Chapter 9 Functional Behavior Analysis Trinity of
After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
• Explain the purposes of a functional behavior analysis.
• Define and explain the relationship between behavior and the function of behavior.
• Explain how a behavioral hypothesis is developed.
• Describe the possible functions of behavior.
• Explain how culture can influence the functions of behavior.
• Describe the attributes of the two functional categories of behavior.
• Write a behavioral hypothesis.
• Explain the differences among the various kinds of functional-based interventions.
Many teachers use reactive strategies to manage inappropriate student behaviors in the
classroom. These default strategies are easy to implement and often result in the reduction of the
inappropriate behaviors in the short term, but they result in the removal of students from the
classroom and the cessation of the learning process (Clunies-Ross, Little, & Kienhuis, 2008).
Unfortunately, unless they address the causes, or functions, of students’ inappropriate behaviors,
teachers are unable to make effective behavior modifications that could result in long-term
alterations of these behaviors. A functional behavior analysis is the only method that allows
identification of the function of an inappropriate behavior (Pence, Roscoe, Bourret, & Ahearn,
2009). Once the function of the behavior has been identified, a function-based intervention can
be implemented to reduce the behavior. The purposes of a functional behavior analysis are to
determine the function of the inappropriate behavior and to determine the causal factors for the
behavior (LaRue et al., 2011).
The functional behavior analysis completes the process started by the functional behavioral
assessment through the development of a behavioral hypothesis that serves as the basis for a
strategy to modify the behavior by altering the antecedent or the consequences (see Table 9.1). A
functional behavior analysis consists of five basic steps:
Clearly define the target behavior.
Collect observable data related to the target behavior.
Identify the function of the behavior.
Develop a behavioral hypothesis.
Develop an alternative behavior.
If a functional behavioral assessment has been conducted, the first two steps of the functional
behavior analysis have already been completed. The functional behavioral assessment uses
behavioral observation to gain information about the student’s behavior (Ducharme & Shecter,
2011). In the third step, the function of the inappropriate behavior is identified. The fourth step
of the functional behavior analysis is the development of a behavioral hypothesis. The behavioral
hypothesis is generated based on the function of the behavior and the information obtained from
the data collected during the functional behavioral assessment (Allday, Nelson, & Russel, 2011).
Once a behavioral hypothesis has been formulated, an appropriate alternative behavior that
serves the same function as the inappropriate behavior is developed and introduced to the student
(Scott, Anderson, & Spaulding, 2008). The functional behavior analysis concludes with “the
development of an alternative behavior based on the identified functional reinforcement to
replace aberrant responding” (LaRue et al., 2011, p. 2450). Once the functional behavior analysis
is completed and alternative behaviors have been determined, a behavior intervention plan can be
developed and implemented.
Table 9.1 Trinity of Behavior Management: Functional Behavior Analysis
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004) mandates that
students with disabilities receive functional behavioral assessments under specific circumstances,
and most functional behavior analyses are conducted with students with identified disabilities. In
the limited research that has examined the use of functional behavior analysis with students
without disabilities who display aberrant behaviors, functional behavior analyses have been
found to be successful in identifying the functions of these behaviors, which resulted in
appropriate interventions that reduced the behaviors (Shumate & Wills, 2010).
Identifying the function of a student’s inappropriate behavior can help the teacher to develop
alternative behaviors and interventions designed to reduce the inappropriate behavior and
provide the student with the opportunity to be successful in school. Incorporating a functional
behavior analysis in a universal design for classroom management increases the effectiveness of
a behavior and classroom management program and provides students the interventions they
need to be successful in school.
Identifying the Function of a Behavior
Every behavior has a function, or a dependent variable for the behavior. Identifying the purpose
that a behavior serves is the first step in understanding the behavior. Behavior is an individual’s
observable and measurable interaction with the environment, which is constantly changing and
determined by a functional relationship to events (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). The
function of a behavior is the purpose it serves for the individual; the functions of our behaviors
are “why we do the things we do.” A person behaves in a particular way in order to obtain
something (positive reinforcement) or avoid something (negative reinforcement). For example,
Mayra goes to school every day (behavior) because she likes being with her friends (obtaining
attention). Or Mayra goes to school every day (behavior) because the law requires her to attend
school (avoiding truant officers). Or Mayra goes to school every day because her stepfather, who
is home during the day, emotionally abuses her (avoiding abusive situation). Notice that the same
behavior (going to school every day) has three possible functions. This is why it is important for
teachers to determine the function of a behavior before trying to modify the behavior. An
intervention based on the wrong function will not be effective in changing the behavior.
Behavior is also constantly changing. For example, Mayra is now missing school (alternative
behavior) because she broke up with her boyfriend (avoiding boyfriend at school). The function
of the behavior is different, and the behavior is different; however, a change in function does not
always necessitate a change in behavior. For example, Mayra’s mother and stepfather are
divorced, and the stepfather, who was emotionally abusive toward Mayra, is no longer a variable
in Mayra’s behavior. Yet Mayra still goes to school every day (behavior) to please her mother
(obtaining attention from mother).
The function, or purpose, of a behavior is generally not inappropriate; it is the behavior that is
appropriate or inappropriate. For example, one student may work very hard to complete her
assignments in a timely manner; another student may refuse to do his assignments. Both students
are seeking the teacher’s attention. One behavior is deemed appropriate while the other is
deemed inappropriate; however, gaining the teacher’s attention is not considered inappropriate. It
is the behavior that needs to be modified, not the function of the behavior. School personnel need
to replace the inappropriate behavior with an alternative behavior that has the same function.
There are numerous reasons for students’ behaviors, but compiling lists of these reasons would
be difficult and impractical, and the results would be incomplete. However, the reasons for
behaviors can be simplified into two functional categories: attainment and avoidance/escape of a
situation. Each category includes functional motivations (see Table 9.2).
Many individuals behave in certain ways in order to obtain things they desire. People go to work
to earn money; in turn, they use their pay to purchase things they need or want. Students study
for tests so they can earn good grades. Children behave appropriately because they desire their
parents’ attention. Attainment is a functionally motivated behavior in which an individual
acquires something he or she wants. The functional motivations of attainment include attention,
rewards and privileges, and power or control.
Attention is a common functional motivation for students (Mueller, Nkosi, & Hine, 2011;
Shumate & Wills, 2010). Attention can include verbal and nonverbal praise from peers and
adults (see Chapter 6). Most students want to be liked and accepted by their peers and by adults.
They are not likely to seek negative attention. These students are likely to comply with expected
classroom rules and work hard on academic assignments. They often respond positively to
attention from teachers, which may take the form of verbal and nonverbal praise (e.g., “I like the
way that Tim is working on his assignment,” a pat on the back, a smile). As a positive
reinforcement, praise is often an effective method of providing students with attention. For
teacher praise to be effective in managing behavior, it needs to be sincere and must be given to
the student immediately after the student displays the appropriate behavior. Students can
differentiate between sincere praise and praise that is forced or insincere, and the latter type of
praise is ineffective in modifying students’ behaviors.
Attention can also reinforce and maintain inappropriate behaviors. Inappropriate behaviors
include talking without permission, refusing to complete assignments, and noncompliance with
directions. Again, it is important to understand that it is not the function of the behavior that is
inappropriate, but the actual behavior. The key to modifying behavior is to find an alternative
behavior for the same function served by the inappropriate behavior. For example, Roberto
constantly talked in class. No matter what consequences he received from Mr. Martin, his thirdgrade teacher, Roberto’s behavior did not improve. When a functional behavior analysis was
finally conducted, it was determined that the function of Roberto’s behavior was attainment and
the functional motivation was attention. Roberto, who did not have a father at home, wanted
attention from Mr. Martin, who had become a surrogate father figure. Roberto was taught
appropriate ways of gaining attention from Mr. Martin, and his inappropriate behaviors
What Would You Do? Mayra
Mayra is a fourth-grade student in Mrs. Peeples’s science class. She comes from a single-parent home. Her father is
a Mexican immigrant who works as a truck driver for the city’s sanitation facility. Mayra’s mother passed away 5
years ago in an automobile accident.
Mayra has always been a quiet student and has done well in science class. However, recently, Mayra has not been
completing classroom assignments. Mrs. Peeples has discussed this with Mayra’s father, but he assures her that
Mayra completes all her homework. It is only her classroom assignments in science that Mayra does not complete.
When Mrs. Peeples hands out a science assignment, Mayra initially begins to work on the assignment but then starts
looking around the classroom. Mrs. Peeples has been keeping Mayra in the classroom during the lunch period to
complete the assignments, but this has not helped. In fact, her behavior has gotten worse; Mayra no longer tries to
complete the science assignments.
What would you do to determine the reason for Mayra’s behavior? What are the possible functions of her behavior?
What intervention would be effective in helping Mayra complete her science assignments?
Rewards and Privileges
Rewards and privileges constitute another functional motivation of attainment. A common and
effective reward in elementary schools, especially with younger students, is giving students gold
or silver stars on exemplary work. A token system in which students receive points toward
purchasing items (candy bars, inexpensive toys, and the like) from the classroom store is another
example of rewards. Older students may prefer earning computer time for appropriate behaviors.
Not only do activities reward students for appropriate behaviors, but they can also be used as part
of a behavior modification strategy. For example, students with emotional and behavioral
disorders may earn time to play a board game when they display appropriate behaviors. The
teacher could also use this activity to develop social skills (e.g., getting along, taking turns, being
a good loser).
Conversely, rewards and privileges can serve to increase inappropriate behavior. For example, a
mother and her 3-year-old daughter go to a retail store to buy some clothes. The daughter sees a
small toy she wants and begins to throw a tantrum when her mother refuses to buy it for her.
Even though the mother tells the daughter several times that she cannot have the toy, the mother
finally relents and gives the toy to the daughter so she will stop her tantrum. Thus, the daughter
learns that she can get certain rewards by exhibiting inappropriate behaviors.
Power or Control
The final functional motivation of attention is power or control over a situation or event. One of
the most common examples is the “power struggle” between the teacher and a student. Gaining
power is a basic human need, and when that need is not met, the result can be conflict. In the
teacher–student relationship, the student is often trying to maintain some type of control in his
life, especially if he feels that he has little control or power in other areas of his life.
Although preservice teachers are often advised to avoid power struggles with students, the
dominant culture encourages a win-at-all-costs mind-set that contradicts this lesson. Winners are
respected and idolized; losers are insignificant. Teachers need to fight the inclination to try to
“win” in power struggles with students. If a teacher wins such a power struggle, the result is
likely to be damage to the relationship between the teacher and the student, and teacher–student
rapport is a crucial element of effective behavior and classroom management. Additionally, the
student will probably view the classroom as a threatening place, and this contradicts the teacher’s
duty to provide a safe and secure environment in which learning can take place—another integral
component of an effective behavior and classroom management plan. When a teacher wins a
power struggle, forcing the student to comply with the teacher’s demands, the student may be
left feeling insignificant and powerless.
Avoidance/Escape of a Situation
Sometimes individuals behave in certain ways to avoid or escape nonpreferred activities. For
example, a person may avoid going to a social gathering with colleagues because he has had
negative interactions with the individual hosting the event. Instead, the person informs the host
that he has already made other plans and cannot attend. Avoidance/escape of a situation is a
functionally motivated behavior. Self-injury, aggression, disruption, and inappropriate
vocalizations are common behaviors associated with avoidance/escape of a situation (Ingvarsson,
Hanley, & Welter, 2009). The functional motivations of avoidance and escape include social
isolation, nonpreferred activities, adverse interactions, and changes.
Sometimes a student will behave in a certain manner in order to avoid attention from others. For
example, a student may try to make himself invisible by taking a seat distant from the teacher’s
desk, sitting low in his chair, and keeping his eyes lowered to avoid being noticed by the teacher.
Students who behave this way often do so because they lack confidence in their ability to answer
questions posed by the teacher. A low sense of self-efficacy can affect students’ beliefs in their
abilities and their behavior (Bandura, 1986, 1997; Briones, Tabernero, & Arenas, 2007).
Students who have been abused will also often avoid attention from others. They may feel
detached from others and feel like they do not belong at school. Even though they may not want
the teacher to call on them, and they may disengage from social interaction, abused children are
likely to perceive that others are distancing themselves from them (Elliott, Cunningham, Linder,
Colangelo, & Gross, 2005).
Students often behave in certain ways when they want to avoid unpleasant activities. Some
students display inappropriate behaviors when avoiding boring and difficult academic tasks that
are especially frustrating and do not meet their academic needs. Again, the behaviors displayed
by such students vary, even though the function of the behaviors remains the same. For example,
Michael may defiantly refuse to complete an assignment on double-digit multiplication by failing
to comply with the teacher’s redirection to work on the assignment or by tearing up the
assignment worksheet. Conversely, Marta may covertly refuse to complete the same assignment
by sitting quietly at her desk and not drawing attention to herself. While the two behaviors are
completely different, the function of the behaviors is the same.
Students sometimes display inappropriate behaviors when trying to avoid certain interactions
with peers or adults in certain settings. For example, because Frank is a student with emotional
and behavioral disorders, his teacher, Mr. Poteet, is less tolerant of Frank than he is of other
students. As a result of the poor rapport between Frank and Mr. Poteet, Frank displays
inappropriate behaviors in order to be sent back to the resource room. Students may also avoid
interactions with peers in certain settings because they are likely to be teased or bullied. For
example, peers constantly tease Mary at recess. In Mrs. Clarke’s history class, which meets prior
to recess, Mary always refuses to finish her assignment. As a result of her behavior, Mrs. Clarke
keeps her in at recess to complete her assignment, and Mary avoids an unpleasant interaction
with her peers.
Sometimes, adverse interactions in school can lead to school refusal, or the student’s attempt to
miss school. School refusal is generally the result of cultural factors, family factors, peer factors,
and/or neuropsychiatric factors (Casoli-Reardon, Rappaport, Kulick, & Reinfield, 2012;
Wimmer, 2008). Diverse students may have difficulty “fitting in” at school because of
language and cultural differences. Students with language differences may have problems
communicating with peers and making friends, leading to social isolation. Students with cultural
differences may have difficulty connecting with a European American curriculum. If lessons
have little meaning to students’ lives, they are more likely to demonstrate off-task behaviors. As
a result, language and cultural differences could lead to a sense of isolation, which in turn could
lead to school refusal.
Family factors can also lead to school refusal. Families from socioeconomically disadvantaged
backgrounds may put education second to family financial needs. Some adolescents remain at
home to help take care of younger siblings. Abusive families may keep children home from
school when the children show evidence of abuse (Casoli-Reardon et al., 2012). Children from
low socioeconomic backgrounds may not feel welcome in school because teachers perceive their
families as dysfunctional and often blame them for the children’s behaviors (Hyland &
Heuschkel, 2010). Teachers often do not know enough about these families to help these
students, which is why it is important for teachers to establish relationships with their students’
families (see Chapter 3).
Relationships with peers are often a crucial factor influencing the academic and behavioral
performance of students. Students who are belittled, teased, or bullied often do not do well in
school, and these students will avoid such interact ...
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