Conducting Effective and Efficient Functional Behavioral Assessments (page 5)
Now that your behavior intervention toolbox is well stocked, how do you determine which behavior interventions to use when? This is the primary purpose of functional behavioral assessment: to help in the design of behavior intervention plans that match the function of the behavior and are efficient and effective. We have discussed multiple examples of brief and informal functional behavioral assessment in this book that lead to effective responses from educators and result in the successful modification of behavior without any paperwork. Table 14.1 gives some examples of interventions previously discussed in this book that may "match" common functions of the behavior.
There are times when using a more formalized process and written format is helpful and sometimes this is required by law. Remember that the goal is to work smarter, not harder. Do not let yourself become intimidated by this process or make it overly complicated. Most of the time, functional behavioral assessments in the educational environment can be fairly simple and straightforward. Functional behavior assessments are conducted before designing a behavior intervention plan, so that the information collected during this process can be used to make the plan more effective. For this reason, we are covering the two processes in two separate chapters. In this chapter, we will discuss the first three steps of the functional behavioral assessment process, which ends in the development of a hypothesis about why the problem behavior is occurring. Chapter Fifteen will then focus on using this information to design the behavior intervention plan. The final steps are determining whether the hypothesis was correct and the behavior plan resulted in improved behavior, then monitoring the behavior plan over time to ensure this improvement is maintained.
Step One: Operationally Define the Problem and Replacement Behaviors
To start the functional behavioral assessment process, all team members must know exactly what the problem behavior being targeted is. The definition of the problem behavior must pass the stranger test, meaning that if a stranger who has never met the student walked into the classroom, he or she would be able to accurately identify if the problem behavior was occurring. For example, the definition, "Johnny does not allow adults to be in charge," does not pass the stranger test because it is not clear exactly what behavior determines this. Is Johnny saying no when asked to do something? Is he arguing when the teacher gives him a direction? "Johnny speaks out without permission" is a better example of a behavior that is defined following the stranger test.
Step Two: Collect Information
For a functional behavioral assessment, you want information for three purposes. The first is to find out the student's strengths and interests in order to build on them when designing the behavior intervention plan. The second is to accurately identify setting events, triggering antecedents, and maintaining consequences. And the third is to get an accurate baseline of the frequency, duration, and intensity of the problem behavior, which serves as a starting point for determining if progress is being made after implementing the behavior plan.
We know that a lot of people see gathering data as a pain. However, we believe that many times this is because they haven't been taught to take data in a way that makes sense to and is useful for them. We used to feel the same way about data, and now that we understand, we find data a bit addictive. Data that are collected appropriately will make your life much easier. So let's address this challenge. The most common questions that we get asked are, "How much information is needed?" and "How exactly do I collect the data?"
How Much Information Is Needed?
In our experience, educators frequently collect a lot of information that they ultimately do not use. It is important to be thoughtful about the data that are truly needed to obtain a factual, accurate picture of the problem behavior and what is contributing to its occurrence and maintenance, while using the least amount of valuable educator time.
More Is Not Always Better
In a functional behavioral assessment, the objective is "to collect the smallest amount of useful information that results in summary statements to which key individuals can agree and have high confidence about their accuracy."1 In the world of behavior intervention, time is of the essence because the longer a student practices an inappropriate behavior, the harder it is to change that behavior. As soon as enough data are collected for key individuals to agree on a hypothesized function, a plan that matches this hypothesis needs to be designed, implemented with fidelity, and monitored for effectiveness. Functional behavioral assessment is an ongoing process, and the plan will need to be tweaked and changed over time. Don't spend a great deal of time collecting a lot of data or worrying about conducting a flawless functional behavioral assessment. There is no such thing, and you will lose valuable intervention time in the process.
Just the Facts, Please!
Many teachers think that if they write everything down, certainly they will have all the necessary data. The fact is that many times, this results in a lot of unnecessary information that is not useful, and it leads to frustration on the part of the individual who took the considerable time to do that work. In addition, this type of information has the tendency to take the form of anecdotal notes that really function as a "gripe dairy" and include the opinions of the person recording the information. Make sure that you are sticking to the facts of the situation and not opinions that are often skewed by individual emotions that often accompany working with students that exhibit challenging behavior.
What About Adequate Baseline Data?
In a functional behavioral assessment, baseline data are always preferred. However, they are not necessarily required before designing a behavior intervention plan. In cases of extreme and dangerous behavior such as aggression, it is our strong opinion that the team should convene immediately and design a behavior intervention plan based on the limited information they do have and start a data collection system at that time for progress monitoring purposes. The quickest way to alienate and frustrate implementing team members is to require that extended baseline data be collected before assistance with designing a behavior intervention plan is offered. This is the real world, not a formal research experiment for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Think Math for Baseline Data
When collecting baseline data for the purposes of progress monitoring (which we discuss in more detail in the next chapter), it is important that the data can be graphed over time, so think in terms of hard numbers.
How Do I Collect the Data?
There is no specific recipe or magical form for collecting data that works in every situation. We have provided forms in the case studies in the next chapter that can provide some models. However, every situation is different, and you must be able to problem-solve and design your own data sheets. The quick reference guide in Table 8.1 for making tables in Microsoft Word can be helpful in making individualized data sheets. Data can come from indirect sources or direct sources.
Indirect Data Sources
Indirect data sources are those that provide information on behavior that has happened in the past (even the very recent past) rather than observing the behavior as it happens. These types of data are helpful for providing information on student strengths and interests, setting events, triggering antecedents, and maintaining consequences but not for collecting baseline or ongoing levels of problem or replacement behavior.
We start collecting indirect data by having informal discussions with individuals who are involved in the student's life, such as teachers, other school personnel, parents, and the students themselves. The place to start in figuring out why a student is doing something is to ask the student. It may be as simple as that. There are formal questionnaires that have been created to guide this process, but we find the most effective way is to simply ask the individual to start telling us about himself or herself or the student having the problems. Many times if individuals are told that we are starting a "functional behavioral assessment," they become intimidated, freeze up, and insist there are no patterns or triggers, but if we start with, "Tell me about school," or "What is Johnny's day typically like?" patterns often emerge. Another common way of obtaining indirect data is reviewing the student's educational record, including discipline files, grades, and past assessment results if applicable.
Direct Data Sources
Direct data are recorded in real time. In other words, someone is observing the student and recording the behavior as it is happening or as soon as possible after it happens. Direct data can be collected by anyone in the environment—the teacher, a paraprofessional, or an outside observer such as a behavior specialist or school psychologist. The most important thing is to use a data collection system that is simple, clearly understood by the collector, and lends itself to developing a progress monitoring system over time.
ABCF stands for antecedent, behavior, consequence, and function. These charts are a good way to collect both baseline levels of problem behavior and information on possible setting events, triggering antecedents, and maintaining consequences (see Table 14.2).
We like to do an informal interview with the student's educational team first and get some of their initial hypotheses and then create an individual ABCF chart for the student with check boxes for the top three in each category. This makes data collection extremely quick and easy in addition to determining if the hypotheses are correct or if there are other contributing factors they are overlooking that need to be added. Using check boxes also ensures that the data are simply a factual record of the variables in the environment and not the opinions of the recorder because it provides structured and limited language. Table 14.3 shows an example of an ABCF chart with check boxes.
Other Direct Data Sources for Monitoring Progress
Common ways to collect ongoing data for monitoring progress, when they are appropriate to use, and helpful data collection tools are identified in Table 14.4. For the candy technique mentioned in Table 14.4, see Table 14.5.
Step Three: Develop Hypotheses About Why the Problem Behavior Is Occurring
The next step is to examine the data you have collected and ask yourself the following questions:
- What patterns emerge?
- What conditions are occurring in the environment: time of day, day of the week, people in the environment, tasks that the student is being asked to do, and so on.
- What happens immediately before? What happens immediately after?
These are the potential setting events, triggering antecedents, and maintaining consequences and should lead directly to your hypothesized function by addressing questions such as the following:
- Is the child looking for attention?
- Is he or she trying to escape an undesired task or environment?
- Is he or she simply communicating feelings?
We have talked about all of these functions in depth and strategies for intervening throughout this book. Reproducible 9 provides a template for summarizing this information.
The last three steps of the formal functional behavioral assessment process are to design the behavior intervention plan based on the hypothesized function, test and confirm the functional behavioral assessment hypotheses, and monitor whether the plan is working, making adjustments if needed.
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