Finding Solutions for Challenging Classroom Behaviors with a Functional Behavioral Assessment

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

When a child with ADHD is struggling in the classroom, knowing how to help isn’t always easy, especially when the usual strategies aren’t working. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to a child’s behavior and ability to stay focused. Some are related to a teacher’s instructional style and the content of lessons, while others relate to the physical space in the classroom and how conducive it is to learning for a child with ADHD. The daily classroom schedule and amount of physical activity on any given day also have a big impact on child behavior, not to mention the influence of classmates on both behavior and the ability to stay focused and on task.

It’s not surprising that teachers and parents often feel like they are at loss for how to help a child when they are struggling during the school day. Fortunately, there is a tool that is highly effective at parsing out the factors that need to be addressed in order to improve behavior and focus in the classroom: a functional behavioral assessment (FBA).

What is a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)?
An FBA is a tool used by educators, psychologists, and counselors to identify the behaviors that are interfering with a child’s success, the factors that are reinforcing or maintaining these behaviors, and strategies that will help change the behaviors. Often, a functional behavioral assessment is used within the context of an individualized education plan (IEP) when a child is not meeting their IEP goals. However, an FBA can be helpful for any student who is exhibiting challenging behaviors that are not responding to typical school interventions.

How is an FBA Conducted?

Every FBA includes five steps:

Step 1: Define the Target Behavior. The target behavior is the challenging behavior that needs to be changed. For example, “Elliot is off-task 80% of the time during classwork.” The target behavior is defined through interviews with teachers, the student, and/or school administrators, as well as a review of records.

Step 2: Collect Data. Data is collected through classroom observations, a review of records or materials, and rating scales. Direct observation is often the primary method of data collection, but as in our example, samples of complete and incomplete work could be gathered for specific periods of time to identify patterns when a student is completing more work or less work.

Step 3: Develop a Hypothesis. The hypothesis is the working theory or best guess why the behavior is happening. Often, the hypothesis focuses on things that happen right before the behavior (known as antecedents) or right after the behavior (rewards or negative consequences associated with the behavior). Sometimes the hypothesis focuses on things that happened earlier in the day or at home (e.g. “Elliot completes less work on days when he arrives at school late, or on days when he had difficulty sleeping the night before”). Other times, the hypothesis includes things related to the classroom environment (e.g. “Elliot is often distracted by his talkative neighbor”).

Step 4: Plan the Intervention. A written behavior intervention plan is presented that directly targets the factors included in the hypothesis. The plan can include new skills that will be taught to the child, modifications to the classroom setting or to the instructional style used to teach certain lessons, and modifications to classwork and homework assignments. The use of specific classroom management strategies is also often included in the plan for kids with ADHD.

Step 5: Evaluate the Effectiveness of the Plan. After the plan has been in place for a fixed amount of time, the FBA team conducts a follow-up evaluation. Usually, this evaluation relies on the same methods of data collection that were used in Step 2. If the plan is working, then it will be kept in place. If the plan is not helping to change the target behavior, then the team will develop a new hypothesis and repeat the intervention and evaluation steps until the target behavior has improved.

When a child with ADHD is struggling in the classroom, and typical interventions aren’t helping, an FBA can be an excellent resource. The FBA process often results in interventions that are effective even when nothing else has worked so far, and can have a lasting impact on a child’s ability to succeed in the classroom.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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