Functional assessment and program design
What is functional assessment? 1) Definition. 2) What functions can behaviors serve?
Performing a functional assessment: 1) Indirect methods; interviews and questionnaires. 2) Direct
methods; observation of behavior. 3) Experimental methods; functional analysis
From functional assessment to program design: 1) Interpreting functional assessment data. 2) Using a
Strengths and limitations of functional assessments: 1) Better and early treatment. 2) Feasibility issues.
3) Methodology issues
Tips on doing functional assessments
What is functional assessment?
What function does the behavior serve?: Behavior is influenced by antecedents and consequences. TO
determine the functions of a behavior requires that we know the situations (e.g. time and place) in
which the behavior does or does not occur and how the person benefits from his or her current pattern
of behavior. Conducting a functional assessment improves the success of behavior change programs.
Functional assessment: Is a set of procedures by which we can identify connections between a behavior
and its antecedents and consequences. Functional assessments should have three outcomes:
1. Define the target behavior exactly and clearly
2. Determine which antecedents function to produce the behavioral excess or deficit
3. Reveal how the person’s behavior functions to produce reinforcement
Antecedents and consequences in functional assessments are usually overt, but they can be covert as
What functions can behavior serve?: The main purpose of conducting a functional assessment is to
identify the consequences of the target behavior. Operant behavior is learned and maintained because
of its consequences (reinforcement). There are two degrees of reinforcement: 1) Positive. 2) Negative.
There are four types of reinforcement: 1) Escape. 2) Attention. 3) Automatic. 4) Tangible.
1. Positive reinforcement; getting something you want (e.g. toy)
2. Negative reinforcement; getting out of something you don’t want (e.g. homework)
Escape as reinforcement: Form of negative reinforcement getting out of (avoiding) an unpleasant
situation. Relieves stress anxiety reinforces negatively.
Attention as reinforcement: Getting attention from other people is often an effective positive reinforcer,
since it usually makes us feel better. Problem when behaving in negative ways to attract attention. Automatic reinforcement: The behavior produces a reinforce directly; can be positively or negatively
1. Positive automatic reinforcement; behavior directly leads to a reinforcing stimulus being
introduced or added. E.g. sketch a picture and you like how it turned out.
2. Negative automatic reinforcement; behavior directly leads to the reduction or removal of an
aversive situation. E.g. massaging a sore muscle removes the pain / tension.
Automatic reinforcement is only provided by the self, not the external environment. It can be a source
of problem behaviors if the behavior is automatically being positively or negatively reinforced.
Tangible reinforcement: Tangible items are material objects. If receiving a tangible item for performing
a behavior strengthens that behavior, that item is a tangible reinforcer. Problems occur when behaviors
consistently lead to tangible reinforcers. E.g. child throws a tantrum because toy is lost; parent finds toy
and gives it to child the toy reinforces the tantrum.
Performing a functional assessment
Target behavior can be of two types:
1. Behavioral excess: undesirable behavior the person performs too frequently. E.g. smoking too
2. Behavioral deficit: desirable behavior the person does not perform often enough. E.g. exercising
Functional assessment can apply three approaches for identifying antecedents and consequences:
1. Indirect methods; questionnaires and interviews (least rigorous approach)
2. Direct methods; instances of behavior are observed
3. Experimental methods (Functional analysis); manipulate antecedents and consequences to see
their effects on behavior (most rigorous approach)
Indirect methods: Information about behavior and its antecedents and consequences is obtained from
the target person or from people who know the target well. Questionnaires and interviews done for
functional assessment purposes focus on identifying and defining the target behavior and determining
its antecedent conditions and consequences. These interviews often use a structured set of questions
1. What are the behavior’s frequency, duration and intensity?
2. What factors could be involved in the behavior?
3. How is the behavior most likely to occur?
4. What does the person get or get out of by performing the behavior?
5. What could serve as reinforces to change the behavior?
6. What efforts have been tried to address the problem behavior? 7. What was the outcome?
Benefits of using an indirect method:
1. Easier and more convenient to carry out than more rigorous methods of functional assessment
2. They can provide tentative information that can support and be confirmed by data from more
3. Functional assessments that combine indirect methods with direct observation can provide
sufficient information to formulate hypotheses and design an appropriate program
Direct methods: An observer watches and describes the actual target behavior, its antecedents and its
consequences. Direct methods are designed to describe the behavior and its antecedents and
consequences. They can use two strategies:
1. Unstructured descriptive assessment; observations are done without altering natural events in
2. Structured descriptive assessment; observations made in natural environment while specific
antecedent events are manipulated systematically, but the behavior’s consequences are
allowed to happen as usual and not altered. The purpose of structuring assessments are to
make sure the behavior occurs and that its antecedents and its consequences are observed.
Making the observations
Making the observations: Procedure used to make observations depend on whether we are using
structured or unstructured descriptive assessments.
Unstructured descriptive assessment procedures
Continuous recording: Designate periods of time (e.g. parts of a day) when we would be looking out for
the occurrence of target behavior and record every instance of it, its antecedents and its consequences.
Structured descriptive assessment procedures
Structured descriptive assessment procedures: Set up opportunities to observe by presenting one or
more antecedents and recording how the person behaved and the consequences that occurred
Recording the data
ABC Log: Chronological record of the target behavior’s occurrences and nonoccurrences, along with the
antecedents and consequences of each instance. Records the: 1) Day. 2) Time. 3) Place. ABC refers to
antecedents, behaviors, consequences. Additionally, 1) Antecedent type, 2) Behavioral conditions, 3)
Type of consequence produced are recorded as well.
Antecedent types: 1. Activity; what was the p