Functional Behavior Assessment in School Settings: A Literature Review



A few moments ago, I hit the old “Command-P” combo on my computer, the final step in what has been an arduous few months.  Yes, I’ve finally hopped the last major hurdle in graduate school: I’ve finished my research project/grant proposal! Graduation here I come.

The paper focuses on functional behavior assessment (FBA) in school settings, specifically the gap between research and actual implementation in classrooms. Through my research, I found that there is a huge need for training in this area; teachers aren’t really active participants in much of the FBA processes and most of the folks conducting FBAs are “trained” behavior specialists and/or BCBA’s.

I thought I’d share my literature review here.

I’m really looking forward to getting back into the blogosphere!

Functional Behavior Assessment: Overview

Functional behavior assessment (FBA) is a set of strategies used to accumulate information regarding environmental events (e.g., antecedents and consequences) that maintain or predict problematic behaviors (Gage, Lewis & Sticher, 2012; O’Neil & Stephenson, 2009).  Historically, FBA methodology is rooted in the science of behavior analysis. B.F. Skinner, (1953) referred to the analysis of the function of behavior as a “cause-and-effect” relationship the between a dependent variable (i.e., predicting and controlling the behavior of an organism) and an independent variable (i.e., “the external conditions of which behavior is a function”) (p. 35).

The topic of FBA is well established in behavior analytic literature. In an extensive review of thirty-years of research on FBA methodologies and treatment of problem behavior, Beavers, Iwata and Lerman (2013) found that nearly 46.2% of the research regarding functional analysis of problem behavior (functional analysis is a type of FBA assessment) had been published in The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Amendments to the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) suggest the use of FBA and Positive Behavior Support (PBS) strategies when addressing students with behavioral problems (Sugai et al., 2000). PBS methodology evolved from behavior analysis and recently, many schools have implemented school-wide PBS plans to address student behavior (Johnston, Foxx, Jacobson, Green & Mulick, 2006). Use of FBA as a tool for identifying the function of student behavior is a central concept of PBS practices (Sugai et al., 2000).

There are three distinct types of FBA’s: indirect assessment, descriptive assessment and functional analysis (Hanley, 2012).  During indirect assessment, “there is no direct observation of behavior” (Hanley, 2012, p. 55).  Examples of indirect assessment include: rating scales, questionnaires and interviews (Hanley, 2012). Descriptive assessments require “direct observation of behavior” but environmental conditions are not altered (Hanley, 2012, p. 55). Typically, ABC data collection and narrative recording instruments are used during descriptive assessments (Hanley, 2012). During functional analysis, the behavior in question is directly observed and “some aspect of the environment is systematically altered” during the observation (Hanley, 2012, p. 56).

Data culled from FBA’s are analyzed to identify behavioral patterns and used to develop interventions to address the function of problem behavior (O’Neil & Stephenson, 2009; Scott, Alter & McQuillan, 2010). The results of  the FBA are used to develop behavior intervention plans (BIPs) (Cook, et al., 2012).

Zirkel (2009) notes: the use of FBA is considered a “matter of best practice” when considering students with disabilities “whose behavior interferes with his/her learning or that of others” (Zirkel, 2009, p. 73).  Furthermore, IDEA requires a FBA if a student’s behavior is determined by the IEP team to be a “manifestation of the child’s disability,” or if a student with an IEP “is suspended beyond 10 days or placed in an interim alternative educational setting” (Gage, et. al., 2012 p. 55).

FBA in Educational Environments

Numerous studies substantiate the effectiveness of utilizing FBA in the classroom setting to address challenging student behavior (McIntosh, Horner, Chard, Dickey & Braun, 2008; Preciado, Horner & Baker, 2009; Payne, Scott & Conroy, 2007; Trussell, Lewis & Sticher, 2008).

Mcintosh et al., (2008) conducted FBA in order to identify the variables maintaining the problem behavior of 51 grade 4,5 and 6 students who had received two office referrals for major infractions including fighting, disrespect and lying. The results of the study indicated that students who emitted problem behavior that led to termination of academic assignments had lower reading levels and reading growth rates than students whose behavior served another function (McIntosh et al., 2008).

Preciado et al., (2009) analyzed data gathered through FBA to direct the development and implementation of interventions for four English language learners (ELL’s) who were emitting escape-related behavior during reading lessons. Using a language-matched instructional priming (LIMP) program that targeted the function of problem behavior as well as reading development, the researchers simultaneously increased academic engagement (i.e., reduced escape-maintained behavior) and improved reading performance across all participants (Preciado et al., 2009).

Payne et al., (2007) sought to determine if interventions developed using FBA (i.e., interventions targeting the function of student behavior) would be more efficacious than non-function based interventions. After identifying four elementary school students who emitted high rates of inappropriate classroom behavior (e.g., non-compliance, refusal to complete academic tasks), the researchers conducted FBA to determine the variables maintaining problem behaviors (Payne et al., 2007).  The researchers selected both function-based interventions (e.g., allowing a student to interact with a peer contingent upon completing a task) as well as traditional, non-indicated interventions (e.g., verbal prompts to complete a task, reprimands) for each learner (Payne et al., 2007).  In each case, interventions derived from FBA, targeting the function of behavior, were “more effective than non-indicated interventions” (Payne et al., 2007, p. 171).

Trussell et al., (2008) utilized indirect assessment, descriptive assessment and functional analysis to determine the variables maintaining the problem behavior of three elementary school age learners classified with emotional/behavioral disorders in an alternative public school setting. Using a combination of universal classroom interventions and individual interventions based on the results of the FBA, the researchers were able to reduce problem behavior across all three participants (Trussell et al., 2008).

Research to Implementation: Need for Training

Despite the multitude of research supporting the efficacy of FBA and interventions based on the function of behavior in educational settings, teachers are leaving the field at increasing rates, many citing behavior management as a main factor in their attrition (Carrol & Foster, 2010; Ingersoll, 2001; Smart & Igo, 2010). Furthermore, a survey of 1,201 K-12 teachers in the United States found discipline and behavior problems to be a daily source of stress for much of the education workforce (Richards, 2012).

Carrol and Foster (2010), in a report published in conjunction with the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), note that “more than 300,000 veteran teachers left the workforce for retirement” between the years of 2004 and 2008 (p. 4). Additionally, annual attrition among first year teachers increased from 8.1% in 1988-89 to 11.5% in 2004-05 (Carrol & Foster, 2010, p. 9).

Teacher attrition has left an education workforce that is vastly inexperienced (Carrol & Foster, 2010). Carrol and Foster (2010) indicate that, as of 2007-2008, first year teachers comprise the largest percentage of the American teaching workforce (p. 11). In 1987-88, the largest percentage of teachers had been in the field for approximately 15 years (Carrol & Foster, 2010, p. 11).

In order to identify reasons for teacher attrition, Ingersoll (2001) explored nationally collected information from The School and Staffing Survey and The Teacher Follow Up Survey both conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Analyzing a sampling of 1,962 teachers who were leaving the field, Ingersoll (2001) found that 25% of the reporting teachers cited dissatisfaction with some aspect of their job (p. 21). Among the main reasons for dissatisfaction, 30% of teachers noted low levels of administrative support and problems with student discipline as factors in their decision to leave the teaching profession (Ingersoll, 2001, p. 21).  Additionally, 38% of participants indicated low levels of student motivation as playing a role in their attrition (Ingersoll, 2001, p. 21).

Smart and Igo (2010) further explored the link between student behavior and teacher dissatisfaction, as well as the gap between research in student behavior management and implementation of effective intervention. In their study, the authors interviewed 19 first-year teachers who lacked formal behavior management training (e.g., at least one semester-long course in behavior management) (Smart & Igo, 2010, p. 570).  Smart and Igo (2010) note: “when responding to severe problem behaviors, teachers often struggled to identify the source of their behavior management strategy” (p. 576).  Many respondents cited student teaching experiences, as opposed to empirically validated interventions, as the main source of their behavior management strategies (Smart & Igo, 2010, p. 580).  In a follow up with study participants, four teachers reported that they did not return for their second year of teaching, three specifically cited problems with student behavior as central to their decision (Smart & Igo, 2010).

Given the strong empirical support for FBA methodology and interventions based on the function of behavior, it is surprising that teachers are leaving the education profession due to issues regarding student behavior. However, the literature concerning use of FBA in school settings indicates that trained professionals (e.g., researchers, board certified behavior analysts (BCBA’s), or behavioral consultants) conduct the majority of FBA’s with teachers typically playing a passive role in the processes (Allday, Nelson & Russell, 2011; Mueller, Nkosi & Hine, 2011).  Furthermore, Cushman and Kemp (2012) note: “the majority of classroom management researchers are non-education affiliated professionals” (p. 44).

Allday et al., (2011) reviewed 28 studies regarding teacher involvement in the FBA process. Notably, in 68% of the studies, teachers participated exclusively in indirect assessments (e.g., teachers provided information regarding student behavior through interviews or rating scales) (Allday, et al., 2011, p. 146).  Teachers participated in both indirect and descriptive assessments in 11% of the studies (Allday et al., 2011, p. 146). The teacher’s role was not specified in 18% of the studies (Allday et al., 2011, p. 146).

In a study similar to Allday et al., (2011), Mueller et al., (2011) examined 90 published functional analyses conducted in public school settings. The authors found that master degree level or doctoral level behavioral consultants conducted 80% of the functional analyses (Mueller et al., p. 812). Teachers trained by a behavioral consultant conducted 16% of the functional analyses and a paraprofessional conducted 4% of the assessments (Mueller et al., p. 812).

Reports by school-based staff (e.g., teachers, administrators, related service providers) indicate the need for training in FBA methodology and evidence based practices, further exemplifying the gap between FBA research and implementation in school settings (Pindiprolu, Peterson & Bergloff, 2007; Chitiyo & Wheeler, 2009; Stormont, Reinke and Herman, 2011).

Pindiprolu et al., (2007) surveyed 156 special and general education staff from ten states in the Midwest. Included in the survey were questions regarding the professional development needs of the staff and their colleagues as well as questions regarding respondents’ current skill level in FBA (Pindiprolu et al., 2007).  School staff cited selecting interventions for behavioral problems (32%) and conducting functional behavior assessments (21%) as the areas of greatest need for professional development (Pindiprolu et al., p. 35).

Chitiyo and Wheeler, (2009) uncovered similar findings to Pindiprolu et al., (2007). Using a questionnaire and Likert-style scoring assessment (1- to 7-point scale), the authors asked 21 general and special educators, trained in positive behavior support (PBS) methodology, to score the difficulty of certain PBS tasks (Chitiyo & Wheeler, 2009).  Conducting FBA (M=4.19) and using FBA data to develop hypotheses regarding behavioral function (M=4.10) were the most challenging PBS related tasks identified by respondents (Chitiyo & Wheeler, 2009, p. 61).

Stormont et al., (2011) found variance in general educators’ knowledge regarding the availability of FBA services in their schools.  Through a survey of 239 early childhood and elementary level general educators, the authors found 28% of the participants to be confident that FBA services were provided at their schools (Stormont et al., 2011, p. 142). However, 57% of participants were unsure of the availability of these services in their professional setting and 15% of respondents indicated that FBA was definitively not provided at their school (Stormont et al., 2011, p. 142).

According to Dukes, Rosenberg and Brady (2008), “the key to effective implementation of FBA and intervention models depends, in part, on effective staff development” (p. 164).

Providing school-based staff opportunities to develop science-based knowledge regarding the function of behavior as well as employing opportunities to apply FBA in natural (i.e., educational) settings may help to simultaneously improve teachers’ classroom management skills while lowering attrition rates due to issues regarding student discipline.


Allday, R. A., Nelson, J. R., & Russel, C. S. (2011). Classroom-based functional behavioral assessment: Does the literature support high fidelity implementation? Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 22(3), 140-149.

Beavers, G. A., Iwata, B. A., & Lerman, D. C. (2013). Thirty years of research on the functional analysis of problem behavior. Journal of Applied behavior Analysis, 46(1), 1-21.

Carrol, T.G., & Foster, E. (2010) Who will teach? Experience Matters. National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Retrieved from:

Chitiyo, M., & Wheeler, J. J. (2009). Challenges faced by school teachers in implementing positive behavior support in their school systems. Remedial and Special Education, 30(1), 58-63.

Cushman, C. A., & Kemp, A. (2012). The effects of clinical experiences on the understanding of classroom management techniques. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(3), 44-58.

Dukes, C., Rosenberg, H., & Brady, M. (2008). Effects of training in functional behavior assessment. International Journal of Special Education, 23(1), 163-173.

Gage, N. A., Lewis, T. J., & Sticher, J. P. (2012). Functional behavioral assessment-based interventions for students with or at risk for emotional and/or behavioral disorders in school: A hierarchal linear meta-analysis. Behavioral Disorders, 37(2), 55-77.

Hanley, G. (2012). Functional assessment of problem behavior: Dispelling myths, overcoming implementation obstacles, and developing new lore. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 5(1), 54-72.

Ingersoll, R.M. (2001). Teacher turnover and teacher shortages: An organizational analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 38(3), 499-534.

Johnston, J., Foxx, R. M., Jacobson, J. W., Green, G., & Mulick, J. A. (2006). Positive behavior support and applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 29(1), 51-74.

McIntosh, K., Horner, R. H., Chard, D. J., Dickey, C. R., & Braun, D. H. (2008). Reading skills and function of problem behavior. The Journal of Special Education, 42(3), 131-147.

Mueller, M. M., Nkosi, A., & Hine, J. F. (2011). Functional analysis in public schools: A summary of 90 functional analyses . Journal of Applied behavior Analysis, 44(4), 807-818.

O’Neil, S., & Stephenson, J. (2009). Teacher involvement in the development of function-based behaviour intervention plans for children with challenging behaviour. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 33(1), 6-25.

Payne, L. D., Scott, T. M., & Conroy, M. (2007). A school-based examination of the efficacy of function-based intervention. Behavioral Disorders, 32(3), 158-174.

Pindiprolu, S., Peterson, S., & Bergloff, H. (2007). School personnel’s professional development needs and skill level with functional behavior assessments in ten midwestern states in the united states. Journal of the International Association of Special Education, 8(1), 31-42.

Preciado, J. A., Horner, R. H., & Baker, S. K. (2009). Using a function-based approach to decrease problem behaviors and increase academic engagement for latino english language learners. The Journal of Special Education, 42(4), 227-240.

Richards, J. (2012). Teacher stress and coping strategies: A national snapshot. The Educational Forum, 76(3), 299-316.

Scott, T. M., Alter, P. J., & McQuillan, K. (2010). Functional behavior assessment in classroom settings: Scaling down to scale up. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46(2), 87-94.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Smart, J. B., & Igo, L. B. (2010). A grounded theory of behavior management strategy selection, implementation, and perceived effectiveness reported by first-year elementary teachers. The Elementary School Journal, 110(4), 567-584.

Stormont, M., Reinke, W., & Herman, K. (2011). Teachers’ knowledge of evidence-based interventions and available school resources for children with emotional and behavioral problems. Journal of Behavioral Education, 20(2), 138-147.

Sugai, G., Horner, R. H., Turnbull III, H. R., Wickham, D., Wilcox, B., Ruef, M., et al. (2000). Applying positive behavior support and functional behavioral assessment in schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(3), 131-143.

Trussell, R. P., Lewis, T. J., & Sticher, J. P. (2008). The impact of targeted classroom interventions and function-based interventions on problem behaviors of students with emotional/behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 33(3), 153-166.

Zirkel, P. A. (2009). What does the law say?. Teaching exceptional children, 41(5), 73-75.


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