Behavior Improvement Plans: Are Yours on Target?

October 28, 2014
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

“Ready! Fire! Aim!”

Reflecting on my experiences as a teacher and school principal, it occurred to me that our approach to developing student behavior improvement plans (BIPs) could often be described in this manner. We might simply throw solutions at a problem without first identifying the problem. As if shooting in the dark, we just hope to get lucky and hit the target.

Outmoded: Treating Behavior Management Like a Medical Problem
Imagine that I visit my doctor, complaining of coughing and throat soreness. My doctor might prescribe some throat lozenges and a cough suppressant and send me on my way. Most likely the lozenges would alleviate my sore throat. The cough suppressant would probably reduce—or possibly even stop—my coughing. My health would seem to be better. However, if the underlying cause of my sore throat and coughing was the fact that I had throat cancer, I would be in a lot of trouble with my doctor’s improvement plan!

Too often, like the doctor in the above example, behavior improvement plans treat the symptoms, rather than the underlying cause of the behavior. We hope to change the observable behaviors, but we forget that all behaviors happen for a reason. Then, just as in the example above, if the underlying cause is left untreated, real and lasting behavior improvement is not likely to occur.

What Works: Treating the CAUSE of the Behavior With FBA
Fortunately, there is a more effective alternative. Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is a problem-solving process that relies on collecting and analyzing data to understand the reason behind the behavior. All behavior serves a need or purpose (function). Understanding the function tells us why the behavior is occurring. It goes beyond simply describing what the behavior is (form). Once we identify the function, we have the basis for developing a more effective behavior support and improvement plan.

The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice describes functional behavioral assessment as a process that “relies on a variety of techniques and strategies to identify the purposes of specific behavior and to help IEP teams select interventions to directly address the problem behavior.”

While specific behaviors may be considered negative, the reasons, or functions, for those behaviors typically are not. The student simply may not know any other way to get the need met. The purpose of the behavior improvement plan is to provide the student with a replacement behavior that will satisfy the function that’s causing the behavior. The identification of effective replacement behaviors is enhanced if we understand why the behavior occurs. In other words, we are better able to identify and teach the student an acceptable, alternative behavior to use to satisfy the function.

Functional behavioral assessment is an integral component of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model. It’s an evidence-based, best-practice model. While it may be required in specific situations for students with special needs, the concepts are valuable in improving behaviors with all students. A review of research showed that when an FBA was conducted before intervention, the interventions were more positive rather than punitive, and more effective in improving problem behavior.

Compelling reasons for conducting an FBA, don’t you agree?

Your Next Steps
So, how about your behavior improvement plans? Do they simply address the observable behaviors? Or do they reflect an understanding of why the behaviors occur?

Let’s move beyond “Ready! Fire! Aim!” and improve our chances of hitting the behavior improvement target!

Here are some resources to help:

If you’re a Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Certified Instructor, check out our advanced course, Autism Spectrum Disorders: Applications of Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Training.

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