Functional Behavior Assessment: The Whys of Problem Behaviors

When my son became mobile, we installed a baby gate in our living room at the top of the staircase leading to the basement. Late that same night, our cat – Little Miss – woke my husband and me up with loud, persistent meowing in our faces. (Those were the blurry-eyed days of our baby still not sleeping through the night, making every minute of sleep vital.) I love Little Miss, but my first reaction to her middle of the night visit was anger and possibly cursing. Why was she acting this way?

It suddenly dawned on me - We forgot to open the baby gate! Little Miss needs to use her litterbox! (which was in the basement). As she led me to the top of the stairs, patiently waiting for me to unlatch the gate, my cursing had turned into apologies and praise toward my good little kitty. She did the right thing by communicating her need to use the litterbox. What seemed like naughty behavior at first, had a purpose – or a function.

When we determine and understand the function – or the why - of one’s behavior, we are better equipped to appropriately respond and intervene in positive and empathetic ways. As a special education teacher, I have administered many Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs), which are often a component of comprehensive special education evaluations. However, assessing student behaviors doesn’t have to be a formal, complicated process. Here’s what I would like to share with you to help make FBAs a fluid and ongoing process within your educational practices:

The IDEA Partnership defines a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) as: A comprehensive and individualized strategy to:

  • Identify the purpose or function of a student’s problem behavior(s).
  • Develop and implement a plan to modify variables that maintain the problem behavior.
  • Teach appropriate replacement behaviors using positive interventions.

I will be focusing on the first bullet point by sharing common functions – also known as the whys – of students’ problem behaviors based on my knowledge and experiences. Generally, common functions of problem behaviors fall into two overarching categories: 1. To get attention or a reaction and 2. To avoid a task or escape a situation. Let’s take a closer look:

To Get Attention or a Reaction
Perhaps a student is feeling left out by their peers. Or, maybe circumstances at home are preventing a parent from giving their child adequate attention. Whether it’s verbal redirections from the teacher or expressions of disgust from a classmate – the accomplishment of consistently getting attention and/or provoking reactions by demonstrating problem-behaviors can often be reinforcing for some students and can give them a sense of power or control.

Sometimes students don’t have the skills necessary to appropriately communicate their wants, needs, and feelings. Remember Little Miss? She got my attention by standing on my pillow with her relentless meowing in the middle of the night. She did her best to communicate her need. Sometimes students miss breakfast or don’t get a good night’s sleep, and when they don’t have the skills necessary to effectively communicate that they are hungry or tired, they get our attention with problem behaviors.

To Avoid a Task or Escape a Situation
The cafeteria, the playground, art class, English class, physical education…this is just a short list of places my students have tried to avoid for one reason or another. Throwing food in the cafeteria, pushing peers on the playground, sitting under the table in art class, using inappropriate language in English class, and refusing to participate in physical education – all these behaviors were demonstrated by different students, but served the same purpose – to avoid a task or to escape a situation. However, the reasons why varied:

  • The cafeteria was too noisy and overstimulating (possible sensory issues).
  • There were “bullies” on the playground. (The student struggled with social/friendship skills.)
  • Art class was “too hard.” (The student appeared to lack confidence with his artistic abilities.)
  • English class was “boring” and the student struggled with understanding the content. He didn’t want to appear “stupid” in front of his peers by asking for help.
  • The gymnasium was noisy, and the student was nervous about getting injured.

Once I determined the why of the behaviors, I was better equipped to effectively intervene by working with the students on a plan to help them cope with the noise in the cafeteria, navigate the social nuances of the playground, and provide individualized support with English, art, and gym classes.  

I hope this helps shed some light on what FBAs entail and gets you started with taking a close look at the whys – or the functions of your students’ (and your cat’s?) problem behaviors. In my next post, I will cover how to develop a behavior intervention plan (BIP) to teach replacement behaviors.

Until then, please check out a few of our courses which highlight research-based strategies and interventions to effectively address and prevent problem-behaviors:


Jill Rockwell
Jill has over 13 years of experience as a licensed teacher in the areas of Special Education, Reading Education, and Health Education. She embraces diversity and has worked with students in grades K-12 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Jill completed her Master of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls while teaching full time. She fully understands the soaring demands of today’s teachers. Her courses are designed to maximize the time of all educators by providing engaging, meaningful, and applicable activities which can be used to enhance teaching practices. She focuses on research-based best practices and technology integration throughout her own instructional practices. Together with her husband and two young boys, Jill enjoys traveling, biking and the changing seasons of the great outdoors in Wisconsin.