Functional Assessment




Functional assessments were developed by the science of Applied Behavior Analysis.  The basic principle of Applied Behavior Analysis is that behavior is established and maintained by the responses that the child receives when exhibiting specific behaviors in everyday life. The responses that the child receives may maintain or even increase the future occurrence of a specific behavior if the child obtains some benefit (item or attention) when the child exhibits that specific behavior. The child’s behavior may also be maintained or increased if the child was to avoid an undesirable situation when that behavior was exhibited.  In short, behavior may be maintained or increased if it ends up resulting in some practical benefit for the child. For example: A child’s inappropriate tantrum may result in the adult backing-off from having the child pick up his toys. Avoiding to pick-up his toys is a benefit that is likely to maintain the tantrums in the child’s repertoire. In another example: Inappropriately snatching a cookie from another child is likely to be maintained or even increased if the child is able to keep and consume the cookie he snatched away. For an example in the school setting: The inappropriate behavior of talking out-of-turn in class may be maintained by the attention provided by the teacher, even if the teacher intended it as a reprimand. Parents and teachers often inadvertently respond in a manner that results in increasing the child’s inappropriate behavior.  


A Functional Behavior Assessment is used to identify the factors (gains or avoidances) that are maintaining the child’s behavior. Naturally, there is often a greater interest on the factors maintaining the child’s inappropriate behavior, but we also like to know what is maintaining the appropriate behaviors that the child is exhibiting. Knowing how the appropriate behavior is being maintained gives us ideas on how to establish the alternative appropriate behavior that we wish to replace the inappropriate behavior with.  


The utility of the information gathered from a Functional Assessment is to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan that will focus on increasing the benefits that the child obtains when appropriate behavior is exhibited and decrease the benefits (gains or avoidances) that the child obtains by exhibiting inappropriate behavior. 


Although a Functional Behavior Assessment is considered an elaborate process that should be conducted by the professional when designing an intervention plan, we feel that parents and teachers should develop the skill to conduct on-the-spot functional assessments when the child is behaving in everyday life. Parents and teachers need to make these quick determinations in order to respond appropriately under the variety of challenging situations that arise throughout the home and school day. 


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