Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Functional Assessment of Classroom Behavior Problems


Robert A. Gable is Eminent Scholar and Constance and Colgate Darden Professor of Education, Darden College of Education, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.

Few educators would dispute the fact that not all children come to school ready to learn. The reasons for the “readiness gap” are many and varied. For example, the school-age population is becoming increasingly more heterogeneous. Because of their diverse backgrounds and experiences, students differ in their ability to respond to a traditional classroom milieu. The overall routine, student expectations, and/or the quality of teacher/pupil relationships sometimes are at odds with family patterns of interaction or with community norms. Some children struggle with social/interpersonal or self-management skills that are prerequisite to performing successfully in school. Others may have been subjected to harsh parental discipline or suffered the consequences of physical abuse, marital conflicts, or economic hardships. Finally, student-specific stressors (e.g., anxiety or depression) can exact a heavy toll as well. In sum, school personnel face numerous challenges to ensuring positive educational outcomes for students.

At its inception, our system of public schooling was established to give children the opportunity to get an education, a task it has always performed well (Van Acker, 2004). However, across time various forces have converged to dramatically change that role. No longer is it enough simply to offer students educational opportunity; today, the expectation is that all students will benefit from that schooling and achieve positive outcomes (Van Acker, 2004). Among the most ubiquitous signs of that shift in responsibility is the importance attached to high-stakes testing and student academic progress. Accordingly, both administrators and classroom personnel are focusing increased attention on the overlapping relationship between classroom learning and student behavior problems.

Classroom Learning and Behavior Problems

When a student manifests a learning problem, teachers rely on a set of relatively straightforward strategies. Either independently or in consultation with colleagues, they attempt to precisely identify the problem. Teachers routinely conduct either an informal or formal assessment, analyze carefully the accumulated data, and then make specific adjustments in the curriculum or instruction, or both. For example, if Ellen is experiencing difficulty applying a particular algorithm to solve a math problem, her teacher might conduct an diagnostic interview to pinpoint the exact nature of the problem – “Ellen, let’s look at these three problems; I’d like you to do each of them for me, thinking aloud the steps you would take to solve the problem.” With the knowledge gleaned from observing closely as Ellen completed each problem, the teacher is able to plot a course of instruction designed to eliminate the error in learning. In contrast, when a behavior problem arises, such as when Ellen refuses to comply with a request to “stop wasting time and get back to work,” her teacher is more likely to impose some kind of negative consequence, such as a verbal reprimand or discipline referral. Most students respond positively to these kinds of admonishments. However, for some students, such actions fail to produce the desired outcome and may actually exacerbate an already difficult situation (Gable et al., 2004).

Today, there is growing recognition that traditional disciplinary practices often do not result in positive changes in behavior, especially for students who evidence major behavior problems. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that the imposition of negative sanctions for unacceptable behavior can trigger increased levels of non-compliance, defiance of authority, or school vandalism – problems that school officials are working hard to ameliorate. Increasingly, school personnel are finding that it is more effective to respond proactively to repeated bouts of student misbehavior by means of what is known as functional behavioral assessment (FBA).

The FBA process is predicated on three simple propositions: we can’t fix it until we know why it’s broken, no one gives up something for nothing, and one size does not fit all. In other words, we can not determine how best to respond to a problem until we know the reason(s) behind it; we can not realistically expect students to stop engaging in a behavior that serves a particular function unless we give them an alternative response; and finally, since students engage in inappropriate behavior for many different reasons, it is shortsighted to assume that the same solution will apply equally to every problem. Viewed together, these relatively straightforward principles set the stage for new ways to address the diverse needs of students with challenging behavior.

Functional Behavioral Assessment in Schools

The 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) stipulates that under certain conditions school personnel must address student behavior by means of FBA and positive behavioral intervention plans and supports. Schools are obligated to initiate an FBA when drugs, weapons, or potentially dangerous behaviors exist and when student misbehavior impedes the learning of the student or classmates. Recent changes in IDEA (2005) reaffirm that expectation.

The logic behind functional behavioral assessment is disarmingly simple, namely that practically all student behavior satisfies a need or serves a function (e.g., to avoid a difficult assignment, gain attention of classmates, express frustration), and is related to the context in which it occurs (e.g., English or geography classrooms). It follows that knowledge of student motivation is essential to determining the best way to eliminate behavior that hinders instruction. If we can predict it, we can control it (Gable et al., 2004).

The language of federal legislation implies, if not specifies, that functional behavioral assessment is a team problem-solving process. Its success hinges on the judicious use of various strategies (e.g., records review, direct observation, structured interviews) to identify the reason(s) behind student misbehavior and the crafting of a two-fold intervention plan. The plan seeks to a) reduce or eliminate the inappropriate behavior and b) promote a more acceptable replacement behavior. Emphasis is on identifying those variables that, singly or collectively, are most predictably linked to the occurrence (and nonconcurrence) of the behavior. By identifying the conditions under which the behavior most likely occurs, school personnel can take steps to address the problem, such as removing environmental triggers that elicit the behavior (e.g., changing instructional grouping), directly and systematically teaching the student a more acceptable response (e.g., demonstrating and role-playing requesting assistance), and/or offering an incentive for the student to respond more appropriately (e.g., time on the computer). Whatever the plan, it must include large measures of patience and optimism. Most problems can be resolved, but few will go away quickly or easily.

Steps to Conducting a Functional Behavioral Assessment

The school-based team usually conducts the functional behavioral assessment according to the following 10 steps (Gable et al., 2004):

  • Determine that the severity of the problem calls for a formal FBA.
  • Define the problem in measurable, observable, and objective terms.
  • Collect data with which to identify the likely function(s) of the behavior (e.g., to get attention, avoid an aversive social situation, express anger or frustration).
  • Pull together all the information they have compiled and subject it to a thorough analysis.
  • Generate a hypothesis (motivation) statement regarding the probable function(s) of the behavior – under conditions X (e.g., a difficult assignment), the student does Y (e.g., acts up), in order to Z (e.g., be sent out of the classroom).
  • Test the accuracy of the hypothesis, usually by systematically manipulating some aspect of the curriculum or instruction (changing the instructional assignment or subject matter).
  • Develop and implement a behavioral intervention plan (BIP).
  • Monitor the fidelity of implementation of the plan (e.g., by means of a checklist).
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the plan.
  • Review critically the impact of the original plan and make adjustments, as needed.


In schools across the country, there is mounting pressure on education personnel to achieve positive outcomes for all students. It is reassuring to know there are numerous evidence-based practices that teachers can introduce to create an effective teaching/learning environment. On those few occasions that these strategies fail to produce the desired effect, one proven option is to conduct a functional behavioral assessment and develop a behavioral intervention plan and, in so doing, give students a renewed opportunity to obtain a meaningful education.


  • Gable, R. A., Quinn, M. M., Rutherford, R. B., Howell, K., Hoffman, K., & Butler, C. J. (2004). Conducting a functional behavioral assessment and developing a positive behavioral intervention plan. Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research.

  • Van Acker, R. (2004). Current status of public education and likely future directions in teacher preparation in the area of emotional/behavioral disorders. In L. M. Bullock & R. A. Gable (Eds.), Quality personnel preparation in emotional/behavioral disorders: Current perspectives and future direction. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.