What is a Functional Behavior Assessment?

Written by: UCP/NYC, some content provided by Family Connection

Kids throw tantrums (or toys) and exhibit challenging behaviors at all ages and all levels of ability, but if you’re concerned about your child’s behavior or wonder if he or she could benefit from therapy or medication, a functional behavior assessment can help you find the right treatment or ways to approach difficult behavioral situations. A functional behavior assessment is the first step in coming up with a behavioral support program that works for your child and your family. It is not a medical diagnosis and it doesn’t provide a prepackaged plan for how to address challenging behaviors, but it is a tool for helping you, your family and the professionals who work with you to assess the causes of common behavior problems and then to work towards creating an environment that supports the needs of your child. Common worrying behaviors can include:

  • Self injury
  • Hitting
  • Biting
  • Violent and aggressive attacks
  • Property destruction
  • Disruptive behaviors (screaming or tantrums)

Some of these behaviors may be part of your child’s specific developmental disability diagnosis, or a side effect of medications, or just part of a bad day. A functional assessment will help you, your family and your support team determine next steps and find any help you might need. It can be conducted by your IEP or IFSP team or you can speak to your doctor or child’s educators about options for conducting the assessment.

The assessment involves direct observations of the child, interviews with parents and other key members of your child’s support team and family, and a review of your child’s records. The functional behavior assessment team will want to gather information about your child and his or her behavior patterns in order to come up with a plan to address your concerns. Questions to answer include:

  • What problem behaviors cause concern?
  • Are there events or physical conditions that make problem behaviors more likely? (Is your child more likely to act out if he/she has napped poorly or within a certain time period after taking medications?).
  • Is there a specific result that your child is looking for from his/her behavior, for example, does your child think he/she is gaining something positive from the negative behavior?
  • What can you do to encourage your child to act appropriately to get positive results?
  • What can we learn from previous behavior support efforts about strategies that are ineffective, partially effective, or effective for only a short time?

A functional behavior assessment can help you discover what to do next and relieve some of the stress of raising a child with a disability. Conducting the assessment does not mean that your child has serious behavioral problems, or that these problems are directly related to his or her disability. But if there is concern about behaviors, the assessment team will advise you on your next steps, which can include behavioral therapycognitive therapy or medications as options for treatment.

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Center for Evidence-Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behaviors