How Functional Behavior Analysis Can Help Address School Issues

Children acting out can be problematic regardless of where the inappropriate behavior occurs. Acting out in school can be even more so because parents are not there to step in and school officials are limited in what they can do to address the issues. So when children act out in school, the consequences can be serious.

In order to address school issues in children, clinicians try to understand exactly what is causing the undesirable behavior. One of the tools we utilize is something known as functional behavior analysis (FBA). It is especially helpful in educational settings as a first step in developing interventions that ultimately help a child stop acting out in school.

Understanding the Function

FBA’s foundation is rooted in the understanding that certain behaviors perform certain functions. Those functions are the motivation for engaging in said behaviors. Where children acting out in school are concerned, we try to understand what function the behavior performs. Another way to think of it is this: what benefit does a child derive from behaving in a particular way?

If we can understand the function of inappropriate behavior, we can then develop solutions for overcoming it. We can help a child change patterns of thought and behavior so that the desired function can be achieved in more acceptable ways.

FBA recognizes four basic functions that lead to undesirable behavior:

  1. Attention – Children sometimes act out in school because they want attention. It could be that they don’t believe they are getting enough attention from teachers. Or perhaps they don’t feel as though their parents pay enough attention to them, so acting out will get their attention.
  1. Escape – A child wanting to get away from a circumstance or situation that causes discomfort may act out for that purpose. Children are also known to act out to avoid having to do homework, do something in front of the whole class, etc.
  1. Access – Access to something tangible is another function. A child might throw a tantrum in order to get access to a phone or tablet that a teacher won’t allow during class. Younger children might behave inappropriately to gain access to toys, crayons, etc.
  1. Stimulation – The fourth function is stimulation. Children sometimes act out in school because doing so makes them feel good. Acting out might be a mechanism for releasing energy we are venting pent up emotions, both of which provide emotional relief afterward.

Although FBA recognizes these four different functions, figuring out the function in play isn’t an exact science. There are many cases in which there are no obvious signs indicating why the child might be behaving inappropriately. But with a little investigation and observation, clues can be found.

Overcoming Inappropriate Behavior

There are things parents and educators can do to help children overcome inappropriate behavior at school. If such self-help solutions are ineffective, parents can always seek out the help of a trained therapist. We are available at Aspire Psychological, both in person and online. Make an appointment at any one of our three clinics or visit with us through our telehealth portal.

In the meantime, self-help strategies are directly related to function. For example, children who act out in school because they are seeking attention can be helped through activities designed to teach them how to occupy themselves.

Parenting a child who acts out in school can be frustrating. It can be exhausting at times. If you find yourself in such a situation, it might be time to take a look at FBA. A combination of FBA and other therapies could be just what your child needs.

Dr. Aryeh Berlin is a New Jersey licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Aspire Psychological Group. Dr. Berlin has vast clinical training experiences including a residential adolescent addiction treatment center in Israel, community mental health centers, and youth detention centers. Dr. Berlin has lectured on parenting children with emotional and behavioral difficulties, child development, helping children with school-related challenges and trauma. Audiences included attorneys, mental health professionals, parents, and educators.

How Functional Behavior Analysis Can Help Address School Issues