Tracking the Clues: Using Functional Behavioral Assessment to Help Kids with Special Needs

Written By: Agata Antonow

Resource Creation By: Bridget Morton

Design By: Sunny DiMartino

It all started on a hot July day. Marie, her husband Andrew, and her children Ben and Jay were painting Ben’s room celery green. Their split level home was filled with paint fumes and Ben was almost bouncing off the walls, excited that he would have a whole “new” room a few weeks after his twelfth birthday.

Marie had explained the renovations to Jay, her sixteen-year-old. “Ben’s growing up, and he’s going to want a more grown-up room, like yours.”

Jay didn’t say anything, and Marie thought he understood. Jay lived with autism, and Marie knew it frustrated him that sometimes people explained things he already understood perfectly well, just because they assumed he didn’t understand. Marie always tried to give her son the benefit of the doubt.

In retrospect, maybe she should have spent more time with him on this one.

Jay didn’t say much during the first part of the painting project. He helped drape Ben’s chest of drawers with a sheet and helped Andrew carry out the bed and mattress while Marie lay tarps on the floor and put out rollers and cans of paint. He wrinkled his nose a little at the smell of the paint, but he helped out, even smiling along with Marie and Ben when Andrew got a pale green streak on his nose.

The trouble didn’t start until the doorbell rang, and Marie and Andrew went downstairs to get the pizza they’d ordered for dinner. Andrew whirled Marie around in the mudroom, swooping her into a kiss before opening the door to pay the deliveryman.

They were laughing about the paint and giggling over pizza toppings in the kitchen, rooting around in the fridge for sodas, when they heard the shouting. Leaving the cardboard boxes and bottles of drinks on the counters, they rushed upstairs.

“No, no,” Jay was shouting.

Ben was yelling too. “Stop it.”

Marie and Andrew burst into the room just in time to see Jay toss a paintbrush at Ben and kick over a can of paint.

“What’s going on?” Marie gasped.

Andrew shouted out, “Break it up.”

It took about half an hour to get everyone calmed down and the spills cleaned up. They set Ben up on the pull-out couch downstairs for the night and decided to put off painting until tomorrow.

Things were quiet the next day, but this outburst wouldn’t be the last. A month later, when the paint fumes were long gone and Ben had settled into his new room, Jay was still acting out at times. Out of nowhere, he would yell and throw things and often stalk out of the room suddenly, slamming whatever was in his hand onto the floor. More and more often after such an outburst, Marie would toss and turn at night, wondering how to help her son. She’d tried asking what was wrong. She’d gone with Jay to the doctor. Nothing was helping.

In college, a friend had given Marie a keychain with a quote from Bernard Williams: “There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope.” Sitting in her living room at three o’clock in the morning, once again unable to sleep, Marie thought about that quote.

She knew that in a few hours, the sunrise would bleed in through the pale linen curtains; but she felt that the night was winning.

After a few minutes, she got up restlessly and started checking her online groups. She scrolled through Ben’s bookmarked websites on science and chemistry. Ben was winning science fair projects and wanted to become an engineer.

Then, remembering what Andrew had said over dinner the night before—“Jay’s acting out of control,” as Jay slammed away from the dinner table, sending a plate of pasta to the floor—she clicked on one of the parenting groups where she was a member. Following links, she came to a website with a printout about Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). Blinking and feeling more awake, she read a story about parents figuring out how to help their children by using FBA. It was late and her eyes were bleary, but she still felt enough hope to send a few messages to parents in her group.

By the next night, she knew enough to sit down with Andrew.

“FBA? What the heck is that?” Andrew asked, heaving himself into the leather chair in his study after dinner. From the next room came the sounds of Ben and Jay playing video games.

“The parents online told me that a lot of therapists and counselors use it to figure out what’s going on when their children show a specific problem behavior repeatedly.”

Andrew huffed in annoyance, running a hand through his sand-colored hair. “He’s not just ‘showing a behavior,’ honey. He’s acting out. Losing it. Having meltdowns.”

“Well, yes, that’s what I’ve been thinking. But the first step of this process is to figure out, name, and define the behavior in specific terms. It’s not enough to just say that he ‘acts out.’ That could mean anything. The point is to put a clear name—with a definition to it—so we know what we’re dealing with.”

Andrew thought for a few minutes. “He usually shouts and throws things, then leaves.”

Marie nodded. “Right. We could call them ‘emotional outbursts.’ So any time Jay becomes upset, shouts, becomes uncooperative, and throws or knocks something over, we agree to call it an emotional outburst. . But while we’ll keep track of these outbursts, we’ll also need to figure out what he’s reacting to, so we need to look at what happens before and what happens after he behaves that way.”

Andrew looked at the sheaf of papers Marie was holding. “So that’s it? This is going to help us?”

Making Better Sense of Behavior Using Functional Behavior Assessment

Marie showed him the paper in her hand, proud to share the charts she had come up with:

Date and time

What happened before


What happened after

Why might this have happened? What is the reason?

Marie pointed to the tidy rows on the printed page. “Every time we see him act out in some way or get aggressive, we write down what happened, what happened just before he acted that way, and what happened after. Then we try to figure out why he may have been acting that way. Was he trying to avoid something? Does he want something, like reassurance, interaction, or attention? Is he trying to tell us something? Is it something else? It’s really hard to figure out.”

Andrew looked at the paper. “So this is what therapists use for behavior? I don’t know, seems almost too simple. Are you sure we should be the ones doing this?”

Marie nodded. “Maybe we can try to get Jay in to see a therapist. But in the meantime, I thought we could try this. We’ve got nothing to lose at this point, and maybe by the time we get in to see someone we’ll at least have some information to show them. Who knows, maybe we’ll learn something new to share with them. They’ll already know all about FBA—therapists and schools use it, but usually the charts have words like ‘antecedent,’ ‘consequence,’ and ‘function’ on them. I just made the language simpler.”

“So it’s like those mysteries you like to read at the beach? Finding all the clues?”

Marie laughed. “A little bit. It’s more about finding the patterns with how Jay’s acting.”

Andrew pulled Marie into the chair with him, pressing a kiss into her temple. “You’d look great in a deerstalker hat.”

In the living room, they could hear Ben cheering and the music that meant “game won.” “It’s worth a try,” Andrew said, heading in the direction of the noise to send Ben off to bed.

For the next three weeks, they did just that. The day after Marie and Andrew’s talk in the library, Jay got very upset. This time, after it was over, Marie reacted differently. She grabbed the printouts she had created—but she didn’t just write down the date and that Jay was upset. This time she wrote down more. She wrote down “Jay knocked over a glass of water on the dinner table and shouted ‘no.’”

In the next column, she wrote down what had been happening just before the behavior. They had been having roast chicken, and Ben had been showing them brochures of a science camp he was interested in for the next year.

The pen scratched over the paper as Marie wrote. She considered what had happened after the incident. After Jay had said sorry to Ben, Andrew had sent him to his room for a time out.

A few weeks later, Marie had some more information and some possible clues on her chart. When she sat down with Andrew to go over it, she pointed out what she had written with some excitement:

Date and Time

What Happened Before


What Happened After

Why Might This Have Happened?


4:30 pm

Ben had been asking for help with his math homework, talking about getting into advanced math classes next year

Jay slammed a door and shouted “stop it” at Ben

Andrew had told Jay he had a time-out

Attention? Not sure


6:00 pm

We had been having supper (roast vegetables and rice); Andrew had been talking about his promotion at work, and Ben had been asking about being an engineer

Jay got up from dinner abruptly and left, going up to his room and not wanting to talk to anyone

Marie had tucked Jay into bed and had asked him what’s wrong (no answer)

Trying to get away from eating vegetables?? Not sure


8:00 pm

Ben had been talking to Andrew about the next science fair, Marie had been reading a book in the living room

Jay knocked over a pile of books Ben was reading and left for his own room

Andrew had told Jay that he couldn’t knock over Andrew’s books like that and had him apologize

Not sure. Feeling left out?


1:00 pm

Ben had been asking about dating rules, Andrew had been talking about his first date with Marie, the whole family had been eating sandwiches

Jay shouted ‘stop it’ at the table, then knocked over his chair as he walked off to his room

Marie had tidied up the kitchen and then had sat with Jay, trying to cheer him up

Seeking attention?

“His agitation does seem to have something to do with Ben. That’s pretty clear and consistent.” Andrew said slowly, reading over the words. “But they’ve always been buddies, gotten along great.”

“That’s not all,” Marie told him. “These things always happen when Ben’s talking about something he’s doing. I was wondering if maybe Jay feels left out now that Ben’s growing up and becoming more independent.”

Andrew nodded. “That might make sense!”

“I thought I was losing it,” Marie continued. “It all seemed so random, but Jay really is reacting to something, it seems. There is a predictable pattern after all. Ben being more independent is a change in the family and we know that Jay doesn’t do well with change. What do we do now?” Marie ruffled her husband’s hair. “I’ve made an appointment with a therapist that works with kids with behavior problems, so we can get a professional’s insight. But in the meantime, maybe there’s some way we can show Jay we’re still there for him and still a family, even though Ben is doing more things.”

“Maybe Jay would like to try something just for himself,” Andrew suggested. “Maybe we can set up a time to hang out just with him, have some quality time, so he gets a little social connection and support from us. We could try just spending more time talking to him and doing what he wants. Maybe we can come up with a list, make some plans, get a bit more structure into his life after school and on weekends. Maybe more ‘Super Jay-Dad Time.’”

It sounds like you are saying that it’s important for mom and dad to be ‘on the same page’ when it comes to their kid,

Marie nodded. “One of the more important things I’ve read about seems to be consistency. I think we need to make sure we respond the same way each time when he’s agitated. We know what usually works pretty good when he’s upset to help him calm down. Maybe each time Jay reacts to Ben with anger or frustration, we could tell him he needs to go to his room to calm down, give him some time and space till he’s ready, and then talk with him about how Ben is his brother, they’re both important, that we are family, and if it would be helpful for him to apologize to his brother. We can try that now to see if it works and then talk with the therapist about how it is going and if there are other ways we should be dealing with this. But I really think from what I read online that we need to make sure we try to respond the same way each time he gets upset.”

“It sounds like you are saying that it’s important for mom and dad to be ‘on the same page’ when it comes to their kid,” said Andrew.

“Exactly,” said Marie.

By the day of the meeting with the therapist, things had already improved and Marie and Andrew actually had thoughts of cancelling the appointment, but decided they would follow through. By the time Marie had gotten Jay into the car and sat waiting in the sedan for Andrew to grab the keys, she was feeling pretty confident. Over the past week, Jay had only gotten really upset once—after Ben announced to his family that his school was having a dance. As soon as Jay started squirming in his chair, tapping his foot, looking like he was about to say something, Marie had put her hand over his on the dinner table.

“Jay, maybe all of us can teach your little brother to dance after supper? What do you say?”

“Mom!” Ben had protested, rolling his eyes. But Jay hadn’t knocked over anything at the table and had finished his meal.

Jay had been quiet for the rest of dinner, but later in the living room he had smiled along with the rest of them when Andrew had turned up the volume on “Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” telling them “No, this is a great song” and proceeded to show off his dance moves.

“Dad, please tell me you’ll never dance where anyone can see you,” Ben had pleaded, shaking his head, as Andrew had pulled Marie into the center of the floor. A minute later, though, even Ben was swaying to the beat. Nobody was teaching anyone anything about dancing, but that hadn’t really been the point of Marie’s suggestion. That they were all smiling and laughing: that was the point. Marie decided that no matter what any therapist said, they were going to continue to try to pay attention, notice, and see patterns when behavior problems popped up, and also make sure they had good-quality family time on at least a weekly basis.

The memory made Marie smile all over again as Andrew slid into the seat beside her and held up the keys. She put the key into the ignition as her husband buckled up.

“I think your dad’s ready to go,” Marie told Jay, smiling at him sitting in the back seat. She pulled out of the driveway, ready for more answers.

* This story is part of a series based on the experiences of parents, educators and the staff of Genesee Lake School, a nationally recognized provider of services for students with special needs. GLS is part of MyPath, an employee-owned family of companies whose mission is to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.

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