this before, an in-person training led by a trained specialist who goes over each step of the process with hands-on exercises may be helpful. A free online module on determining the meaning of challenging behavior is available on the Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) website (see Module 3a).

  • Discuss with teachers what they see as their strengths in conducting FBAs, as well as what they might find more challenging. For example, do staff understand how to systematically record information about the challenging behavior? Or are they struggling to analyze and interpret the data? It’s also important to ensure that staff have adequate support (time and assistance) to conduct an FBA.
  • Vignette 1: Shaun’s teacher, Ms. Johnson, sees the value in collecting information about what predicts and maintains Shaun’s challenging behavior but explains that she needs help with how to record this information. Her director, Ms. Holloway, helps Ms. Johnson develop the following goal: I will work with my team to gather and document in a systematic way information about what predicts and sustains Shaun’s behavior.
    • Ms. Holloway and Ms. Johnson then discuss possible strategies to accomplish this goal. Ms. Holloway proposes that she can give Ms. Johnson forms to record the appropriate information about Shaun’s behavior. Ms. Johnson thinks this will help but also admits that she’s most likely to use these forms if there’s designated time for someone to go over the forms with her to ensure she’s using them properly.
    Vignette 2: Mr. Brown describes how he and his team have completed different observation and interview forms documenting Sophie’s challenging behavior but that he’s not sure how to make sense of all the information they’ve collected. His director, Ms. Anderson, and he jointly decide on the following goal: I will work with my team to analyze the information collected about Sophie’s challenging behavior to develop a hypothesis statement.
    • They then brainstorm ways Mr. Brown can accomplish this goal. Ms. Anderson thinks that the school psychologist, Ms. Espinosa, can help Mr. Brown with analyzing the FBA data. Mr. Brown thinks the larger team he works with would also benefit from meeting with Ms. Espinosa.

Step 5. Plan a course of action. After identifying professional development goals and needs, you should work with teachers to identify action steps to help them accomplish their goals.

Vignette 1: The director, Ms. Holloway, reaches out to the program’s behavior specialist, Ms. Flowers, to arrange a time to hold a training session about how to use FBA tools (e.g., ABC (Antecedents, Behavior, Consequences) Form, Context Card Form, and Functional Assessment Interview Form) for Ms. Johnson and her team members. Ms. Flowers leads a 1-hour training session with the entire team. They watch video clip vignettes and practice completing the FBA forms. Ms. Flowers also observes Shaun in the classroom during free play time and recess across two days, and works with Ms. Johnson to complete the ABC form. Ms. Flowers encourages Ms. Johnson to reach out to her with any further questions.
  • Ms. Flowers then instructs the team to use these FBA tools to collect data about Shaun’s behavior that will help them design an individualized intervention or behavior support plan for Shaun. Using the ABC Form and Context Card Form, the team is instructed to record each instance of Shaun’s challenging behavior for the next 2 weeks. They then schedule a follow-up meeting to evaluate the data they collect and come up with a behavior hypothesis statement: “When another child tries to take Shaun’s toy or a toy that is near him, Shaun hits and pinches the child, and as a result the child drops the toy and finds a new one. Shaun uses this behavior to obtain desired toys.
Vignette 2: Ms. Anderson asks Ms. Espinosa, the school psychologist, to join Mr. Brown’s next FBA team meeting focused on Sophie to help the team analyze the data they collected last week. Ms. Espinosa and the team review the information collected on the scatter plot, which shows how frequently Sophie exhibited any challenging behaviors and during which classroom routines. Ms. Espinosa facilitates a discussion about the data, and the team notices that Sophie’s challenging behaviors are most likely to occur during transitions to circle activities. They discuss how Sophie loses interest, especially during songs and stories she doesn’t like. The group also reviews the Antecedents, Behavior, Consequences (ABC) form they completed to further examine what happens during circle time activities for Sophie. Collaboratively, the team uses the data to develop the following behavior hypothesis statement: “When the teacher announces it’s time to transition to circle activities, Sophie lies on the ground and cries, and as a result, the teaching assistant calmly talks and works with Sophie at a table during circle time. Sophie uses this behavior to escape non-preferred activities and acquire attention from an adult.

Step 6. Acknowledge progress. It is important to recognize teachers and members of the functional behavior assessment team as they make progress, as well as for team members to acknowledge one another’s achievements. For example:

  • In regular staff emails or newsletters, add a “shout out” section where administrators and other staff can submit a brief comment about the progress made in conducting an FBA for a given child (e.g., “Thanks Ms. Johnson for working diligently with the behavior specialist to complete an ABC Analysis for one of your children. Your time and dedication to this process are greatly appreciated!”).
  • Administrators can personally call or send handwritten notes to thank family members who are participating in the functional behavior assessment team. For example, Ms. Holloway could thank Shaun’s grandmother for coming in after school to answer interview questions about her grandson’s behavior at home, and for her commitment to working with the teachers to support her grandson’s success at school.
  • Administrators can develop a system so parents or other caregivers at home can send handwritten notes to teachers and staff on the behavioral assessment team thanking them for working with their child and family.
  • During functional behavior assessment team meetings, team members can also acknowledge one another by periodically presenting selected team members with a treat (e.g., gift card for a local coffee shop) and a few words thanking them for a specific task (e.g., “Thanks Mr. Brown and Ms. Peterson for carefully recording information about Sophie’s behavior on the scatter plot form. It really helped us figure out during which classroom routines Sophie’s challenging behavior is most likely to happen.”).

Step 7. Assess progress and new needs. It is important to remember that implementing the use of FBAs is an iterative process that should be continually assessed to understand what is and is not working well, and to make adjustments and refinements as needed. For example, the FBA team my misinterpret the function of the behavior (e.g., the team thinks that the child is seeking attention when in actuality the child is trying to avoid attention). This could impose a consequence that actually reinforces the behavior instead of reducing it. Administrators can regularly meet with FBA teams to hear about what’s working well and the challenges the team has faced. It may be helpful to have a midpoint check-in to identify and troubleshoot challenges. It is also valuable to hold a reflection session once the FBA is complete to compile a list of pluses (what worked well) and “deltas” (what the team would like to change in the future). Equally important is to brainstorm strategies for addressing deltas. FBA teams can also learn from each other by meeting or creating a document to share lessons learned and effective strategies.

Vignette 1: Ms. Johnson explained she’s really struggling with recording the frequency of Shaun’s challenging behavior on the scatter plot form because she’s too busy helping her other children.
Vignette 2: Mr. Brown shared that he’s encountered the same problem, and that he asked his teaching assistant, Ms. Peterson, to help with observing and documenting the information for Sophie’s scatter plot. Mr. Brown also commented that Ms. Peterson was eager to help and has been a key player on their functional behavior assessment team.

What Barriers Might I Run Into and What Are Solutions?

Potential Barrier: Teachers lack the time and expertise to conduct a functional behavior assessment.
Solution: It is important to remember that the FBA process is most successful when conducted by a team. Team members may include the teacher and teaching assistant, family members (e.g., parents, grandparents, extended family caregivers), behavior specialist, other school- or clinic-based related service professional (e.g., occupational therapist, speech and language pathologist), and school administrators. If possible, teachers should be supported by a trained specialist when conducting FBAs.

  • Administrators can also communicate to teachers that conducting FBAs is a program priority. Teachers should be given enough time and support to collect and analyze the information for an FBA. Providing teachers with the right training and an easy-to-use, time efficient, and clear system is key.

Potential Barrier: It’s challenging to really engage the families and make sure they are on board with providing the same kinds of behavior supports at home.
Solution: Time constraints can be a challenge for the entire team. However, in order to accurately conduct a FBA, full participation from all team members is recommended.

  • Parents and family members can give insight to how, when, and why a child’s challenging behavior happens because they may observe it at home, on the playground, at a family member’s house, at the grocery store, with siblings, etc.
  • Administrators and directors can be more involved by attending periodic parent-teacher conferences and making the effort to learn more about the child and what’s going on at home. Communication is the first step to engaging families.
  • Another possibility is to integrate the functional behavior assessment process into already existing IEP/IFSP meetings. One or both parents are required to attend IEP/IFSP meetings, so this will help ensure their participation in the FBA process.

Where Do I Go for More Resources?


Artman-Meeker, K., & Hemmeter, M. L. (2014). Functional assessment of challenging behaviors. In M. McLean, M. L. Hemmeter, & P. Snyder (Eds.), Essential elements for assessing infants and preschoolers with special needs (pp. 242-270). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Conroy, M. A., Davis, C. A., Fox, J. J., & Brown, W. H. (2002). Functional assessment of behavior and effective supports for young children with challenging behaviors. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 27(4), 35-47.

Division of Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children. (2015). Recommended practices glossary. Retrieved from http://www.dec-sped.org/dec-recommended-practices

Dunlap, G., & Carr, E. G. (2007). Positive behavior support and developmental disabilities: A summary and analysis of research. In S. Odom, R. Horner, & M. Snell (Eds.), Handbook of developmental disabilities (pp. 469-482). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Fox, L., Carta, J., Strain, P., Dunlap, G., & Hemmeter, M. L. (2010). Response to intervention and the pyramid model. Infants and Young Children, 23, 3 – 13.

McLaren, E. M., & Nelson, C. M. (2008). Using functional behavior assessment to develop behavior interventions for students in Head Start. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.

O’Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company as cited in The process for positive behavior support (PBS): Step four: Hypothesis development, Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children. Retrieved from http://challengingbehavior.fmhi.usf.edu/explore/pbs/step4.htm

Smith, B., & Fox, L. (2003). Systems of service delivery: A synthesis of evidence relevant to young children at risk of or who have challenging behavior. Tampa, Florida: University of South Florida, Center for Evidence-Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior.

Sugai, G., Horner, R. H., Dunlap, G., Hieneman, M., Lewis, T. J., Nelson, C. M., Scott, T., Liaupsin, C., Sailor, W., Turnbull, A. P., Turnbull, H. R., Wickham, D., Wilcox, B., & Ruef, M. (2000). Applying positive behavior support and functional behavioral assessment in schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(3), 131-143.

Umbreit, J., Ferro, J. B., Liaupsin, C. J., & Lane, K. L. (2007). Functional behavioral assessment and function-based intervention. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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