functional behavior

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Prior to beginning work on this discussion, read Chapter 10 in your textbook and review The Four Functions of Behavior  – Basic ABA Concept with Examples (Links to an external site.).

For your discussion response, review Jazmine’s behavior within section 10.1 in your textbook and answer the following questions:

· Which two methods of data described in Jazmine’s scenario do you think will best identify the problem behavior and determine the functions of a behavior? Explain why.

· Based on Jazmine’s data, who would you bring in to be a part of her behavior team?

· Name her problem behavior and identify the functions of the behavior.

· How can you use her preferences and strengths (i.e., her energy, her persistence, her intelligence, her love of drawing) to change her challenging behavior into an acceptable behavior?

· Create one short-term goal for Jazmine.

· Create one long-term goal for Jazmine.

Chapter 10 Functional Assessment and Positive Behavior Support

Every challenging behavior can be thought of as a child’s solution to a problem and a form of communication. These ideas go back to Plato, who said that a crying baby’s behavior serves a function: She is trying to get someone to care for her (Durand, 1990).

This is the underlying principle of functional assessment (FA, sometimes called functional behavioral assessment) and Positive Behavior Support (PBS, often called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support or PBIS), two linked strategies developed by behavioral psychologists to understand a child’s challenging behavior. Their goal is to figure out what is triggering the behavior and what the child is getting from it—and to teach her a more acceptable way to fulfill those needs (O’Neill et al., 1997; Repp, Karsh, Munk, & Dahlquist, 1995). Together, they enable you to look at the world through the child’s eyes.

Goals of This Chapter

After reading this chapter, you will be better able to:

Conduct a functional assessment in order to identify the function of a child’s challenging behavior.

Develop a positive behavior support plan that will help a child learn appropriate ways to meet her needs.

Challenging Behavior Isn’t Random

Challenging behavior isn’t really as random and unpredictable as it sometimes seems. By focusing on the child’s immediate environment, you can understand where her behavior is coming from, why it’s happening at a particular time in a particular place (Durand, 1990), the logic behind it, and the function or purpose it serves for the child (Dunlap & Kern, 1993; Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, & Richman, 1982; O’Neill et al., 1997). Even if the behavior is inappropriate, the function seldom is. Once you understand the function, you can design a positive behavior support plan, sometimes called a behavior intervention plan or BIP, to help the child achieve her purpose (that is, to meet her needs) in an appropriate manner and render the challenging behavior “irrelevant, ineffective, and inefficient” (O’Neill et al., 1997, p. 8).

Of course, all the causes of challenging behavior aren’t in the immediate environment, but viewing it from this angle can be extremely helpful. Functional assessment and Positive Behavior Support are powerful strategies to add to your toolbox, especially when you have already built a positive, responsive relationship with the child and created an inclusive, supportive learning environment (see Chapters 5–8 and 11).

It takes time, effort, and a team to carry out a functional assessment and develop a positive behavior support plan, and no one will expect you to do it alone. But it’s important to know that you can identify the function of a behavior and teach new behaviors that allow children to meet their needs appropriately. In the end, you’ll spend less time addressing behavior problems and more time teaching.

Five-year-old Jazmine, who attends kindergarten, appears throughout this chapter. Because of her persistent challenging behavior, her teachers have decided to develop a behavior support plan for her, based on a functional assessment.

Performing a Functional Assessment

When Do You Use Functional Assessment and Positive Behavior Support?

Although functional assessment and Positive Behavior Support were originally created to help individuals with developmental disabilities, about 20,000 schools across the country are currently using PBS as a universal whole-school approach for preventing and addressing challenging behavior (Samuels, 2013). School-wide PBS serves as a primary intervention—that is, a foundation and support system for both classroom and individual interventions (Sugai, Horner, & Gresham, 2002).

Because these two strategies are so effective, the National Association of School Psychologists considers them best professional practices (Miller, Tansy, & Hughes, 1998); and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997 and 2004 counsels their use whenever behavior interferes with learning or requires disciplinary action (Mandlawitz, 2005; Quinn, Gable, Rutherford, Nelson, & Howell, 1998).

Most children respond well to the universal strategies we’ve described in previous chapters, but not all. Approximately 5 to 15 percent need the extra help of a secondary intervention (Sugai & Horner, 2002; Walker, Ramsey, & Gresham, 2004). And an additional 1 to 7 percent—more in some inner-city schools—require an intensive, individualized intervention, termed a tertiary intervention (Warren et al., 2003). (A diagram of this intervention model appears on page 135.)

Functional assessment is a tertiary intervention, used for serious, frequent, and intense behavior problems (Gable, Quinn, Rutherford, Howell, & Hoffman, 1998). More moderate behaviors—especially those that occur often or over a long period and affect learning and social relationships—may be candidates as well (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2014).

It may feel to you as though Jazmine kicks and hits dozens of times a day, but before you undertake a functional assessment and develop a positive behavior support plan for her, you need to know just how serious this behavior really is. An informal observation will provide a reality check by helping you figure out exactly how frequently the behavior takes place—how many times a day, how many times a week—and whether it appears at specific times—for example, only during free play, only during teacher-directed activities, or only at the end of the day when she is tired.

Natural Partner

Recently educators and researchers have begun to apply the response to intervention (RTI) method to behavior. RTI aims to prevent school failure and special education referrals by providing all children with effective evidence-based teaching strategies and curricula and by adding early and quick intervention for those who need more support (Fox, Carta, Strain, Dunlap, & Hemmeter, 2009).

With its proactive, three-tiered approach, RTI seems a natural partner for both schoolwide PBS and the early childhood pyramid model. In all three systems, the tiers represent a continuum of increasingly intensive evidence-based interventions (Fox et al., 2009; Sugai, n.d.). Using data gleaned from frequent screening and monitoring of children’s progress, a team matches interventions to each child’s requirements. Children with the most persistent behavior problems usually receive individualized support in the form of a functional assessment and positive behavior support plan.

Because challenging behavior is often related to academic difficulties, some schools are integrating academic and behavior RTI into one system, with encouraging results in both areas (McIntosh, Chard, Boland, & Horner, 2006; Stewart, Benner, Martella, & Marchand-Martella, 2007).

Record your observations on a simple chart with the days of the week across the top and the times of the day along the side. Choose one or two of the most challenging behaviors to observe (throwing things at cleanup, for example), and put a mark in the appropriate spot each time you see the behavior. If the behavior goes on for a long time, it may be more useful to note its duration. Does it last for 10 minutes or 10 seconds? (A watch that shows the seconds is helpful here.) Although a behavior’s intensity is difficult to measure, it may also be helpful to create a scale of 1 to 5 to figure out how serious or destructive it is.

At the end of the day, you’ll know how many times the behavior occurred, and after a week or two you can make a bar or line graph that will enable you to visualize exactly what’s happening. Put the dates or days of the week along the bottom axis, and the frequencies along the side. You can make a separate graph that shows the times or activities (such as free play or math) when the challenging behavior occurs. For future reference, don’t forget to label the graph with the child’s name, the behavior you’ve observed, and the dates. The frequency of Jazmine’s throwing things at cleanup shows clearly on the bar graph in Figure 10.1.

Figure 10.1

It’s easier to see a pattern in a child’s behavior when you make a bar graph with your data.

If your results show that the behavior is truly challenging, the next step is a functional assessment that will provide the basis for an individualized positive behavior support plan.

Enter the teacher as detective. When you perform a functional assessment, you and everyone else who works with the child become a team of sleuths searching together to discover the function of the challenging behavior and solve this case.

A functional assessment enables you to figure out the function or purpose of the challenging behavior and to identify events in the environment that trigger and maintain it. With this information, you will be ready to develop an effective behavior support plan.

Create and Convene a Team

It takes a team to make functional assessment and a positive behavior support plan work well. Everyone who’s directly involved in the child’s life—family, teachers, directors or principals, psychologists, social workers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers—has something to contribute, and when you pool information and ideas, you are more likely to see patterns and come up with an effective plan that everyone can implement (Fox & Duda, n.d.). If your school has an intervention assistance team (see page 224), which may include people trained in functional assessment, they should certainly join you.

To be as effective as possible, the plan must be comprehensive—that is, it should cover all aspects of the child’s day at home, at school, and in the community. The family has great strengths, knowledge, and expertise to bring to the table, and when they participate in developing the plan they will be more likely to understand the logic behind it, believe in it, and implement it faithfully. As always, a sensitive and respectful relationship is crucial. Work to gain the family’s trust and cooperation by learning about their daily lives, culture, interests, and resources; understanding the roles of each family member (who is the caregiver; who is the disciplinarian); and helping them to recognize you’re on their side. With their good will, problem solving and implementation of the plan will become easier and more consistent.

When the team meets for the first time, your tasks are to identify the problem behavior clearly and set goals for your intervention. What do you want to achieve? With Jazmine, your overarching long-term goal will probably be to reduce her disruptive behavior so that she can learn and function in class. You can also begin to think about the purpose of the challenging behavior and the conditions that precipitate it. Brainstorming will prod memories and stimulate thoughts and ideas. The situation is probably more complicated than you think. You may suspect that she wants to get out of cleaning up, but it’s also possible that she wants more attention or that she finds cleanup time overwhelming. Keep all the possibilities in mind as you gather information. Eventually a hypothesis—a tentative theory or best guess—about the purpose of the behavior will emerge.

Steps for Success

Experts outline these steps for performing a functional assessment and creating an individualized positive behavior support plan for a child with challenging behavior.

· Create and convene a team.

· Identify the problem behavior(s).

· Identify the function(s) of the behavior(s).

· Design a behavior support plan.

· Implement and monitor the plan.

· Evaluate the outcomes.

How Do You Figure out the Function of a Behavior?

The functional assessment process reveals the purpose of the challenging behavior by focusing on the environment immediately surrounding it (Carr, 1994). Because the classroom is such a complex place—comprised not only of physical space, curriculum, and routines but also of a social climate and the behaviors of both teachers and children—functional assessment asks teachers to look at it in a special way called an A-B-C analysis (Bijou, Peterson, & Ault, 1968; O’Neill et al., 1997).

A stands for antecedents—events that take place right before the challenging behavior and seem to trigger it. The research mentions demands, requests, difficult tasks, transitions, interruptions, and being left alone (O’Neill et al., 1997). Peers’ actions can be antecedents, too—think of teasing, bullying, showing off, coming too close, and exclusion. When you flash the lights and start to sing the cleanup song (which signals it’s time to clean up), Jazmine throws things on the floor. The flashing lights and the cleanup song are the antecedents.

It is often hard to distinguish between antecedents and their more distant relations—known as setting events—that occur before or around the antecedents. Setting events make the child more vulnerable to the antecedents and the challenging behavior more likely (Durand, 1990; Repp et al., 1995). The adults who are present (a substitute teacher, for example), changes in routine, the number of children in the group, the setup of the room, the noise level, the lighting, the type of activity, the sequence of activities, and the time of day can all act as setting events. Setting events also include the child’s physical or emotional state—being hungry, tired, or sick; being on medication (or not); spending the weekend with the noncustodial parent; having a parent deployed; being forbidden to bring a favorite toy to school; being pushed on the bus; and so on. Even the child’s culture can be a setting event if behavior that’s appropriate or encouraged at home is unacceptable at school (Sheridan, 2000). Setting events often depend on information supplied by someone else or are just plain unknowable, which is one of many reasons to develop a positive relationship with the child’s family. Setting events may be difficult or impossible to alter, but sometimes they are easy to identify and amenable to change, so it’s important to look for them.

Difficult tasks, demands, requests, transitions, and interruptions often trigger challenging behavior.

B stands for behavior, which you must describe so clearly and specifically that anyone who’s observing can recognize and measure it (not “Jazmine is uncooperative” but “Jazmine throws things on the floor when it’s time to clean up”) (Gable et al., 1998). If the child has several challenging behaviors, describe them all, because you will need to find out if they serve the same or different functions (“Jazmine also kicks and hits other children”). Of course you can’t observe or measure thoughts or feelings, such as sadness or anger—but you can observe and measure crying, yelling, or throwing chairs.

C stands for consequences—that is, What happens after the challenging behavior? Here you must look at your own actions as well as the responses of Jazmine’s peers. Did you pretend you didn’t see her throw three puzzles on the floor? Did you reprimand her sternly, take her aside for a private conversation, or change her seat? Did you redirect her to another activity or send her to the office? Did the other children laugh, join in, move away, or tell her to stop? Any of these responses, positive or negative, may have an effect on Jazmine’s behavior and serve to reinforce and maintain it.

What Functions Can Behavior Serve?

Taken together, the A-B-C analysis and the setting events form a pattern that points you toward the function or purpose of the challenging behavior. The functional assessment model postulates three possible functions:

· The child gets something (attention from an adult or a peer, access to an object or an activity, and so on). When Jazmine throws things on the floor, she gets attention—her classmates become very quiet, and you reprimand her or talk with her privately. Because she’s obtaining something she wants, her behavior is being positively reinforced, and it will probably continue.

· The child avoids or escapes from something (unwelcome requests, difficult tasks or activities, contacts with particular peers or adults). Ronnie, who is clumsy at gross motor activities, doesn’t want to participate in gym. When he pushes a classmate, you remove him to the sidelines. This response strengthens his behavior and increases the likelihood it will persist.

· The child changes the level of stimulation. All people try to maintain their own comfortable level of stimulation, and when they get too much or too little, they act to change it (Karsh, Repp, Dahlquist, & Munk, 1995). When Jamal has to sit in circle for more than 8 minutes or wait in line for the bathroom, he pokes and pushes the children around him, and the world instantly becomes more stimulating. Because he is changing the level of stimulation in the environment, his behavior is creating its own reinforcement (Iwata, Vollmer, & Zarcone, 1990).

What about Appropriate Behavior?

It may seem as if the child never behaves appropriately, but when you keep your mind open you will discover this is not the case. Appropriate behavior also has antecedents, consequences, and setting events (O’Neill et al., 1997). Because part of planning an effective intervention is knowing how to increase the child’s appropriate behaviors, you’ll need to know what engages her, where her talents lie, which peers and teachers she’s comfortable with, whether she likes being in structured or unstructured settings, in a small group, with a partner, or on her own. Tuning into Jazmine’s preferences and strengths—her energy, her persistence, her intelligence, her love of drawing—will enable you to provide her with new acceptable behaviors and potent reinforcers for them.

What Will Help You Understand the Function of the Behavior?

Reviewing Records

To figure out the function of Jazmine’s behavior and develop a hypothesis, you will need current and accurate data, and the more sources you have, the more accurate the information is likely to be (Dunlap & Kern, 1993). Official records are an obvious starting point. Medical forms, incident reports, grades, children’s personal files, and your own daily logs may be hiding valuable nuggets. It’s especially important to read the notes on any previous behavior management plans. Have any strategies worked with this child, even for a while? Which didn’t? You don’t want to repeat them!

Perusing Jazmine’s file, you see she has attended three child care centers. One center suggested testing for ADHD, but her family hasn’t followed up.

Conducting Interviews

It’s tempting to assume you already know all there is to know, but a formal interview may surprise you (Durand, 1990). Begin with the family, who can add important background information and insights. Be sure to seek their permission before you start—if they come from a diverse culture, they may find the functional assessment process inappropriate, intrusive, or just plain strange (Sheridan, 2000). Because they may see both the problem and the solution differently from the way you see them, take note of your own cultural bias and try to emphasize solutions. The family’s participation and belief in the process are crucial to successful implementation of the plan.

This is a good opportunity to ask about setting events: Sleeping and eating habits, allergies, medical conditions, medications, events in the community, or family problems may all be influencing Jazmine’s behavior. Her mother tells you she comes home late from work, and because her daughter waits up for her, Jazmine often goes to school tired.

You can also interview other members of your team, including Jazmine’s teachers, past and present (O’Neill et al., 1997). The teacher at the after-school program tells you Jazmine enjoys art and gym, and she gets along well with some of the older children; the bus driver mentions Jazmine is frequently in a bad mood when she boards the bus in the morning, and she swaggers down the aisle bugging the other children until she finds a seat alone at the back.

Don’t overlook the most obvious source of all: the child herself. Even a 5-year-old can shed light on what causes her reactions. Talk with her in a quiet place when she’s feeling calm and good about herself. Stay away from why questions, which make some children feel defensive, and zero in on her preferences and pleasures as well as her complaints. If your manner, voice, and body language are open, warm, and unthreatening, some very useful information may emerge.

You can take questions from existing questionnaires (see page 208) or make them up yourself. Include some queries about the A-B-Cs. Which circumstances almost always surround this child’s challenging behavior and which never do (O’Neill et al., 1997)? Does the interviewee have a theory about why the child is behaving this way? Interviews also help you to fill in the particulars about previous interventions, especially if you’re talking to someone who took part in them.

Observing the Child and the Environment

By far the best way to learn about a child’s behavior is to observe and collect data about what you see (O’Neill et al., 1997). As the great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

There are two major reasons to observe a child’s challenging behavior. The first is that it gives your assessment a scientific base. Collecting data before, during, and after an intervention allows you to find out precisely what you’re dealing with and reliably measure any change that occurs. The second reason is to enable you to see the relationship between the immediate environment and the challenging behavior more directly (Dunlap & Kern, 1993)—in other words, to pinpoint what triggers the behavior, what consequences are maintaining it, and what the child is getting or avoiding as a result.

If your team includes a special education teacher or someone else trained in functional assessment, he or she should observe the child; and the principal or the school psychologist might also observe. You can even do an observation yourself—you may be able to collect some very good data without outsiders around to make you nervous, distract the children, and change the environment (O’Neill et al., 1997). In fact, anyone who spends time with the child should participate.

Although teachers recognize that observing behavior is crucial to intentional teaching, observation isn’t often a priority. Teaching and observing at the same time takes willpower, a quick and perceptive eye, and a good memory. One of the most daunting aspects of this process is that you’re observing your own behavior as well as the child’s. Fortunately, the more you practice, the easier it will become.

Your own previous experience with the child—or a reputation that precedes her—can make it difficult to observe objectively. Teachers tend to see what they expect to see—especially if they’re expecting challenging behavior. Self-reflection can help. Try to identify your biases so that you can observe what’s actually happening.

This is where the A-B-C analysis comes in. Using the data the team has gathered so far as a guide, select two or three behaviors to observe more closely. Plan to observe during a variety of activities, routines, times, and days so that you’ll see when and where the behavior occurs—and doesn’t. Pay close attention to what happened just before the challenging behavior, who was involved, and what happened afterwards.

Collecting Clues

When you’re interviewing people who know the child well, experts (Durand, 1990; Gable et al., 1998; Iwata et al., 1990; O’Neill et al., 1997; Quinn et al., 1998) suggest you ask such questions as these:

· Which of the child’s behaviors do you consider challenging, and what do they look like?

· When and where does this behavior occur?

· When and where does the child behave appropriately? Which activities does she enjoy?

· Who is present when the challenging behavior occurs? Who is present when the child is behaving appropriately?

· What activities, events, and interactions take place just before the challenging behavior?

· How predictable is the child’s daily schedule? How much waiting is there? How much choice does she have? When the routine changes, does her behavior change?

· What happens after the challenging behavior? How do you react? How do the other children react? Does the child get something from the behavior, such as your attention or a favorite snack? Does she avoid something, such as cleaning up or wearing her rain boots? According to Brian Iwata (1994), one of the pioneers of functional assessment, “Parents, teachers, and other caregivers sometimes can describe the functional characteristics of a [child’s] behavior problem with uncanny accuracy” (p. 414).

· Can you think of a more acceptable behavior that might replace the challenging behavior?

· What activities does the child find difficult?

· Which approaches work well with her, and which don’t? Does she prefer her interaction with you to be loud or soft, fast or slow? How much personal space does she need? If a particular family member or staff is especially successful with her, what does she do?

· If the child is from a different culture, this behavior may not have the same meaning for the family as it does for you. Does it trouble them? Why or why not? How would they like you to respond to it?

There are many ways to record your observations. One is to make a basic A-B-C chart divided into categories: A for antecedent (what happened just before the behavior and who was present); B for behavior; C for consequences (what happened afterward); and perceived function (a guess that you make while you’re observing). Be sure to label the chart with the child’s name, the date, time, and activity and/or teacher. (See Appendix B for an example.) You can put the chart on a clipboard, stash it in a convenient spot in the classroom, and fill it in as you watch; or prepare index cards or post-its with the A-B-Cs to carry in your pocket and mark on the spot. When you have a moment (at lunch, naptime, the end of the day), transcribe the information onto the chart. Everyone who observes should record and initial her impressions.


Collect data until a clear pattern emerges. This usually takes at least 15 to 20 incidents over 2 to 5 days (O’Neill et al., 1997). Be careful not to jump to conclusions or interpret the data prematurely. If you’ve made a substantial effort and things still aren’t clear, perhaps your description of the target behavior isn’t specific enough or your personal biases are getting in the way. You may need to bring in additional help.

Take a look at videos 4 and 5 of this series to see how a guidance counselor works with the teacher to identify the A-B-Cs of a behavior before he observes in the classroom. How would you collect this information? How will this information help to identify the function of the behavior?

How Do you Develop a Hypothesis?

When you have enough information, call the team together for another brainstorming session. It’s time to create a hypothesis and a hypothesis statement. To do this, you must analyze your data and come to a conclusion about what it shows. What triggers the challenging behavior? What are the consequences that maintain it? And what purpose or function does it serve for the child?

Looking at your A-B-C chart, you can see that Jazmine’s problem behavior is tied to certain transitions. When you ask her to clean up or get ready for lunch, she responds by throwing things. But you notice she rarely behaves this way during the afternoon cleanup and other transitions when she is with her teacher named Grace. What is Grace doing differently, and what does that tell you about the function of the behavior?

The data show that you flick the lights and sing the cleanup song to signal a transition—and Jazmine often throws Lego or other objects. But in the team meeting Grace says that when she is in charge of the cleanup transition, she speaks to every child individually and gives each of them specific tasks to complete before she flicks the lights and sings. Then she gets Jazmine started on her assigned task and stays with her until it’s clear she knows what to do. Jazmine doesn’t throw anything. This gives a hint about the function: Before and during cleanup, Grace spends time with Jazmine and makes sure she knows what she’s supposed to do. Perhaps Jazmine is overwhelmed by the chaos of cleanup and needs to slow things down and get direction.

One for All and All for One

In a study in Illinois, researchers trained teams working with preschool children in special education and at-risk classes in the use of functional assessment and Positive Behavior Support (Chandler, Dahlquist, Repp, & Feltz, 1999). The result? Addressing the behavior of one child substantially lowered the challenging behavior of the whole class. At the same time, both active engagement and peer interaction rose, creating a better learning environment for everyone.

Because consequences often reinforce and maintain challenging behavior, your observation will help to clarify this hypothesis. The chart shows that when Jazmine throws Lego, the room becomes quiet; then you go over and tell her to pick it up. Suddenly you realize that by giving Jazmine attention and direction after the behavior occurred, you have inadvertently reinforced her actions! As is often the case with children with challenging behavior, Jazmine doesn’t care whether the attention she gets is positive or negative, as long as she gets attention.

Now you can make a hypothesis statement that describes the trigger event or antecedent, the behavior, the maintaining consequences, and the function: When Jazmine is overwhelmed and not sure of what to do, she will throw things on the floor or spill something in order to calm things down and get attention and direction. The maintaining consequence has been that her actions generally stop others in their tracks, creating a quieter environment, and a teacher goes over and instructs her about how she can clean up.

Creating a Positive Behavior Support Plan

How Do You Construct a Positive Behavior Support Plan?

With a clear hypothesis statement to guide you, you can create a behavior support plan that teaches the child how to get what she wants through appropriate means and lays out what you and the other adults must do to sustain that behavior (Quinn et al., 1998). In addition to identifying the behavior with its antecedents and consequences, a positive behavior support plan for the child includes

· developing long-and short-term goals for the child

· identifying changes to be made in the child’s environment to prevent the challenging behavior

· identifying and teaching skills to replace the challenging behavior

· specifying how everyone will respond when the child uses the new appropriate skills and when she uses challenging behavior

· an evaluation framework

At this point you’re ready to set long-and short-term goals for Jazmine. The team believes that their original long-term goal—to reduce her disruptive behavior so that she can learn and function in class—is still correct. The members decide that a short-term objective should be for her to learn to ask for help when she’s confused or doesn’t understand a request. They add learning to identify her emotions to the list of goals.

The next step is to figure out the strategies that will teach her how to get what she wants through appropriate means (O’Neill et al., 1997). There are four ways to accomplish this, and you should probably use them all (Dunlap et al., 2006): prevention (changing the environment so she won’t need the challenging behavior); teaching replacement skills (replacing the challenging behavior with appropriate behavior that achieves the same purpose); recognizing appropriate behavior; and responding to inappropriate behavior in a manner that doesn’t reinforce it.


This is perhaps the easiest way to address challenging behavior. Rather than trying to change the child, you can change the environment, including your own behavior. As psychologist Kevin Leman (1992) points out, there is no way to change anyone else’s behavior. You can only change your own, and when you do, the strangest thing happens: Other people make the behavior changes you’ve been hoping for.

Begin with the setting events if you can. Jazmine’s mother has mentioned that Jazmine isn’t hungry at 6:30 a.m., which is the last chance she has to eat before they leave home in the morning. You realize that Jazmine will probably have more self-control if she eats something, and you decide to offer her a breakfast snack as soon as she arrives. You also decide to teach her to request a snack if she is hungry.

The next step is to change the antecedents. This usually involves changing the physical setup, routines, curriculum, your expectations, and your approach to the child to eliminate opportunities for the challenging behavior to arise. Sometimes this is as simple as reminding her of what is appropriate before the activity begins, reassuring her that you’ll provide any assistance she needs, or changing your tone of voice or body language when you’re making a request or giving directions.

In this video, the teacher and the guidance counselor discuss a student’s strengths. How would knowing Jazmine’s strengths help you to prevent her challenging behavior?

Because you’ve hypothesized that Jazmine needs more attention and direction during cleanup and other difficult transitions, the team decides to change the routine. Just before cleanup, you will warn all the children individually and assign each of them a specific achievable task. Then you can give the cleanup signal—flicking the lights and singing the cleanup song—and help Jazmine get started. You will reinforce her efforts to put things away even if they’re only close approximations. That way, she’ll achieve her goal of having your attention without tossing things around. Better still, you will reinforce her appropriate behavior so that she realizes she can get your attention and assistance by behaving in an acceptable fashion. (For more about how to prevent challenging behavior, see Chapters 7 and 8.)

The behavior support team hypothesized that Ronnie was pushing his classmates in the gym to avoid doing the planned physical activities, and you decide to change the program completely. Instead of taking the class to the gym, you will do some gentler physical activities in the classroom—games with scarves and music and daily yoga poses that you will connect with a story (turtle, tree, etc.) to keep the group interested. The easy movement will reduce Ronnie’s anxiety and help him gain body awareness, strength, and coordination.

Interestingly, the team’s observations show that Jamal, who poked his neighbors while he was standing in line and sitting in circle, stays on task in art and gym, activities that require active physical participation. This leads to the conclusion that he needs more stimulation, as the team had hypothesized. You decide to get the whole class up and moving more often by making the transitions more active, eliminating lines, and adding some small-group and partner activities. To enable Jamal to leave circle and other whole-group activities without using challenging behavior, you will create procedures that allow children to leave, join, or rejoin an activity appropriately. (With older children you might decide to make it easier to get a drink, sharpen a pencil, and go to the bathroom.)

Depending on the results you get with these tactics, perhaps later you will give Jamal more help staying in circle—something to hold, something to sit on, friends beside him. In addition, you decide you will try to increase your own tolerance of his movement in the classroom by regarding it as a physical need, not a desire to disrupt learning. Your colleagues suggest using the impulse control techniques you teach the children—breathing slowly, counting to 10 backwards—to help you stay calm. If you can resist responding to his perambulations, you can reduce the stimulation you provide and concentrate instead on making the environment more stimulating in legitimate ways.

Teaching Appropriate Replacement Skills

It is not enough to decide what the child must stop doing. You must also know what you want her to do instead—and what will enable her to achieve the same results as efficiently and effectively. If possible, choose a replacement behavior that utilizes strengths and skills she already has. You can prompt her to use it at times when the problem behavior usually occurs and teach and reinforce it throughout the day.

Different children lack different skills, so in addition to teaching them how to ask for help or take a break, you could teach virtually anything, be it physical, social, emotional, or cognitive—how to hold a pencil or cut with scissors, how to join in or wait for a turn, how to control anger or use words to express it. “Remember that teaching is among the most powerful behavior management tools at our disposal,” O’Neill and his colleagues write (1997, p. 74). Plan to start with skills the child can learn quickly and easily—it’s important for her to experience success as soon as possible. Sometimes we think that if we wait the child will learn the skill when she’s ready, but in reality she often becomes convinced that her classmates don’t like her or she’s incapable of learning.

Give the child plenty of opportunities to use the new skill and give yourself plenty of opportunities to reinforce it with words, body language, and activities she enjoys. Remember to respond to every attempt and every close approximation, stressing effort and improvement, especially in the beginning. To get rid of the old behavior, the new one has to bring “far greater” rewards (Fox & Duda, n.d., p. 20). It’s also a good idea to teach new skills as part of the daily routine—children will learn and generalize them more readily if they learn them where they use them.

Jazmine’s team decides to teach her to ask for assistance when she’s confused. Although you’re already teaching social and emotional skills to the entire class, Jazmine needs extra help because she doesn’t recognize when she’s feeling confused or uncertain. One short-term goal will be for her to identify and label her feelings. Another will be to ask for help when she isn’t sure of what to do. When she recognizes that she’s confused or asks for help, you will come to her aid, thereby giving her positive reinforcement and building a strong, trusting relationship.

The team plans to teach Ronnie an appropriate way to ask for a break from physical activity, but because he has difficulty in this area, you realize you can’t allow him to avoid it entirely: You must actively teach him some physical skills. In addition to the daily yoga in the classroom, in a few weeks you will try some games in the gym using colored shapes on the floor. You will also try a small-group activity where the children sit on the floor and roll a large ball, and you will encourage all Ronnie’s attempts, no matter how feeble or wild. If he feels overwhelmed, he can use his new skill to ask for a break appropriately. At the same time, the team decides to motivate and reinforce him by letting him choose a favorite activity when gym time is over (Repp et al., 1995). By improving Ronnie’s competence and self-esteem, the team hopes to increase both his fun and his willingness to try. You know that gym is going to be hard for him for a long time, and you must continue to support him. (This is what Positive Behavior Support is all about!)

Teaching new skills is one of the best ways to prevent problem behaviors.

For Jamal, the team needs to find replacement behaviors that will raise his stimulation level—that is, appropriate ways for him to move around the classroom and engage his peers. You will help him learn to ask for a break, and together you’ll work out a list of things he can do when he needs to move—work at the board, sit on a ball, set the tables, water the plants, take books back to the library, take notes to the office.

Responding to Appropriate and Challenging Behavior

Your individualized behavior support plan depends heavily on your prompt and positive recognition of appropriate replacement behavior that meets the child’s needs. Be sure to choose a method that’s appropriate for the function of the behavior. It will take time for Jazmine to realize you are serious, but if you hold steady she will figure out that her appropriate behavior and replacement skills are working better than her challenging behavior, and it will diminish in force and frequency. You discover that Jazmine loves to have her back rubbed. When she’s behaving appropriately, you will provide her with the gentle touch she enjoys, in the hope she will associate the good feeling with appropriate behavior.

Prep Time

Children often use challenging behavior to escape from situations they don’t have the skills to handle. They may want to avoid feeling frustrated, stupid, or confused, and they may worry that their peers (or the teacher) will make fun of them. In Beyond Functional Assessment, Joseph S. Kaplan (2000) suggests these questions to ponder as the team decides what to teach and how to teach it:

· Does the child know what’s expected in this situation? Does she understand it? Are your expectations different from what’s required at home?

· Does she know how to do what’s expected?

· Does she know when to do what’s expected?

· Does she have the self-control to do what’s expected?

· Is she aware of her own behavior?

· Seen from the child’s point of view, is there more to gain from the challenging behavior or from the appropriate behavior?

· Are the child’s beliefs compatible with the appropriate behavior? Does she believe she’s capable of learning and performing the appropriate behavior? Does she believe she can exert any influence on the situation? Does she believe the new behavior will get her what she wants? Some children may not even try to behave appropriately because they think they have no control over what happens to them.

Your plan should also help you to respond to inappropriate behavior without rewarding it. If the functional assessment indicates that the child is trying to obtain your attention, you can use planned ignoring. This means you must plan not to respond to the child’s challenging behavior—not to come to her side, speak to her, or look at her when she behaves inappropriately—but instead provide attention when she’s behaving in an acceptable manner (or a close approximation thereof). This action shows the child that the challenging behavior will not serve the function or purpose it has served up until now—it will no longer get her what she wants (Durand, 1990). Warning: Any time you stop reinforcing challenging behavior, there will probably be an extinction burst—that is, the behavior will get worse before it gets better. This is a well-known phenomenon, so be prepared, and wait for it to pass.

Ignoring challenging behavior is not easy, and it could be dangerous. The well-being of the children must always come first; planned ignoring therefore takes a back seat in hazardous situations. (For more about dealing with aggressive behavior, see Chapter 9.)

If the function of the challenging behavior is to avoid an activity or task, you cannot ignore the behavior. When Ronnie is screaming because he doesn’t want to roll the ball with his group today, plan to watch carefully for a pause, an action, or even a breath you can interpret as a tiny effort or a remote close approximation of appropriate behavior. When you see it, provide some positive reinforcement that you know is meaningful to him, and as he regains control, offer your help or a choice: “You choose. You can roll the ball or you can give it to me. Then you can take a break.” When he chooses, no matter how badly or angrily he behaves, reinforce the behavior you want to encourage: “Terrific, you rolled the ball. Now you can take a break.” This reinforcement of small steps and approximations—called shaping—allows Ronnie to experience success (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2014).

Such situations can be tricky, and they require you to think on your feet and use all the flexibility and ingenuity at your command. The solution may seem silly—Ronnie isn’t really calm when he takes a breath—but it’s close enough, and it works. He stops screaming, he doesn’t avoid the task, and he doesn’t lose face. Furthermore, neither do you. Needless to say, in order to perform such a maneuver you must stay calm and collected yourself!

Remember, when the function of the challenging behavior is to avoid the activity, removing the child is not an option, even if she hurts someone. She must begin to recognize that the challenging behavior doesn’t work, and she can get help with a difficult task or leave an activity she dislikes if she makes an effort or asks appropriately. We repeat, the replacement skills must be as efficient and effective as her challenging behavior or she will not use them.

If you follow your plan and implement your interventions consistently, you should soon see changes. Bear in mind that the child’s history will play a role here: The longer she’s used her challenging behavior and the more successful it’s been for her, the harder it will be to change or eradicate it. Patience is therefore essential (O’Neill et al., 1997).

How Does the Plan Look?

When you’ve figured out the function and carefully considered all four methods for helping the child fulfill her needs appropriately—preventing the behavior by changing the environment, successfully teaching replacement skills, and finding meaningful ways to respond to both appropriate behavior and challenging behavior—you are well on your way. Write down exactly what you want to achieve—your goals and objectives—in measurable terms (Jazmine will stop throwing things or hitting others when she’s confused; Ronnie will spend more time trying new skills in the gym; Jamal will learn to request a break), a time frame for reaching them, the methods you’ve decided to use, and who will be responsible for implementing each intervention. Figure out all the details—what you’ll say and do, what materials you’ll need, and so on. O’Neill and his colleagues (1997) also recommend including a description of a typical routine and a description of how you’ll handle the most difficult situations. Even when you’re well prepared, the problem behavior can still occur, and clearly defined procedures ensure that everyone knows what to do and everyone does the same thing. Make sure family and staff agree and are ready to do their part. To succeed in the long run, an intervention has to be acceptable to all the people who will implement it and live with it. It has to be consistent with your values, skills, and resources. (For a summary of this entire process, see Figure 10.3.)

Figure 10.2

A Behavior Support Planning Chart displays the plan in a clear form.

Trigger Behavior Maintaining Consequence


Preventions Goals/Skills New Responses

To challenging behavior:

To use of new skill:

How Do You Evaluate the Plan?

Decide how you’ll measure your progress and set a date to review it. After the behavior plan is in place, it’s important to continue observing and recording the child’s behavior, using the A-B-C chart or the simpler method you used before you began the functional assessment (remember the bar graph on page 202). Depending on the nature of the challenging behavior, you can count the frequency or the duration (both of which should have diminished). You can also note and record increases in positive behavior, such as when the child

· initiates private time

· allows another child to play with her

· participates in small groups

· needs the staff less

· has a friend

· uses words to ask for help or breaks more often

· copes better with transitions

· doesn’t hit when she could have (Meyer & Evans, 1993)

It can take up to 6 weeks to change a behavior that has worked for a child for years. Even very small improvements indicate you’re on the right track.

If you notice no progress at all, go back to your data to look for a new hypothesis, new strategies, or a totally different slant. Dust off and reconsider your earlier hypotheses. You might try to manipulate the antecedents in another way—for example, change your approach to transitions—to see whether that changes the behavior. Look at how closely the team is following the behavior support plan because it won’t work if you don’t implement it correctly. Positive Behavior Support is an ongoing, cyclical process in which you’re constantly trying things out, getting new information, and revising your strategies in order to give the child a better quality of life.

Figure 10.3

This diagram illustrates the process involved in using functional assessment to create a positive behavior support plan.

What Do You Know?

Describe the three possible functions of a child’s behavior that a functional assessment helps you to identify.

List the steps involved in developing a behavior support plan.

What Do You Think?

1. “Every challenging behavior can be thought of as a child’s solution to a problem and a form of communication.” What does this mean to you? Can you remember a time when you or someone you know used challenging behavior to communicate or to solve a problem? Why did you use this method?

2. How does understanding the function of the behavior affect your attitude toward the child and the child’s behavior? In what way does your attitude affect your ability to use an appropriate intervention?

3. In small groups, think of an experience you’ve had with a child with challenging behavior. If you haven’t yet had this experience, team up with someone who has or make up a scenario. Try to figure out the function of the challenging behavior. Using an A-B-C chart, formulate a hypothesis and make a positive behavior support plan.

4. When you start using a new strategy, challenging behavior often becomes worse. What does this mean and how should you respond to it?

Suggested Reading and Resources

Artesani, J. (2000). Understanding the purpose of challenging behavior: A guide to conducting functional assessments. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Center for the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL).

Chandler, L., & Dahlquist, C. M. (2014). Functional assessment: Strategies to prevent and remediate challenging behavior in school settings (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Fox, L., & Duda, M. A. (n.d.). Positive behavior support. Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children (TACSEI). Available online.

Kaplan, J. S. (2000). Beyond functional assessment: A social-cognitive approach to the evaluation of behavior problems in children and youth. Austin: Pro-Ed.

O’Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior: A practical handbook (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

OSEP Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Available online.

Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention (TACSEI). Available online.

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