Experimental Functional Analysis takes guesswork out of finding root cause of problem behavior

Maori boy“What’s in it for you?” is the question every functional behavioral assessment (FBA) tries to answer when a student continually engages in disruptive behavior. The FBA is carried out to decipher what the child is getting from the behavior. Is it attention from the teacher or from peers, or is it escape from the classroom task at hand?

In an FBA, educators define the problem behavior, collect information about how and when it happens, then develop a plan for an intervention or teacher response that addresses the “function” or purpose of the behavior.

Experimental Functional Analysis (EFA) takes this process one step further by actually testing what are believed to be the causes and  appropriate responses to a behavior rather than relying simply on analysis. It is the difference between a highly educated guess and a scientific experiment.

In a recent study in Education and Treatment of Children, Howard Wills and and Emily Shumate describe a classroom-based EFA conducted with 3 Grade 2 children who engaged in disruptive and off-task behaviors. The EFA made it possible to distinguish between what kind of teacher attention was more reinforcing for the child–the positive attention or negative attention-according to the authors.

“An EFA is the only approach to FBA that uses experimental manipulations to find an empirically supported function of aberrant behavior rather than descriptive or correlational hypotheses about the operant function of behavior,” write the researchers from the Juniper Gardens Children Project at the University of Kansas.

During the classroom-based EFA, the researchers and teacher worked together to determine what “reward” the child was receiving for his or her behavior–negative or positive attention from the teacher or escape from tasks.

The EFA was conducted during reading instruction when students read independently. The 3 students were 2 boys (7 and 8 years old ) and one 7-year-old girl.

The experimental conditions were:

Attention condition: The teacher gave attention to all inappropriate behaviors and ignored all appropriate behaviors. For example, if a student was off-task, the teacher would ask the participant if they were having trouble or why they were not reading. When a student called out for the teacher across the room, the teacher would immediately respond by asking them what they needed.

Escape condition:  Every 30 seconds the teacher gave a clear instruction (e.g. Name of student, start reading). If the student complied within 5 seconds, the teacher praised the student.  If the student was non-compliant, the teacher repeated the instruction. If still non-compliant, the teacher took away the materials and ignored the child until the next instruction.

Control/play condition: Teacher made no demands except for the initial instruction. The teacher gave attention to students every 30 seconds. If an inappropriate behavior occurred, the teacher did not give attention until 5 seconds after the behavior. When the student tried to interact appropriately, the teacher reciprocated, but ignored all inappropriate behaviors.

All experimental sessions were 5 minutes in duration.

The researcher recorded observations of teacher and student actions in 5 second increments. The teacher and researcher held up a color-coded sheets to communicate with one another about what condition was being tested.

Each of the 3 conditions was tested once during the reading period for each student for about 15 minutes total. The sessions were conducted in random order and were repeated on other school days until a clear pattern emerged (3 times for each student).

Reinforcement of alternative behavior

Getting teacher attention rather than escaping from classroom tasks was determined to be the purpose of all 3 children’s disruptive and off-task behaviors, the researchers write.  During the EFA, there was more disruptive behavior in the teacher attention conditions while there were none during the escape and play/control conditions.

The teacher then set about providing differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors (DRA) and differential reinforcement of other behaviors (DRO).

The teacher did not provide any attention to the students for 5 seconds after any disruptive or off-task behavior. The teacher praised the student once per minute when there were no disruptive behavior or, for example, when the student raised his or her hand quietly.  The teacher kept a self-monitoring sheet of praise to the student.

The effectiveness of the DRO and DRA intervention was evaluated across the 3 participants. At the end of the study, the teacher was asked if he would recommend using functional analysis and function-based interventions to other teachers working with students with behavior problems. While the teacher thought the procedures for running the intervention were easy to learn and perform and that the intervention increased on-task behavior, the teacher was undecided if he would recommend using a functional analysis and function-based interventions to other teachers working with students with behavior problems.

According to the researchers, the teacher explained his position by noting that he had learned the effectiveness of giving attention to appropriate behaviors versus inappropriate behaviors and in the future would employ this behavior management strategy before doing another formal EFA.

“Classroom-Based Functional Analysis and Intervention for Disruptive and Off-Task Behaviors” by Emily Shumate and Howard Wills, Education and Treatment of Children, January 2010, Volume 33, Number 1, pps. 23-48.

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