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Masters of Special Education with Academic Instruction Certification

Functional Analysis (FA) - Topic 11

What is it?

A functional analysis is term used by Skinner (1953) to illustrate the cause and effect relationship between environmental factors and behavior (Hanley, Iwata, & McCord, 2003). It describes a range of experimental conditions in which environmental stimuli and events are manipulated in order to determine the function of a behavior. It is part of a larger assessment called a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). A FBA is used to improve problem behavior by identifying variables of control to be later used to implement behavioral treatment (Horner, 1994). The functional analysis procedure relies on four areas that control problem behavior: attention, escape, automatic reinforcement, and tangible items. This type of analysis has proven to be powerful by evidencing the environmental factors that evoke problem behavior (Carr, 1994) and maintain it over time (Iwata & Dozier, 2008). Although the process for conducting a FA varies, there are several key components that must always be present.  Each FA consists of a test condition, assessment of reinforcers, and precise procedures. To ensure a FA is efficient, control should be demonstrated over the dependent variable, independent variable/treatment and confounding variables.

There are several variations of a FA, these include: full, brief, single-function, alone series, precursor, latency, and trial-based. Each variation has specific guidelines and reasons for executing it.  Each type of FA requires an adequate amount of training, as the practitioner must adhere to a pre-determined and consistent sequence of interactions. Other factors must also be considered when implementing a FA, such as ability to limit environmental conditions, amount of time, severity of problem behavior, and resources (Iwata & Doizer, 2008).


Why is it important?

It is important for practitioners to discover how/why a problem behavior is maintained prior to trying to reduce it. Without this type of empirical demonstration the function of problem behavior may never me uncovered, resulting in inefficient behavioral interventions. Indirect forms of behavioral assessment continue to be used; yet they continue to be unreliable and yield inadequate interventions (Iwata & Dozier, 2008). Severe and harmful behaviors often produce a required reaction from caregivers, educators, and practitioners that end up strengthening the behavior. Behaviors requiring intervention also tend to be disruptive and interrupt education and work. Using an approach, such as a FA, that helps to identify the underlying function of behavior greatly improves the quality and efficiency of the treatment (Iwata & Doizer, 2008).

Carrm E.G. (1994). Emerging themes in the functional analysis of problem behavior. Journal of

Applied Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 393-399.

Hanley, G.P., Iwata, B.A., & McCord, B.E. (2003). Functional analysis of problem behavior: A review.

Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 36(2), 147-185.

Horner, R.H. (1994). Functional assessment: Contributions and future directions. Journal of Applied

Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 401-404.

Iwata, Brian., & Dozier, C.L. (2008) Clinical application of functional analysis methodology. Behavior

        Analysis Practice, 1(1), 3-9.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Web Links

Association for Behavior Analysis International

Behavior Analysis Incorporated

Applied Behavior Analysis Resources

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