Functional Analytic Psychotherapy: Bridging the Gap Between Disciplines

By Brett Blevins, M.Ed, BCBA, LBA

Guest Author

“Sometimes when two worlds collide, a better one is created.” -Anonymous

The Divide

Natural Science vs Social Science.  Behaviorism vs Mentalism.  Behavior Analysis vs Psychotherapy. Can’t we all just get along?  After all, don’t both disciplines have the same goal of helping others make positive changes in their lives?  Unfortunately, if history is any indicator it may not be that simple.  The annals of psychology and behaviorism have long shown the two sides at odds with one another.

Until now!  Interest is at an all-time high for therapies that have been developed using an ABA lens, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  In addition to ACT, DBT, and other behavior-based approaches, there is another emerging specialty that makes room for both Behavior Analysis and Psychotherapy to co-exist together.  Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, or FAP for short, was first conceptualized in the 1980’s at the University of Washington, hat-tip to Robert Kohlenberg and Mavis Tsai.

So, what is Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, you ask?  Even a quick google search will not clear this question up for even the most seasoned therapist.

What is FAP?

FAP is an approach firmly based in behaviorism that utilizes the therapeutic relationship, or the relationship between client and therapist, as a means for positive change.  Kohlenberg and Tsai developed FAP after noticing a telling trend that client outcomes were strongly correlated with the quality of the therapeutic relationship.  A bad relationship equals a poor outcome, and a good relationship equals a positive outcome.   Common sense, right?  Not so fast, my friend.  FAP is so much more than a solid therapeutic relationship affecting positive change.

The 5 Rules

The 5 rules of Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, open the door to differential reinforcement and functional assessment in the traditional “in-session” psychotherapy visit.

Rule #1: Watch for Clinically Relevant Behavior or CRB’s.

CRB1’s are problem behavior and CRB2’s are improvements in behavior.  Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open!

Rule #2: Evoke CRB’s.

But don’t we want to abate certain behavior?  Not in FAP!  We are trying to build a relationship of trust that mimics a client’s most natural interactions.  We want clients to share both the good in the bad.

Rule #3: Naturally Reinforce CRB2’s.

Reinforcing improvements in behavior and praising movement toward a clinical goal…all the behavior analysts said AMEN!

Rule #4: Notice the impact your behavior has on clients and CRB’s.

Self-reflection mixed with functional assessment.  Did your behavior reinforce or punish?  Sure we can measure to see if behavior improved, but it is also good practice to speak frequently with your clients and get their feelings and thoughts on progress.  It is all about RELATIONSHIPS!

Rule #5: Provide functional interpretations and promote generalization.

It all comes full-circle in rule #5.  Utilizing mindfulness and in-session reinforcement, therapists will attempt to get behavior change to generalize to the real-world.  The improvements noticed in-session should translate to the client’s everyday lives and interpersonal relationships.

Just the Beginning

Functional Analytic Psychotherapy is still in its infancy, but it is poised for tremendous growth as mindfulness begins to slowly creep into the field of ABA.  And I, for one, am very excited to see where it grows in the upcoming years.

So, what do you say…let’s grab some data sheets, sit down on the therapist’s couch, and work toward a better future…TOGETHER!

Have you utilized behavioral psychotherapeutic approaches in your work?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Suggested Reading:

Kohlenberg, R. J., & Tsai, M. (1991). Functional analytic psychotherapy: A guide for creating intense and curative therapeutic relationships. New York, NY: Plenum.

Tsai, M., Kohlenberg, R. J., Kanter, J. W., Kohlenberg, B., Follette, W. C., & Callaghan, G. M. (Eds.). (2009). A Guide to functional analytic psychotherapy: Awareness, courage, love, and behaviorism. New York: Springer.


Brett Blevins, M.Ed, BCBA, LBA, is Owner and Executive Director of Bluegrass Behavioral Health Group headquartered in the Northern Kentucky area.  He has over 18 years of experience working with all ages and abilities in a variety of settings.  Brett began his professional career in education as a Behavioral Consultant specializing in school-wide discipline, classroom management, alternative school programming, and individual behavior intervention with the EBD and ASD populations.  He has experience training school district staff in the areas of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS).  During his time in education, he also helped found and develop the Boys’ Basketball Program at Randall K. Cooper High School.  Currently, Brett has developed a model of practice at Bluegrass Behavioral Health Group that emphasizes a mixture of ABA, mental health counseling, and skill-based learning.

Brett’s personal philosophy is centered around building lasting relationships and putting people first.  His professional goal is to help his community, by helping the families and individuals he serves improve their lives. Brett has many other business interests and passions including entrepreneurship, sports performance and psychology, employee wellness, and servant leadership.  You can contact him at [email protected]




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