Behavior Therapy: Creating a Behavior Assessment

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Behavior therapists work with a student by creating a behavior assessment.

Behavior therapy encompasses a variety of therapeutic treatments for children and adults. The main goal of behavior therapy is to treat mental health problems, such as anxiety, panic disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In children, for example, a mental health conditions may manifest itself while at school in the form of inappropriate behavior, such as a student repeatedly getting in trouble for emotional outbursts or not following the rules of the class. To determine if an individual’s behavior is part of an underlying issue, a wide range of strategies are available to applied behavior analysts, including the development of a functional behavior assessment (FBA).

Defining Behavior Assessments

An FBA is an approach that uses different techniques:

  • To identify problem behaviors in people and the root causes behind these behaviors
  • To determine the factors that trigger certain behaviors in people
  • To reliably predict the occurrence of problem behaviors and how the behaviors may evolve over time

When is the right time to use a behavior assessment? According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), behavior assessments should be conducted after a student is removed from a learning environment for more than 10 days. Many states have adopted the stipulations set out in IDEA, but the regulations and statutes that instruct schools when to complete a behavior assessment vary by state.

Regarding best practices, the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, an organization dedicated to educational reform for students with disabilities, recommends performing an assessment when behavioral problems first become evident. Its findings indicate that implementing an FBA earlier in the process enables individualized education program (IEP) teams—consisting of teachers, administrators, behavioral therapists, and others—to gather more information and adjust IEP programs as needed to support the evolving needs of an individual.

The Parts of a Functional Behavior Assessment

A behavior assessment is different from a comprehensive evaluation, which is typically used to determine eligibility for special services. FBAs typically include a combination of interviews, indirect measures (e.g. questionnaires), and direct measures (e.g. observation and data collection). They are more focused on why the behavior is occurring  to provide insight on how to help the individual succeed. In the case of a student constantly disrupting a math class, for example, a behavior assessment considers not only what the behavior looks like, and where it may be occurring, but also what the student is actually communicating, such as a desire for attention or a break from the task.

Data is at the heart of a behavior assessment, so participation from parents; teachers; administrators; special education teachers; psychologists; and other professionals, such as counselors, is recommended to gather information and help ensure an effective behavior assessment. It’s also important for participants to understand the parts of an FBA. Below are examples of essential steps in the process.

Define the Behavior Deemed Inappropriate

Creating a precise definition of the behavior deemed inappropriate is an essential part of an FBA. This enables all parties involved to have a clear understanding of what to look for in the assessment. If an individual’s behavior involves putting hands on someone else, that action needs to be clear to everyone. An exact description of the activity needs to be provided. Questions need to be asked. Is the person grabbing, pulling, hitting, or slapping? The clearer the definition of a behavior, the easier it is to identify when it happens.

Collect and Analyze Observable Data

A controlled environment with variable changes is the ideal setting to observe an individual with behavioral issues, gather information, and produce evidence-based data. The data can be collected through various methods. For example, each person who regularly interacts with a client can complete the Functional Analysis Screening Tool (FAST): a questionnaire designed to provide information about possible behavior functions. Another method is the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) chart: a tool designed to identify the actions that take place before and after the behavior in question.

Interpret Gathered Data to Form Hypotheses Concerning the Behavior

A lack of consistency in the early phases of a behavior assessment may result in an improper identification of the function underlying an individual’s behavior, which ultimately can result in an ineffective intervention. Therefore, the first aim of gathering the data is to form a hypothesis about the function of the individual’s behavior. The next step is to implement a plan designed to help the individual move beyond the inappropriate behavior.

There are various functions of inappropriate behavior, including behaviors maintained for attention and avoidance. Behaviors maintained for attention  are characterized by repeated attempts to get a person, such as a parent or a teacher, to look at or speak to the student; sometimes this involves aggressive or disruptive behaviors. Individuals who demonstrate avoidance behaviors aim to escape from an undesirable item, activity, or person; for example, a child may engage in disruptive behavior to avoid completing homework.

Develop a Plan to Help an Individual Move Beyond the Behavior

A properly designed intervention directly addresses the function of the behavior. This means that the intervention plan must match the intervention to the underlying function of the behavior. An inadequate plan may result in an unsuccessful intervention, and in fact, may even produce counterproductive results.

For example, if the data collected shows that a student screams in class to escape completing an assignment, then the proper procedure to change the behavior may be to schedule breaks in between periods of work time. The use of another procedure not backed by the data collected in the behavior assessment, such as putting the student in time-out, may actually result in louder, more frequent outbursts as the student is successful in avoiding the work by instead going to time-out. Another aspect of an effective plan is to teach a replacement behavior. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an effective method to teach students new or replacement skills to address challenging behaviors. In the classroom, this may translate into improved academics and social interactions.

Skills Needed to Build Effective Behavior Assessments

To determine strategies and plans that help in the development of effective interventions, professionals interested in pursuing careers in the field of ABA must have a deep understanding of why behaviors occur—knowing what triggers certain behaviors in people. They must also develop the following skills to build effective behavior assessments:

  • Communication, interpersonal, and active listening skills. Frequent interactions with students, teachers, families, and other behavioral specialists is a key aspect of the job. This requires the ability to communicate behavior plans clearly, understand the needs of all those involved in the process, and build trust.
  • Critical thinking and analysis. Behavior assessments evolve as needed to meet the needs of individuals moving through the different phases of therapy. With critical-thinking and analysis skills, behavioral therapists can effectively monitor and measure interventions and address challenges that may arise.
  • Empathy. When individuals open up to share their memories, thoughts, and struggles, they want to feel understood. They want to trust that their therapists can empathize with them. Empathy is a critical skill for therapists who want to develop effective behavior assessments because it enables them to relate to people and understand their behaviors.

Learn More with a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis

masters in Applied Behavior online program prepares aspiring behavior therapists with the knowledge and skills needed to build effective FBAs. Focused on key behavioral science issues, the core curriculum includes coursework in behavior assessment and behavior intervention. Graduates of the program can avail themselves of clinical experience in professional settings through several practicum opportunities.

Explore how Regis’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis can help you prepare for success in the field of ABA.

Recommended Readings

Leadership in Applied Behavior Analysis: What Is a Clinical Director?

How to Encourage Positive Behavior in Developing Children

How Behavior Therapists Analyze Social Behavior


Association for Science in Autism Treatment, ABA Techniques

Association for Science in Autism Treatment, Review of The Function Wheels

BetterHelp, “Understanding The Antecedent Behavior Consequence Model”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Behavior Therapy for Young Children with ADHD

Regis College, Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis

SpringerLink, “Functional Assessment Screening Tool (FAST)”

Understood, “Functional Assessment: What It Is and How It Works”