July 7, 2021

Functional Assessment Methods: Determining the Reasons for the Behavior

Three functional assessment models used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy

Key takeaways:

  • Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs) work to identify the cause of challenging behavior in children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
  • The ultimate goal is to identify the reasons for a behavior and then find a solution.
  • FBAs use three main methods: indirect, observational (direct), and Functional Analysis (FA).

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), around 1 in 54 children in the US has been identified as having ASD. Early intervention aims to help a child on the autism spectrum improve communication, build life skills, and address challenging behaviors.

ABA Therapy helps children and families “function” as a healthy unit. One of the main elements of ABA Therapy is Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs). FBAs are used to identify the cause of challenging behaviors and determine a therapeutic approach so a child can learn appropriate alternative behaviors (e.g., coping skills, communication skills, etc.)

We discuss the purpose of FBAs and three methods they use. Note that these methods sometimes go by other names.

What are FBAs?

An FBA is an assessment that identifies challenging behaviors, hypothesizes their function, and guides the development of a treatment plan. Children with ASD often display behavioral issues, from aggression and outbursts to sometimes even self-injury, such as headbanging. As a parent of a child with ASD, you may be familiar with these behaviors.

All functional assessments are done for the same purpose no matter which method is used. The ultimate goal of an FBA is to identify the “function of behavior” (i.e., the reason) and develop a plan to teach appropriate replacement behaviors.

Common functions of behavior can include:

  • Escape
  • Attention-seeking
  • Access to something
  • Automatic reinforcement

There are three general functional assessment methods or categories. We’ll go over each to help you get a better understanding. Note that these methods sometimes go by different names.

1. Indirect Functional Assessments

No one knows your child better than you and teachers, caregivers, and other prominent figures probably also know him or her well, too. The indirect functional assessment is named so because the information is gathered based on the personal observations of those who are around your child frequently. Indirect functional assessment methods can include rating scales, questionnaires, and interviews. Their goal is to gather assessments of your child’s behavior challenges and the potential reasons.

One example of an indirect functional assessment is the Functional Analysis Screening Tool (FAST). It includes a questionnaire with 16 items which can be administered to anyone who is familiar with your child’s behaviors and is aware of what happens before the behavior, as well as the consequences.

In an open-ended functional assessment interview, you’ll be asked to describe your child’s behavior in detail, including when the behavior occurs, the nature of it, and possible causes.

2. Observational (Direct) Functional Assessments

As the name implies, observational methods include a therapist directly observing your child in his or her natural environment. Along with your child, the session can also include you, caregivers, teachers, and other people who interact with him/her.

An ABA therapist first watches your child to determine the nature of the challenging behavior. When it happens, he or she will make a record of what occurred before the incident, what the behavior looks like, what happened after, and come up with possible causes.

A time chart is one method used in observational functional analysis. A mark is made on the chart to indicate the time and day when the specific behavior occurred. Using this information, we can identify possible causes of the behavior, whether it’s from certain times of day, activities, places, events, or people.

For instance, say a child has an outburst every day at 7 p.m. The chart might show the behavior occurs at bath time. The therapist then works to find out why bath time is associated with the behavior or how baths might be contributing to the problem.

Data gathered during observational functional assessments is analyzed based on the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences (ABCs of behavior). In fact, this method is often called an ABC functional assessment.

3. Functional Analysis

Functional Analysis (FA) is designed to look for possible functions (the reasons) behind challenging behaviors. This method is based on several decades of accumulated research.

FA measures four general areas and compares them to a play/control condition:

  1. Attention – Used to determine if the behavior happens in order to gain attention from someone (e.g., either verbal or physical)
  2. Demand – Used to determine whether the behavior happens in order to escape or avoid task demands or activities.
  3. Tangible – Evaluates whether the behavior occurs in order to gain access to a tangible item person, or activity.
  4. Alone – Observes what happens when your child is alone in a room with no toys or other activities.

Begin your child’s assessment today

If your child is on the autism spectrum, ABA Therapy at Lumiere Children’s Therapy will help him or her gain essential life and play skills and independence. We provide in-office and home-based ABA therapy. Whether you choose at-home or in-clinic sessions, you will have the benefit of working with one of our Board-Certified Behavior Analysts.

We also provide other comprehensive therapies for children with a wide range of physical, emotional, and developmental conditions.

Our services include:

  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Developmental therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Social work
  • Augmentative alternative communication
  • Early intervention
  • Teletherapy

Lumiere Children’s Therapy is a full-service, multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago that serves the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Learn more about how our team of clinicians works to improve the lives of children and their families.

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