Functional Behavioral Assessment: Deeper Understanding of Behavioral Handicaps or Trojan Horse?

This article was written by John Stewart, PhD, author of “Beyond Time Out,”(highly recommended here).

Functional Behavioral Assessment: Deeper Understanding of Behavioral Handicaps or Trojan Horse?

by John Stewart, NCSP © 2001
Many of the thoughts which follow have been germinating for a number of years and are linked to an observation and concern that the theoretical framework generally used in the training of School Psychologists is far too narrow. It has been my experience that most School Psychology training programs are dominated by behaviorally-oriented clinicians and make relatively limited effort to integrate, or link, this perspective to the broad body of knowledge associated with psychodynamic, psychophysiological and developmental psychopathology perspectives. Recently, as I attended a seminar on the new IDEA requirement regarding the use of Functional Behavioral Assessments, my concern with respect to School Psychology’s overly narrow theoretical base significantly increased.

Prior to attending this well-presented albeit troubling seminar (conducted by Mark Steege, Ph.D., Director of the School Psychology program at the University of Southern Maine, a Behaviorist and a friend), I had naively considered this IDEA ‘97 requirement a significant step forward. Unfortunately, however, my enthusiasm for this regulation was associated with the misperception that a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) was a tool, or approach, which would serve to promote deeper, pragmatic psychological insight into Behaviorally Handicapped students. My enthusiasm for this regulation has waned dramatically as I gained further clarity on the FBA’s narrow theoretical roots and its extremely constricted definition of the salient variables to be considered in the effort to understand the context of a child’s behavior.

Reliance on Behaviorism

My general concern, with respect to an over-reliance upon a Behaviorist perspective in the practice of School Psychology, is in no way intended to deny the many contributions Behaviorists have made to our work with Behaviorally Handicapped children. Clearly, the careful observations of these clinicians and theorists have enlightened us with respect to the many common operant dynamics which serve to create and preserve problem behavior. The attention to detail and insistence upon empirical evidence for the support of theory employed by the Behaviorists has allowed for the development of many useful management strategies and insights concerning the establishment of effective learning environments.

However, in our role as School Psychologists, as we are asked to explain and respond to highly complex and problematic behavior, the operant model provides inadequate insight to explain why common environmental factors often seem to elicit dramatically different responses from one child to the next. To address the variation in response patterns between individuals, many behaviorally-oriented theorists have moved from a model which attempted to explained behavior through a narrow focus upon Antecedent, Behavior, Consequences (A-B-C) to a model which introduces the role of the “organism” in governing behavior outcome (Stimuli, Organism, Response, Consequence– S-O-R-C). Unfortunately, however, in the discussion of the Organism’s role in mediating behavioral outcome, most behaviorally-oriented psychologists seem to make virtually no effort to integrate their knowledge base with the wide range of “Organism”- level variables, hypothesized to be relevant by psychodynamic and developmentally-oriented theorists (i.e., D.W. Winnicott, J. Bowlby, H. Kohut, D. Stren, M. Mahler).

Within Dr. Steege’s discussion of the FBA, the concept of “function” appears to be narrowly defined in the context of an operant conditioning model in which “function” refers to the manner in which a given behavior seems to overtly elicit or result in reinforcement. This ignores the role of the “organism” in explaining why, within a common situation or environment, particular behaviors appear to be differentially reinforced from one individual to another.

Sadly, from my perspective, the assertion that the only level on which behavior is legitimately understood is that level which can be easily observed or measured negates the value in attempting to understand the origin and nature of a great many of the individual differences which seem to define the broad character of humanity. It is my sense that it will be a great opportunity missed if the task of psychology, or at least the public school based practice of psychology, should be to encourage a reductionist perspective, suggesting that the only relevant variables within a child’s complex constellation of behavior, emotions, experience and cognitions are those behaviors that are easily observed and measured.

Good Science?

Although it has been stated many (perhaps enough) times before, I continue to struggle with the Behaviorist’s assertion that, in our effort to understand human behavior, “good science”[2] demands that we ignore variables which are not easily measured (i.e., emotions and cognitions such as hope, attachment, love, trust, faith). Should “Good Science” be defined by a willingness to limit the generation of hypotheses to those dynamics or relationships that are easily tested, it is unlikely that much of what we have grown to accept as fact would ever have been considered relevant at the time of its initial conceptualization. Clearly, our understanding of the relationship between the highly complex and difficult-to-measure variables that govern or impact behavior at the level of the organism is at an emerging state. Nonetheless, it seems inappropriate for those who have had limited exposure to the theory, literature (research data) and clinical practice of psychodynamically -oriented psychology to wholly discount this body of knowledge.

As Dr. Steege spoke of the literature supporting the use of Functional Behavioral Assessments, he repeatedly acknowledged and apologized for the fact that there is relatively little research linked to the use of this model with populations other than the moderate to severely Developmentally Disabled.1 It is my hypothesis that this focus upon the Developmentally Disabled population, with respect to the use of FBA, is linked to the fact that the cognitive and language-based limitations of the Developmentally Disabled reduce their ability to form and/or express the more complex intra-psychic psychological functioning of the less globally impaired, Behaviorally Handicapped child. This suggests that, on the level of the organism in the S.O.R.C. model, the Developmentally Disabled population may introduce a far less complicated constellation of controlling variables for behavior, allowing for the relative ignorance of the role of the organism (within the FBA) without significant compromise of the model’s utility.

As a School Psychologist, I have consistently found one of the most useful means to support educators working with behaviorally impaired students has involved providing them a model for understanding the context and function of the emotionally handicapped child’s behavior. This process entails the presentation of a coherent theoretical framework which helps direct, focus and organize their observations into a pragmatic model for understanding the behavior of these complex and difficult children. It is then through the use of this “understanding” that the educator develops a hypothesis concerning why and how these students are both similar and different from themselves and, in turn, why reinforcements that “should” support appropriate behavior do not; and what programming will need to be modified to promote positive behavioral change and healing of the child’s underlying pathology.


An elementary school teacher encounters a female student who has a tremendous resistance to compliance with a classroom rule concerning asking permission prior to using the restroom. Initial efforts to address this behavior included the unsuccessful use of reinforcement for rule compliance and punishment for rule non-compliance. Ultimately, in desperation, as the behavior persisted and became a central focus in the relationship between the child and her teacher, she was placed on a very strict program of behavioral monitoring, demanding that she be observed closely by an adult at all times. Unfortunately, however, with implementation of this new plan the child’s behavior deteriorated dramatically and began to involve assaultive efforts at escaping from monitoring. In response to these intervention failures her teacher grew increasingly discouraged and frustrated, and began to feel and state that this child’s needs were beyond her ability to manage.

In time, a consultant was brought in to assist the school in managing the situation. As her first step in consultation, the consultant set about to attempt to understand this child’s reluctance to comply with the “restroom rule”. After considerable investigation involving interviews with the child, her parents and teacher, it was hypothesized that as a result of her mother’s history of having been abused in a public restroom during her childhood, she had conveyed to her daughter the need for undue caution in approaching a public restroom, particularly when others were present. With this hypothesis the classroom teacher began to think about her student’s non-compliance as a response to anxiety and fear, and not as a power struggle to simply assert her own independence. With this insight, the teacher began to facilitate the child in developing a plan to feel safe in the school restrooms, and in time the child slowly began to show significant improvement in this and other behaviors. (Oh that these puzzles could always be so simple!)

Psychodynamic Working Models

In those situations when it is clear that the overt reinforcements within a particular setting are either of little potency in promoting appropriate behavior or are in some manner reinforcing inappropriate behavior, the challenge to the School Psychologist is to understand both the nature of the existing reinforcement patterns as well as the manner in which the child experiences or perceives the environment. In many respects, our success as school consultants serving the Behaviorally Handicapped is contingent first upon our ability to support educators in recognizing that the Behaviorally Handicapped child’s behavior always “makes sense” in the context of the child’s experience and perception; and second, upon our ability to support educators in understanding the child’s experiential background and perceptions in a manner that facilitates the development of more effective means by which to promote appropriate adaptive behavior and emotional health.

Unfortunately, the Behaviorally Handicapped child’s inappropriate behavior is often linked to highly complex and egocentric perceptions which are neither observable nor easily understood. (For example: A neglected or abused child’s refusal of school work, as a means to escape potential failure and avoidance of debilitating anxiety associated with the belief that he is not competent enough to assure his own safety and security, or this same child’s need to avoid the debilitating vulnerability and anxiety involved in trusting others, by disallowing and sabotaging the formation of supportive relationships.) Clearly, the psychological or psychodynamic hypotheses developed in an effort to understand or explain individual differences must be understood as working models and routinely assessed for utility or effectiveness, and used or discarded accordingly.


It is my belief that, regardless of Psychology’s desire to be a “credible science,” its roots have been and must partially remain in the humanities, drawing its knowledge and wisdom not only from the exact sciences, but also from philosophy and theology. Should we not adopt the “scientific” rigor and associated narrow focus of study demanded by the Behaviorists, perhaps our discipline will be forever relegated to the rank of a second class science. However, this is a risk I am comfortable in accepting, in that I believe our primary mission is the provision of effective service to those we purport to serve. In light of this belief, it is my sense that we have an obligation to attempt to understand the broad reality associated with being human, and must avoid any tool or model that serves to reduce our humanity to a formula that does not take into account such profoundly human variables as emotion and cognition.

Sadly, as I have grown to understand the origins of Functional Behavioral Assessment and its strictly “behavioral” nature, I fear we are in the process of implementing a tool which on the surface appears helpful, or at the worst benign. However, deeper analysis generates significant concern; for, when assessed in a broader manner, this policy has the potential to move Special Education services for the Behaviorally Handicapped yet further in the direction of a strict Behaviorist model for understanding and serving these complicated children. Should this tool further move Special Education services in this direction, it is my belief that it will be at the cost of diminishing the School Psychologist’s role to that of encouraging those to whom we consult to utilize only their direct powers of observation, without promoting the responsibility for the formation of an empathic connection and understanding of these vulnerable and problematic children.

My sense of the work with the Behaviorally Handicapped is similar to that of Efram Bleiburg, Clinical Director of the Menninger Clinic, in his assertion that effective work with this population of children requires the skills of both the “Yogi and the Commissar”: Demanding the ability to simultaneously function as a “Yogi”, effecting change in the student from the inside–out through use of empathic understanding and relationship, and the “Commissar” in creating change from the outside-in by restructuring the contingencies within the child’s environment. Sadly, I fear that the ultimate impact of the requirement to perform Functional Behavioral Assessments (with a strict behavioral focus) could be to move School Psychology closer to that of an exclusively “Commissar- focused” discipline, further losing our focus upon the Yogi’s perspective, entailing empathy, compassion and understanding as essential components to both teaching and healing.

[1]  Stewart, J. PhD.; 2002; “Beyond Time Out;” Hastings Clinical Associates; 2nd edition

[2] Note – The practice of “good science” teaches us not to generalize beyond the population for which a measure or treatment has been empirically validated.