Are Functional Analyses in Schools Effective?

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Public schools are one of the most common places of employment for behavior analysts.  However, conducting behavioral assessments in such environments can sometimes be challenging, let alone a functional analysis in which stimuli are systematically altered across conditions to empirically determine the function of behavior.

Or so we thought.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Michael Mueller and colleagues reviewed 90 functional analysis outcomes across 69 students in public schools.  All of the students had been referred for intensive services, and the analyses occurred in a partitioned section of a classroom, library, office, or other room free of distractions.

The following conditions occurred across the 90 analyses, including: attention, tangible, escape, interrupt, diverted attention, and a control condition with non-contingent access to reinforcers from other conditions.

The results suggested that, overall, the function of the problematic behaviors targeted in the analyses (predominantly aggression) was identified 90% of the time.  Moreover, the analyses were relatively brief, with the vast majority taking between 2-3 hours and utilizing brief, 5-minute, sessions.

Regarding functions of problematic behavior, the study found that most behaviors were maintained by escape from demands, while a very small number were maintained by automatic reinforcement.  Mueller’s team also found that 100% of disruptive behavior, such as screaming, was maintained by positive reinforcement of some type.

Click here to read the full-text version of the article for more details on the study, and let us know your experiences or hesitations with performing functional analyses in your school.  Lastly, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

1 Comment on "Are Functional Analyses in Schools Effective?"

  1. John W. Eshleman, EdD, BCBA-D | June 23, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Reply

    Back in 1968 B. F. Skinner published “The Technology of Teaching.” Skinner realized back then that the behaviorist science that he and others had developed has as much to say about teaching, improving, and changing academic and physical skills as much as it does pertain to the reduction of various problem behaviors, if not more. Since then, alas, it seems as if the role of behavior analysis in the schools has become mainly relegated to solving only these various problem behaviors, without much attention given to either the teaching methods used, the instructional design, or the shaping and strengthening of desired behavior (e.g., such building fluency in math skills). In fact, these trends are now so well established that it may even seem odd to both behaviorist and school teacher or admin alike to even think that behavior analysis might have something to say about the instructional design, or about the contingencies in the classroom or of the educational system itself. These include contingencies, mind you, that may account for a certain proportion of the problem behavior in the first place! It might even be the case now that if a behavior analyst suggested some changes to the instructional design and to the teaching contingencies that that could be seen as intruding on the turf of others (that of the school system and of its educator professionals)! Any thoughts on how behavior analysis can be worked into the system so that we, as experts on changing all behavior, not just on changing some behavior, are also recognized as experts for producing learning, and not be boxed in as being thought of mainly or only as those experts brought in to reduce behavior? The thought does occur that perhaps behavior analysis itself as a field has forgotten those earlier efforts at building up a technology of teaching. Programmed Instruction, anyone? — JE

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