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Functional Behavioral AssessmentA Three-Tiered Prevention Model$

Kevin J. Filter and Michelle E. Alvarez

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199764938

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199764938.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 04 August 2021

Functional Behavioral Assessment and School Social Work

Functional Behavioral Assessment and School Social Work

(p.3) 1 Functional Behavioral Assessment and School Social Work
Functional Behavioral Assessment

Kevin J. Filter

Michelle E. Alvarez

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter includes a definition and history of FBA, a review of supporting literature, and the relevance of FBA to school social work. FBA is a process of identifying the environmental conditions that predict and maintain problem behavior and was developed originally as a technology for assessing and planning interventions for individuals with significant developmental disabilities. It has since been adapted for use in the school context with students of all developmental levels and has been demonstrated to improve the quality of behavioral interventions in schools. Recent changes in the roles and functions of school social workers away from reliance on developmental histories and toward a functional, systems-perspective on student behavior indicate and need for school social workers to learn more about FBAs and how to work with schools to conduct them and develop appropriate interventions for students.

Keywords:   functional behavioral assessment, school social work, empirical support, history

In this chapter, a brief history of functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is explored, the relevance of FBA to school social work is addressed, a review is made of those skills that school social workers already possess and that can contribute to the FBA process, and potential roles for school social workers in the FBA process are outlined. The chapter concludes with a summary of the themes that provide a foundation for this book.

The importance of a link between FBA and school social work practice cannot be overemphasized. Clark and Thiede (2007) stated that school social work assessment in special education was no longer centered on the study of students’ social developmental histories. Clark and Alvarez (2010) affirmed this observation that FBA and the resulting behavioral intervention plan (BIP) would replace the social developmental history as the primary assessment tool that school social workers utilize in practice. Clark, Alvarez, Marckmann, and Timm (2010) noted that, in order to play a significant role in a Response to Intervention (RtI) framework,

School social workers will need to be proficient in conducting functional behavior assessments. This approach to assessment facilitates an understanding of the function or purpose of behavior and provides data that are useful in designing interventions. A functional approach to assessment also helps maintain a constant focus on problem solving and ensuring positive educational results, and it diminishes the need for labeling and categorizing students. (pp. 258–259)

Use of the FBA process goes beyond the value of actively participating in the school’s efforts to implement an RtI framework; it is a research-based (p.4) practice that improves student outcomes (Kern, Gallagher, Starosta, Hickman, & George, 2006).

Definition and History of Functional Behavioral Assessment

FBA is a process for identifying the environmental conditions that predict and maintain problem behavior (O’Neill et al., 1997). The identification of environmental conditions relevant to behavior can be accomplished in many different ways, including direct observation, interviews, and record reviews, and one of the primary purposes of this book is to highlight the range of procedures that can be utilized in this process. FBA has become important to school-based practice because it directly informs successful interventions. Therefore, a proper FBA can be considered complete when it has been translated into an effective intervention.

To understand why FBA is relevant to school social work practice, it is important to know a brief history of its development and its later use in schools. Although early research in this area was with animals and not humans, it laid the foundation for identifying the function of behavior. Thorndike (1913) identified the Law of Effect: behaviors that obtain desired outcomes tend to recur. He followed Pavlov and influenced Watson (1924), both of whom focused on the behavior elicited from stimuli—the notion that behavior is a reflexive reaction to antecedent events in the environment. Skinner (1938) found that behavior was a function of environmental conditions and was reinforced by the consequences that followed it. Skinner’s work emphasized that the environment affects voluntary behavior (i.e., we choose to engage in behavior that works) as well as involuntary, reflexive behavior. Skinner (1953) first used the term functional analysis to refer to a systematic method of exploring the interactions between a problem behavior and the environment. Skinner’s empirical and theoretical work in behavioral science laid the foundation for later research by others in the area of behavioral interventions. During the late 1950s and 1960s, behavioral intervention research was published focusing on the use of reinforcement and punishment to override existing contingent relationships between behavior and environment, but this approach did not base interventions on the assessment of functional relations. Bijou, Peterson, and Ault (1968) were the first researchers to study the identification of the purpose of existing behavior (function), utilizing the antecedent-behavior-consequence (ABC) method of recording behavior. Carr (1977) conducted a meta-analysis hypothesizing that problem behaviors recur due to either positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, sensory (p.5) stimulation, or a biological disorder. The meta-analysis found that these four hypothesized reasons for the recurrence of behavior were statistically significant. The concept was furthered when Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, and Richman (1982) developed the methodology with which to conduct an experimental functional analysis to identify the purpose (function) of behavior by controlling antecedents and consequences and measuring their effects on behavior.

During the 1990s, research focused on the idea that although two students were exhibiting similar behaviors, the function of their behaviors could be different (Mace & Roberts, 1993). This research emphasized the need to properly identify the individualized function of the behavior, without assuming that similar behavior indicates similar function. More emphasis was then placed on systematic methods of identifying the function of behavior, using experimental research studies designed to determine the function of behavior. Iwata et al. (1982) developed the first comprehensive functional analysis of self-injurious behavior by studying the positive, negative, and automatic reinforcements of this type of behavior. This was accomplished by systematically controlling antecedents and consequences in a number of experimental conditions to determine which conditions led to the most problem behaviors. Up to this point in the history of FBA, procedures had been limited to controlled experimental environments (e.g., clinic labs).

It was not until recently that research on FBA moved into a less controlled environment—the public education setting. In making this move to less controlled environments, new methods for conducting FBAs were explored, ones that relied more on indirect data sources (e.g., interviews, archival records) and nonexperimental direct data sources (e.g., systematic direct observation). Although the focus was originally on the use of FBA in special education, more recent studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in general education. Researchers began to train general education teachers to conduct FBAs; they evaluated the fidelity with which they were implemented (Lane, Weisenbach, Little, Phillips, & Wehby, 2006; Maag & Larson, 2004) and found that, with support, teachers were able to conduct and implement interventions associated with FBAs. Patterson’s work (2009) and similar studies researched the fidelity with which teachers implemented an FBA without the support of a university researcher. Patterson (2009) found that, despite some limitations, general education teachers could design and implement FBAs. However, the research did note some barriers to implementation by teachers, including professional development, administrative support, comfort level with data (p.6) collection, and incorporation of the process into the school day (Patterson, 2009).

Research prompted a shift to focusing on the replacement of unwanted behaviors with more appropriate behaviors using positive interventions rather than negative consequences.

In summary, FBA is based on more than half a century of experimental research demonstrating the relationship between environment and behavior, the purposefulness of problem behavior to meet basic human needs, principles of learning and instruction, and the ability of environmental redesign to make problem behaviors irrelevant, inefficient, and ineffective (McIntosh, Brown, & Borgmeier, 2008, p. 7).

A historical review of FBAs demonstrates the evolution of a research-based practice and its eventual applicability and practicality in a general education setting. In this book, we further this historical trend by describing how FBA can be applied to all three tiers of a prevention model, in order to help all students in a school, including those with and without severe problem behavior.

Current Research-based Support

Although more detailed research is addressed in Chapter 2, it is important to stress that, in this book, we present information about the use of FBA in general education because of its proven effectiveness in addressing the continuum of student behavioral challenges, from their first appearance to their long-term presence. A demonstrated precision in identifying the function of a behavior was found with the use of an ABC process (Hanley, Iwata, & McCord, 2003), the effectiveness of FBAs has been demonstrated (Ingram, Lewis-Palmer, & Sugai, 2005), and the longevity of the outcomes from implementing a behavior plan based on FBA has been supported (Kern et al., 2006). When the function of a behavior is identified, there is a documented increase in the effectiveness of the intervention (Filter & Horner, 2009; Ingram et al., 2005; Newcomer & Lewis, 2004). Finally, the overall effectiveness of the process has been established (Ingram et al., 2005), and its consistency with school social work practice has been noted (Tracy & Usaj, 2007).

When FBAs are conducted in a systematic manner, the function of a behavior is precisely identified, interventions specific to the identified function of a behavior are implemented, and response to the intervention is tracked; the process mimics a single-subject research design methodology. Horner, Carr, Halle, McGee, Odom, and Wolery (2005) note that, “single (p.7) subject design is a rigorous, scientific methodology used to define basic principles of behavior and establish evidence-based practices” (p. 165). Use of FBAs in general education is a research-based method to address target behaviors and can be applied to all tiers in an RtI framework.

Relevance to School Social Work

There is a lack of school social work literature related to FBA, as evidenced by a limited number of articles or book chapters that address the use of FBAs in school social work practice. This lack of scholarly resources on FBA in school social work practice is surprising because school social workers have been conducting FBAs in special education since their inclusion in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Action of 1997 (IDEA) (P.L. 105–17) and its reauthorization in 2004. The use of FBA with special education students (Tracy & Usaj, 2007), its consistency with school social work practice (Tracy & Usaj, 2007), and its fit with an ecological approach (Clark & Thiede, 2007; Tracy & Usaj, 2007) and strengths-based practice (Clark & Thiede, 2007) have been addressed.

Only recently have FBAs become an assessment tool utilized in general education. Clark and Alvarez (2010) advocate for the use of FBAs as a primary assessment tool for school social workers, supplemented only when necessary by the more traditional social developmental history.


Harrison and Harrison (2009) identified those existing school social work skills that contribute to the implementation of a systematic FBA process. Although mentioned specifically in relation to the tertiary level of prevention, these same skills can be applied at all tiers of an RtI framework. These skills included facilitating the composition of functional assessment teams that include family members, the analysis of human behavior, the communication between multidisciplinary stakeholders, the gathering of multilayered information, the identification of student strengths, the development of comprehensive interventions, and the measurement of outcomes.


School social workers are keenly aware of the resources available within the community. Often called the vital link, school social workers link the school with the family and community, and this can contribute to the academic success of students (Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008; Shaffer, 2007). Many schools are (p.8) located in communities possessing untapped resources of which schools may not be aware (Anderson-Butcher, Stetler, & Midle, 2006). By leveraging these resources, the school and community work together to address those barriers to learning identified in an FBA. Recognizing the value of working as a liaison, Anderson-Butcher, Stetler, and Midle (2006) state that social workers are key players who promote coordination; connect programs, services, and other resources; provide leadership in community mobilization efforts; and advocate for those in need of additional supports and resources. Therefore, one of the unique roles that school social workers bring to the FBA process is their ability to tap into existing resources to address issues.

Leadership is another role that school social workers can bring to the process (Clark & Gilmore, 2010). Because of the nature of their work with students, school social workers are often aware of internal and external stakeholders, including school personnel who are not obvious candidates for the team (such as bus drivers and janitors) and community agencies that already provide services to particular students; these participants can play an integral role on the team (Harrison & Harrison, 2009).

With their substantial training and knowledge in systems theory, school social workers can promote team-based decision-making through purposeful communication across home, school, and community (Fynaardt & Richardson, 2010; Harrison & Harrison, 2009). As the team selects methods for data collection, school social workers can call upon their experience in gathering information from multiple sources within the school, family, and community, and synthesizing the information to present to the team and family (Fynaardt & Richardson, 2010; Clark & Gilmore, 2010; Harrison & Harrison, 2009). School social workers also have well-developed interviewing skills that include active listening, use of reflective statements, and reframing, which can be utilized across settings.

School social workers are trained in strengths-based approaches to replace undesired behaviors, and these approaches play a significant role in the development of positive behavior intervention plans (Fynaardt & Richardson, 2010; Harrison & Harrison, 2009). Last, school social workers abide by the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (2008), prompting them as team members to ensure ethical decision-making related to collecting and reporting information in a respectful manner that preserves the dignity of the student (Harrison & Harrison, 2009).

A collaborating role for school social workers is that of liaison with the family. The family is directly impacted by the student’s behavior and can (p.9) provide a wealth of information about attempts to address the behavior. School social workers can involve the family in the FBA process by inviting family members to be part of the FBA team (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2010; Salend & Taylor, 2002; Scott & Eber, 2003), assigning a role to the family in the school-based BIP (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2010), involving the family in conducting FBAs in the home setting, and developing a BIP (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2010; Cormier, 2009; McNeill, Watson, Henington, & Meeks, 2002) that complements the school-based teams plan.

Developing and Maintaining Skills

The process of conducting an FBA at any tier requires the work of a team to ensure process fidelity and to conduct ongoing evaluation of the process. Although Chapter 2 will review the definitions and underlying concepts of an evidence-based FBA process, the case example in Box 1.1 demonstrates the importance of ongoing professional development in developing, maintaining, and improving practice.

(p.10) Summary

The authors have integrated the following themes in this book:

  • A contextual/environmental perspective on student behavior

  • FBAs as relevant to all students

  • FBA as a general education process with relevance to special education

  • A three-tiered prevention model around which the chapters are organized

  • (p.11)
  • The preservation of assessment information across all tiers of prevention

  • FBA as a team-managed process.

It is clear that school social workers have unique skills to contribute to the FBA process. The purpose of this book is to prompt thinking about how this research-based process for addressing behavior in school can be implemented in general education to produce successful outcomes for students. We also hope to increase the awareness of school social workers that FBAs can be used at all tiers of prevention. This book is organized around the tiers of prevention, in recognition of the fact that components of the FBA process can be effectively utilized across all three tiers (see Figure 1.1). Although the rigor and intensity of an FBA at Tier 1 will differ from the rigor and intensity at Tier 3, thinking functionally about behavior can facilitate good outcomes for students. Consistent with a three-tiered prevention model, FBAs are relevant to all students, especially those being served in the general education setting. Although FBAs were first used with students with disabilities, the contextual understanding of behavior has significant implications for improving the behavior of students without disabilities. Finally, the process of collecting data and planning interventions in an FBA model is managed by a team

                   Functional Behavioral Assessment and School Social Work

Figure 1.1 Functional behavioral assessment across three tiers of prevention.

(p.12) rather than by an individual. This ensures input from multiple sources and shared responsibility for outcomes.

School social workers have most likely been introduced to the three-tiered model of prevention or the RtI framework for the delivery of services to students. Tiers are often presented in a triangular figure, with the base representing Tier 1 or universal/school-wide services provided to all students; the center level represents Tier 2 services or targeted group interventions, and the tip of the triangle represents Tier 3 or intensive individual services. In the literature, the broad concept of RtI is defined by Batsche et al. (2005) as, “The practice of providing high-quality instruction and interventions matched to student need, monitoring progress frequently to make decisions about changes in instruction or goals, and applying child response data to important educational decisions” (p. 3). Clark and Alvarez (2010) define it as, “A multitiered framework for organizing evidenced-based practices in a systematic process for the purpose of determining what interventions ensure the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral success of all students” (p. xiv). These definitions highlight themes such as high-quality interventions, data-based decision making, and progress monitoring—all of which are enhanced by the use of FBAs when dealing with behavioral problems.

We believe that school FBAs must target alterable, educationally relevant behaviors. The contextual/environmental perspective must be maintained. School social workers are asked to address many issues that go beyond that of the behavior exhibited in school. However, social work practices in schools require a focus on education and those issues that interfere with the school’s ability to provide the student with an education. Therefore, behaviors targeted by school-based FBAs occur in the school setting and may or may not occur in the home or community setting. Also consistent with RtI, it is important to preserve assessment information throughout the process of working at all tiers. FBAs at previous tiers will inform work at the other tiers, if that becomes necessary. Information gathered at Tier 1 regarding all students can inform more individualized FBAs conducted at Tier 2 or 3 and vice versa.

Finally, this book was written to provide school social workers with the practical tools they need to implement FBAs across all tiers. Possible case examples and sample forms are provided to assist in this process. The application of FBA across tiers, especially at Tiers 1 and 2, is a new concept, and this book attempts to synthesize the current knowledge base in this area and recommend practices that lead to positive outcomes for all students, including those with or without severe problem behaviors.