How an FBA Can Help Children in the Classroom

A young girl being punished at school

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An FBA is a functional behavioral assessmentLike the name suggests, it is an evaluation of a student's behavior. An FBA represents an attempt to look beyond the obvious interpretation of a behavior as "bad" to determine what function it may be serving for a child. Quite often, understanding why a child behaves the way they do is the first step to developing strategies to prevent, modify, or redirect the behavior. 

What Happens During an FBA?

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools are required by law to use functional behavior assessments when dealing with challenging behavior in students with disabilities. While the law exists, it might not occur to school staff to put an FBA into motion. As a parent, you may need to specifically push for one if you see a direct need. 

If a student's behavior is disrupting classroom instruction, it is easy for administrators and teachers to default to punishments such as detention and suspension, especially if the student has not been diagnosed with a disability. Some neurodivergent children are high functioning and can "pass" for neurotypical until they are unable to mask a response to a particular stimuli or situation. Getting your child into testing for a disability may be the first step you need to take.

While you might initially get frustrated when you receive news of disruptive behavior, take time to cool down and process your instinctual reactions away from your child. Your job as a guardian or parent is to advocate for your student and request an assessment like the FBA to get to the root of your child's problematic behavior.

An FBA is usually done by a behavioral specialist. It then becomes the basis for a Behavior Intervention Plan, which is designed specifically for your child to counteract a particularly challenging behavior.

The process typically involves documenting the antecedent (what comes before the behavior), the behavior, and the consequence (what happens after the behavior) over a number of weeks. This is done by interviewing teachers, parents, and others who work with your child.

The FBA also evaluates how a child's disability may affect their behavior. Further, it may involve manipulating the environment to see if a way can be found to prevent the behavior. Students learn to behave in ways that achieve a desired outcome. If they are shown a more efficient way to achieve the same results, they can be convinced to modify or cease the initial behavior.

FBA Use Example

There are many instances when an FBA may be needed, but let's take a look at just one example.

A student who acts up frequently in class may be sent to stand in the hallway. A functional behavior assessment may find that the student acts up only during times when a lot of writing is required in class. It may also discover that they have documented difficulty with fine motor skills. Therefore, the misbehavior serves the function of getting them out of written work. 

The FBA may recommend adding supports to reduce the amount of writing needed and give the student tools to make writing easier. This may eliminate the behavior in a way that escalating punishments never will. After all, sending the child to the principal's office, making their parents come to get them, and suspending them is effective in meeting the student's goal of getting out of class when it's time to write.

When Should an FBA Be Employed?

Ideally, an FBA would be started soon after the behavior becomes a problem. This allows the behavioral specialist time to observe the behavior and implement a change in a timely manner.

However, given the realities of school staffing, the gap between the recognition of a need for assessment and the actual assessment taking place may be weeks or even months. Meanwhile, the behavior continues to occur. This means that the student keeps being disruptive and it interferes with them learning more appropriate behavior. It can really be a challenge for the student, their teachers, and their guardians.

While you're waiting, you might consider strategizing with the teacher and child study team. Some parents have also tried to propose a behavior plan of their own to serve as a substitute until a formal FBA can be administered.

Another option while waiting is to try talking to your child alone or in the presence of a mediator, counselor, or therapist. The goal here is to understand your child, not to reprimand them or make them feel bad about their behavior. As a young person, they may lack the emotional and cognitive abilities to figure out what the root of the issue is, how to communicate the problem or need, and how to find a solution that doesn't interfere with their and others' learning.

You'll need to create a space in which your child can be honest and in which they will feel safe albeit somewhat uncomfortable. Use communication methods they are familiar with and prefer. It can also be helpful to use metaphors from their interests in order to bridge the gap. Whatever method you are able to employ while waiting for an FBA, make sure to keep the focus on helping your child instead of punishing them.

1 Source
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  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Sec. 300.530 (f).

By Terri Mauro
Terri Mauro is the author of "50 Ways to Support Your Child's Special Education" and contributor to the Parenting Roundabout podcast.