In Episode #4, “How to Win at the IEP Table,” we are going to discuss the Functional Behavioral Assessment, (FBA). An FBA is a vehicle in which to gather the information required to write a Behavior Support Plan that will be effective and include positive behavior interventions as well as supports and services for students with disabilities who exhibit problem behaviors. 

Positive programming serves to teach appropriate behaviors that increase the likelihood of a student’s success in school and in post-school life, rather than merely using punishment-based programming to eliminate inappropriate behavior. Research shows that punitive strategies and interventions are ineffective when used for neurodiverse students and can potentially make the problem behaviors even worse. 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that if a student’s behavior impedes his or her learning or the learning of others, then that student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) must address the problem behavior in a proactive manner. To do this, the IEP team conducts a functional behavioral assessment (FBA), writes an IEP based on the assessment, and develops a behavior intervention plan (BIP). 

(IDEA, 20 U.S.C. §1414 (d)(3)(B)(i)), If a student with disabilities exhibits problem behaviors that impede his or her learning or the learning of others, then the student’s IEP team shall consider “strategies, including positive behavioral interventions, strategies and supports to address that behavior.” 

Comments to the federal regulations indicate that if a student has a history of problem behavior, or if such behaviors can be readily anticipated, then the student’s IEP must respond to that behavior. These requirements apply to all students in special education, regardless of their disability category. 

Additionally, the IDEA requires that FBAs must be performed when students with disabilities are suspended in excess of 10 school days. “An FBA and BIP must be developed when a student with a disability is removed from their current placement for more than ten (10) school days during the same school year for behavior determined to be a manifestation of his disability.” (34 CFR § 300.530 (f)).

Unfortunately, IDEA does not directly define “problem behaviors” and therefore leaves this determination up to the IEP team to decide which behaviors are significant enough to require interventions. However, previous hearings and court cases have determined that problem behaviors may include disruptive behaviors that distract teachers from teaching and students from learning, noncompliance, verbal and physical abuse, property destruction, and aggression towards students or staff. 

If the IEP team decides that the problem behavior does interfere with the student’s learning, then they must first conduct an FBA. Second, the IEP team must develop a plan based upon the information gained from the assessment that reduces the problem behaviors and increases socially acceptable behaviors. 

An FBA involves analyzing contextual factors related to the occurrence of a challenging behavior in order to draw conclusions about the function of the behavior it serves for a student. Determining the function of the behavior may call for environmental modifications that may reduce the occurrence of inappropriate behaviors and to teach the student appropriate replacement behaviors. This requires IEP teams to engage in a problem-solving process when addressing problem behaviors. In this process, an FBA is conducted to identify factors associated with the problem behavior to determine the functions (e.g., task avoidance, attention-seeking, etc.) of a student’s problem behaviors. 

The FBA then guides the development of a multicomponent individualized program that emphasizes proactive positive behavioral strategies rather than reactive programming that relies on crisis management techniques or typical punitive discipline used as a consequence in response to a problem behavior. 

IEP teams must use ongoing evaluations and data collection to monitor a student’s progress and to make the appropriate changes when data indicate that the BIP is not effective and ensure that behavioral interventions lead to meaningful results. 

The results of the FBA must be included in the Present Levels of Educational Performance section of the student’s IEP. The IEP must also include measurable goals, accommodations and/or modifications as well as special education and related services to appropriately address the problem behavior. 

Moreover, if the student is placed in general education, accommodations and/or modifications are of significant importance to ensure the student’s success in a general education classroom. According to the U.S. Department of Education, when an IEP team addresses a student’s problem behavior, “the needs of the individual child are of paramount importance in determining the behavior strategies that are appropriate for inclusion in the child’s IEP” (OSEP Questions and Answers, 1999). As such, the IEP team must design strategies, interventions, and supports to respond to problem behavior based on the individualized assessment data the team has collected. 

According to Drasgow et al. (1999), if an IEP team fails to address problem behaviors in the student’s IEP, then that failure would deprive the student of a FAPE. Conducting FBAs and developing BIPs should be based upon an information-gathering and problem-solving team process that includes intense assessment and collaborative planning. Unfortunately, rather than adopting research-based practices in the FBA and BIP process, many school districts have developed chart systems based on lists of misbehaviors and potential causes for problem behaviors in which the entire process becomes a brief exercise in marking boxes and filling in the blanks. These types of practices do not meet the district’s requirements regarding FBAs and BIPs. 

IDEA encourages and sometimes demands that educators respond to problem behaviors by conducting FBAs and by developing education programming based upon the results of the assessment findings. However, merely going through the process of conducting an FBA will not be sufficient if the FBA does not lead to a quality BIP that includes appropriate positive behavioral interventions and programming. 

Conversely, the requirements that obligate school districts to conduct an FBA are not clear because the determination regarding the seriousness of whether the problem behaviors impede the student’s ability to access the curriculum are left up to the IEP team.  For example, a student’s teacher may report that occasionally a student engages in serious misbehavior. In this case, an FBA may be the best proactive approach to address the problem behavior, but it is not required by law. Sadly, I have seen many IEP teams refuse to conduct an FBA by using the 10-day suspension (Manifestation Determination) requirement, even though the student’s behavior is impeding their learning. And because it is not required by law, the IEP committee disregards their obligation to be proactive. 

Another example may be a student who has received multiple referrals and has been repeatedly suspended but has not reached the 10-day threshold.  In this case, it would be negligent for the IEP team to fail to conduct an FBA. However, once again, because the FBA requirements are not clear and therefore not required by law, the IEP team can make the decision to decline to conduct an FBA.  

A third case may be situations in which the law specifically requires that an FBA be conducted which include whenever a student is suspended for over 10 consecutive days. In this case, the IEP team must meet to conduct an FBA, complete a BIP, and determine measurable goals and accommodations and/or modifications. 

As an advocate working in real-world IEP meetings for over 25 years, it is most common to see districts wait until the student is facing a Manifestation Determination before they are willing to conduct an FBA. Even in many of these types of situations, it becomes my burden to request an FBA because the district still fails to offer an FBA assessment plan. 

To be clear, I am not inferring that all districts deny an FBA. I have experienced districts who will agree to conduct an FBA when a parent makes that request prior to being suspended for 10 days. However, there are also many districts that will decline a parent’s request for an FBA based upon the 10-day suspension law. 

Now, it’s time to tackle the Behavior Intervention Plan, (BIP). Once again, IDEA does not provide details about the composition of the BIP beyond indicating that the plan has to be individualized to meet the needs of different students in different educational environments. As such, the development of BIPs similar to the development of FBAs, will be determined by states, school districts, and IEP teams. In my opinion, both are loopholes in the law that place students at risk of having the district fail to provide FAPE.

As previously mentioned, because the law is not clear on the requirements of conducting an FBA other than after the student is suspended for 10 days, the IEP team will take the easy way out by developing a BIP without conducting an FBA. The problem with the easy way out is that when a BIP is written without conducting an FBA, there is no data to base the positive support strategies upon and therefore, the BIP is based upon IEP team members making guesses about potential functions of target behaviors and offering interventions that are not research-based. In most cases, the BIP will be an insufficient faux behavior plan utilized to show evidence that their obligation to proactively take action to address “problem behaviors” was upheld. Moreover, this kind of BIP is rarely effective in helping the student and can even cause the student’s behaviors to escalate. 

The most important requirements regarding BIPs are that they need to be proactive and should implement multiple positive behavioral strategies aimed at preventing problem behavior before it becomes severe enough to warrant such sanctions as suspension or expulsion. These strategies may include setting event and antecedent interventions, functional equivalence training, (teaching socially acceptable behaviors to replace a student’s inappropriate behaviors), general skills instruction, cognitive behavioral interventions, differential reinforcement strategies or any other combination of nonaversive behavior change strategies to address noncompliance. The key component to the BIP is the use of multiple positive behavioral interventions that do not rely on coercion or punishment for behavior change, (Dunlap & Koegel, 1999). 

In closing, members of IEP teams must be trained to be aware of the relevant provisions of IDEA to ensure that students receive a FAPE. Other than when the district changes a student’s placement,  the IDEA does not mandate when specific FBA procedures must be provided, rather it leaves the choice of whether or not to conduct an FBA to the IEP team. FBAs, however, are strongly encouraged by the law’s emphasis on positive behavioral interventions and supports. Furthermore, congressional requirements for schools to be proactive in using a problem-solving approach holds schools accountable to providing intervention before the student’s problem behavior leads to a manifest determination. 

IDEA does specify certain situations in which an FBA must be conducted which are when a school district (1) first removes a student for more than 10 school days in a school year, (2) changes a student’s placement by removing him or her from school, or (3) places a student in an alternative placement for a weapons or drug offense. 

It is important to note that schools that wait to conduct an FBA and develop a BIP only after a student’s removal from school, will probably not meet IDEA requirements to address problem behavior proactively. 

Public school must ensure that personnel involved in implementing FBAs have the necessary training and expertise. Most importantly, FBAs and BIPs properly conducted and implemented will result in positive behavior interventions designed to improve the lives of students with problem behaviors. 

For students whose behaviors impede their ability to access the general education curriculum, an FBA and appropriate BIP that is implemented with fidelity can mean whether a student makes progress toward their goals and can affect whether or not a student receives a diploma or credential of completion. For these reasons, it is imperative that parents understand their rights under IDEA and be able to advocate for the positive behavior interventions their child is entitled to receive. 

Cheering you on always! 

Valerie Aprahamian

*Reference: Functional Behavioral Assessments: Legal Requirements and Challenge, School Psychology Review 30(2):239-25

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Valerie Aprahamian is a special education advocate, IEP strategist, and speaker. She speaks on behalf of parents to protect the rights of neurodiverse children to receive the supports they need in public school.

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