Virginia Commonwealth University
November 5, 2014
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Kira Austin, Ph.D.

Since 1974, school suspension and expulsion rates have more than doubled (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009). Teachers are more likely to leave schools with higher student discipline problems (Allensworth et al., 2009, Ladd, 2011; Marinell & Coca, 2013). These discipline problems are not limited to just violence or disruption. Teachers are also more likely to leave schools that do not have school-wide behavior norms or consistent discipline policies (Johnson & Birkeland, 2003; Marinell & Coca, 2013). According to Marinell and Coca (2013) teachers of all backgrounds report struggling with student discipline and needing administrative support. What is a teacher to do?

A teacher thinking

Research shows that the most effective interventions address the function of the behavior.

Ample research has shown that addressing behavior based on its function (why the student does the behavior) instead of its topography (what it looks like) is the most effective method for changing problem behaviors (Epstein, Atkins, Cullinan, Kutash, & Weaver, 2008; Gresham et al., 2004; Ingram, Lewis-Palmer, & Sugai, 2005; Skinner, 1953, Scott, McIntyre, Liaupsin, Nelson, Conroy, & Payne, 2005). You might be familiar with this idea within the context of completing a functional behavior assessment (FBA) with a team to complete one for a particular student. FBAs are required by law for students with disabilities who are at risk of a placement change due to behavior problems (IDEA, 2004), but the process can also be used with students without disabilities. However, FBAs are time intensive, resource demanding, and training specific (Hershfeldt, Rosenberg, & Bradshaw, 2010). You need a simpler, user-friendly process for addressing mild to moderate behavior problems within the classroom.

What is Function-Based Thinking?

Function-Based Thinking (FBT) is a quick, systematic way of examining problem behaviors and selecting effective function-based supports. FBT is a classroom-based strategy that you can complete on your own and can to be used as an early intervention strategy to extinguish problem behaviors before they become more severe. FBT is not meant to replace a full-scale FBA but rather a preliminary step that will allow you to have more control over challenging behaviors within your own classroom. Like an FBA, function-based thinking follows a step-by-step process for addressing problem behaviors. The three steps of FBT include: 1. Gather information, 2. Develop a plan, and 3. Evaluate and monitor the plan.

1. Gather information

Define the behavior. In order to be able to understand the function of the problem behavior, you must first define the behavior in observable and measurable terms. Can the behavior be seen? Can the behavior be counted or timed? A well-defined behavior will be able to pass the “stranger test.” To conduct the “stranger test,” share your definition of the behavior with someone who does not know the student. Could this person come into your classroom and accurately observe the behavior? Would this person be able to identify what does and does not count as the behavior? Poorly defined behaviors include the terms disruptive, disrespectful, hyperactive, off-task, lazy, defiant, hostile, and inappropriate language. You may consider a student fidgeting in their seat as hyperactive, whereas another teacher may not. These terms need to be defined as the behaviors that can be seen and counted. For example, off-task may be defined as any time the student is not physically/verbally engaged with materials, not looking at the board/speaker/seatwork, is not following along during reading, and is not quiet when the expectation is to work independently. Once you have identified a well-defined behavior, you are ready to look at the other contextual factors contributing to the problem behavior.

Describe the antecedents. In order to effectively develop a plan you must also understand what is occurring within your classroom that facilitates the problem behavior. Ask yourself when, where, and with whom is the activity most likely and least likely to occur. Those environments and persons with which the behavior is most likely to occur are called antecedents. Antecedents are not things that happened that morning, or yesterday, but rather immediately before the behavior. For example, when you asked Terry to take out his book, he yells, “This is stupid. I’m not reading your dumb book.” Even though Terry may not have eaten breakfast that morning, the antecedent was the teacher direction and the behavior was yelling. Things that may contribute to the environmental context such as medications, medical problems, sleep habits, diet, and family structure are considered setting events and not antecedents. These setting events may have some impact on student behavior but they are not the trigger. To best determine the function of the behavior, focus on the elements you can control such as the antecedents that arise within your own classroom.

Describe the consequences. Consequences are anything that occurs or is present immediately after the behavior is elicited. Similar to antecedents, consequences are immediate, not a distant form of discipline. Continuing with the previous illustration, after Terry yells several of his peers laugh. A few minutes later, you come over and speak sternly with Terry about his behavior. In this situation the consequence what the social reinforcement of his peers laughing, not the verbal reprimand. Consequences will either increase or decrease the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. You must be especially aware of how you respond to student behavior because you may inadvertently reinforce problem behavior even if that is not your intention.

Analyze the data. Depending on the problem behavior, simply thinking through the antecedents, behavior, and consequences may be enough to identify the function of the behavior. However, at other times you may need to dig a little deeper. Look at the data you already collect within your classroom and try to identify trends. Does the student frequently miss or ask to leave a particular portion of the class? How are they doing academically? What times of the day is the student successful? You may need to chart Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) data to accurately define the problem (Figure 1). To successfully change behavior, you cannot come to the conclusion that you do not know what is provoking the behavior—you either have to investigate more or make an educated guess and test your hypothesis. There are many methods you can use to gather more data. You could complete a myriad of behavior checklists, interviews, or observation forms. As an educator, you are often a behavior detective. Use the data and resources available to you to draw the best conclusion.

Figure 1.

Charting antecedent, behavior, consequence data.

2. Develop a plan

Determine the function. Simply describing the problem behavior is not enough. You need to know why the behavior is occurring. When we investigate why the behavior is occurring, this is called the function. The function of behavior falls into two large categories: to get something or to avoid something (O’Neill, Albin, Storey, Horner, & Sprague, 2015). You may be tempted to identify the function of behavior as control, power, revenge, or jealousy, but these kinds of descriptions get you no closer to developing an effective intervention (Iovanonne, Anderson, & Scott, 2013). All humans are attempting to control their situations to either obtain or escape something. Figure 2 displays multiple examples of what students might be attempting to obtain or escape. Rarely is the behavior a combination of both escape and attention (Hanley, Iwata, & McCord, 2003). Usually one function plays a greater role in producing the behavior than the other. If, after reviewing the data, you cannot adequately determine the function, either collect more data or enlist outside help. Depending on the severity and frequency of the problem behavior you may need to conduct a full scale FBA. Determining the function of the behavior is perhaps the most important step in the entire process. This process helps you find solutions and select the appropriate intervention.

Figure 2.

Identifying the function of problem behavior(s).

To solidify your thoughts surrounding the problem behavior write a hypothesis statement. For example, “When given difficult work, Mariah will engage in negative comments towards staff and refuse to work in order to escape the task.” This hypothesis allows you to look at the variables surrounding the situation that are under your control. Can you modify or eliminate antecedents? Can you eliminate or minimize consequences that maintain the behavior? Can you remediate skill deficits so that the problem behavior is less effective and efficient? You may choose multiple strategies to support teaching a replacement behavior.

Select a replacement behavior. When we plan to change or reduce problem behaviors, we need to look at it through the same lens we view academics. If a student who struggled with reading comprehension entered your classroom, you would provide remediation. You would teach the missing skill. We need to apply these same efforts to changing problem behavior. If a student enters your classroom and lacks self-regulation skills to stay on task during independent work, then you must find a way to teach the missing skill. You should not plan to reduce a problem behavior without also identifying an alternative, more desired behavior for the student to perform instead of the problem behavior (O’Neill et al., 2015). Selecting a replacement behavior that will serve the same function as the problem behavior will increase the likelihood that the intervention will be successful (Scott et al., 2005). As you are selecting a behavior choose one that has value in the real world and will readily transfer to other situations. Once you have determined a replacement behavior, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it get him what he used to get with the old (inappropriate) behavior?
  • Does it work as quickly as the old behavior?
  • What if the old behavior used to get him out of doing schoolwork? How can I let him out of that?
  • Do other students use the same behavior in the same way?
  • Does the student have the capacity to perform the new behavior? (LeFevre, 2012).

If the problem behavior is particularly effective, you may need to teach a replacement behavior that serves the same function before you are able to teach the most socially acceptable behavior that serves a different function. For example, Mariah engages in problem behavior to escape difficult tasks. You will first need to teach her to appropriately ask for a break, such as a trip to the water fountain, before teaching her to persist at difficult tasks. Taking a break to the water fountain serves the same function as escape, but it can be controlled and limited to a specific period of time.

Develop a plan for instruction. We must also plan to teach the replacement behavior. This can be most effectively done through shaping the behavior, providing reinforcement, and changing the environmental antecedents and consequences (Hershfeldt et al., 2010, LeFevre, 2012). A variety of strategies can be helpful to alleviate problem behaviors serving both functions and you may find yourself using a combination of strategies to develop the most effective plan. Strategies that commonly help change escape/avoidance behaviors include modifying the curriculum, verbally and nonverbally reminding, providing choices, building in breaks that permit escape for a specific period of time, and establishing home-school reinforcement systems (LeFevre, 2012). The Premack principle of “If this, then that” is also helpful in using reinforcement to complete less preferred activities. Interventions that have shown to be successful in changing behaviors to attain attention or materials include verbally and nonverbally reminding, using proximity control, delegating leadership roles, providing attention in the absence of the problem behavior, reinforcing positive behavior, implementing a token economy, and scheduling specific time to access desired items (LeFevre, 2012). The Premack principle can also be effective for behaviors that serve the function of “to obtain.” Once you’ve determined the replacement behavior and the plan for instruction, write it down. This allows you to consistently implement the plan from day-to-day and across staff members. As you are detailing your plan also think about potential hurdles to teaching and reinforcing the behavior and proactively develop potential solutions.

3. Evaluate and monitor the plan

Keep your data collection simple and user-friendly. If it is too difficult to implement, you will not use it within your classroom. Data collection does not have to be complex, but it should provide enough information to tell you if the plan is working. Prior to starting the intervention, try to collect baseline data for three to five days. This baseline data will tell you how the behavior was occurring with the status quo, and you will be able to compare the differences between pre- and post-intervention. There are numerous resources available regarding how to collect data within the classroom. For several premade, easy to use data sheets refer to The Tough Kid Tool Box (Jenson, Rhode, & Reavis, 2009) and Show Me the Data (Leon-Guerror, Matsumoto, & Martin, 2011). Over time evaluate if the plan is working, if not select alternate strategies to try to change the behavior. Perhaps the plan does not need an overhaul but just particular elements. Consistently go back and evaluate the antecedents and consequences that are maintaining the behavior. Can these be changed or modified? Does the student have enough opportunities to successfully practice and demonstrate the replacement behavior? Is the pay off of using the replacement behavior as high as the pay off for using the problem behavior? Monitoring the data will help you answer these questions and shed light on where the plan may need to be tweaked.

Like many other processes in education, changing behavior can be time and resource intensive. However, teaching students more socially acceptable replacement behaviors will provide them skills to be more successful and productive citizens. Using the three-step FBT process will allow you to systematically develop interventions to teach those key replacement behaviors. To apply the FBT process within your classroom you will need to: 1. Collect information, 2. Develop a plan, and 3. Evaluate and monitor the plan. Getting to the root cause of the behavior (i.e., function) will support your efforts in creating the most effective interventions possible. When changing behavior using function-based thinking, always be thinking function.


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