What is meant by “functional analysis?” When should this be done and who should do it?

Answered by Robert LaRue, PhD, BCBA-D
Associate Director of Behavioral and Research Services, Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center
Rutgers University

Prior to a discussion about functional analysis, it is important to make the distinction between functional analysis and functional assessment. Functional assessment represents a variety of techniques and strategies used to gather information that can be used to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of behavioral support. The purpose of a functional assessment is to determine the factors that cause or maintain problem behavior. There are three broad categories of functional assessment. One component involves the use of indirect measures, such as interviews and rating scales. The second component is referred to as descriptive assessment, which involves observing behavior and collecting data regarding the events that precede problem behavior (antecedents) and the events that follow problem behavior (consequences). The third component is functional analysis. Functional analysis represents the most sophisticated and precise functional assessment procedure. Functional analyses are used to identify the environmental context in which aberrant behavior is likely and unlikely to occur. Similar to a descriptive analysis, functional analyses evaluate the antecedents and consequences that maintain problem behavior. Unlike descriptive analyses, functional analyses involve making systematic changes to the environment to evaluate the effects of different conditions on the target behavior(s). In a functional analysis, the student is exposed to situations that may or may not cause problem behavior (i.e., work/demand situations, situations in which social attention is briefly withheld for a period of time, situations in which preferred items are briefly withheld for a period of time and free play conditions). Given the degree of control in a functional analysis, practitioners can accurately and reliably identify the consequences that reinforce and maintain problem behavior. Additionally, functional analyses provide a direct and immediate link between assessment and treatment.

From a legal standpoint, functional assessments must be conducted when suspensions or placements in an alternative setting exceed 10 consecutive days, if a student is placed in an interim setting for 45 days when their misconduct involves weapons or drugs or when a due process hearing officer places the student in an alternative setting for behavior dangerous to self or others. From a clinical standpoint, functional assessments should be conducted when the student‘s behavior impedes learning of self or others, presents a danger to self or others, or the behavior results in suspension or interim placement in alternative setting approaching 10 total days. Functional analysis is a specific procedure for conducting these functional assessments. There are no specific guidelines for when practitioners should use functional analyses rather than other types of assessment. However, functional analyses have the most empirical support for their use. Typically, the use of functional analysis procedures is determined by the skill level of the practitioner, the resources available to the practitioner, and the setting itself.

Conducting functional analyses does require a high level of expertise to be done effectively. Functional analyses should be conducted by individuals with experience using the procedures (or while supervised by someone with experience). Many (though not all) people who have board certification in behavior analysis (BCBA), have experience conducting functional analyses. However, it is important to note that many practitioners without their certification have extensive experience in conducting such analyses. Consumers should ask practitioners about their level of experience and comfort prior to starting these analyses.

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