What’s the problem with this functional behavioral assessment interview form?

A parent recently shared with me a functional behavior assessment student interview form that was sent home for her son to complete. The form, pictured below included five questions for the student to complete:

  1. What do you think would help you improve your behavior?
  2. What do you think should be the consequence for the misbehavior?
  3. What motivates, reinforces or interest you?
  4. What classes do you like and dislike, why?
  5. Why do you engage in the behavior? What do you hope to gain or avoid?

So what is wrong with this form? Well, to begin with, the form assumes that all behaviors are intentional. The form seems to be based on a belief system that children do well if they want to. This leads to the conclusion if a child is not doing well then it is just a matter of motivation. If that is your belief, then it is just a matter of finding the appropriate motivator (reward or consequence) and the behaviors of concern will vanish. However, it generally does not work that way, as Dr. Ross Greene would say “kids do well if they can, if a kid could do well they would do well.” However, children are often lacking the skills they need to do well in certain situations. There are of course other causes for behavior, which by the way is a form of communication. While I think it is always valuable to get input from a child these are not the right questions. I would also rather see a conversation with a trusted adult, rather than handing the child a form. There are many problems with this form and approach, but I thought it would be helpful to hear what a few respected experts say about the approach.

Let’s ask the experts…

We asked five amazing experts to review the form and give us their thoughts.

Mona Delahooke, Ph.D.

Mona Delahooke, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience caring for children and their families and the author of the book Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.

“Approaches that don’t respect the instinctual, protective and automatic behaviors autistic and neurodivergent individuals display are missing the most important element, which is respecting individual differences, and viewing behaviors as adaptive and protective.” 

Dr. Lori Desautels

Dr. Lori Desautels is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Butler University College of Education / Former special education teacher and school counselor and currently teaching applied educational neuroscience / brain and trauma to undergraduates and graduate candidates in the certification program. Lori is also the author of a number of books including Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline.

“An hour later, a day later, a month later, this student can probably provide the answers to these questions that he or she feels you want! An hour later, a day later, a week later, or a month later, this student can reflect upon these questions desiring a much improved “way of being” inside a conflict, BUT in the heat of the moment, inside a survival state, there is NO ability to reason or see or plan for the future! Our thinking is so greatly compromised that 80% of the cortex is offline when the misbehavior occurs! This quote mirrors the way many schools, classrooms and educators are addressing behavioral challenges. The focus on the misbehaviors is missing the root of the misbehavior. Not only are all behaviors signals of what lies beneath the behavior, but in a state of dysregulation, we do not have the words, logic, reasoning, or problem-solving capabilities to change or replace the behaviors. The goal is to meet every student in their nervous system state, and model co-regulation through our calm centered nervous system state! The goal is state regulation! Once I am calm, safe, and feeling connected, I am able to access the resources I need to not only understand the behavior but to reach for practices, solutions, other options for what I need! This sustainable change takes place through a long process of thousands of moments of co-regulation!”

Lori suggested that she would replace these questions with:

  1. What people, places at school or things do you think would help you to feel safe and connected when you become frustrated, and your anger is growing?
  2. What experiences would be helpful to you when you begin to feel rough and irritated or angry?
  3. What interests, strengths, and something important you wish the adults around you knew about you?
  4. What classes feel safe and unsafe to you? In other words, what classes feel fair and what classes feel very unfair? Please help us to understand the differences for you in these classes.
  5. What are three people, activities, or things at school that you need when you are upset, and you need to feel calmer or understood?

Diane Gould

Diane Gould has a private practice outside of Chicago. Before that she had worked in schools and for private agencies for 30 years. She is a social worker with an interest and certification in behavior change.

“When I read the student interview form from the school district in Plano, it made me feel sad instead of my customary flash of anger. Somehow this school district thought there was a benefit of involving students in the process of improving their educational experience but they were so clearly missing the boat. Instead of having a compassionate discussion with a trusted staff member, this form seems to be trying either to hold the student accountable or shame them. Or both. It also clearly makes the point that they view the behavior as purposeful if they are asking the student what they are hoping to gain or avoid. Asking what the consequence should be seemed very strange and did spark some anger. The form seems so misguided and will make the struggling student feel less understood and less supported than the probably felt to begin with. We have to move away from these outdated, simplistic, and counterproductive attempts to modify behavior and start helping students thrive in schools around the country.” 

Mathew Portell

Mathew Portell has dedicated a decade and a half to education in his role as a teacher, instructional coach, teacher mentor, and school administrator. It is through the collaborative team approach and building positive relationships that Portell is leading his school into success. 

“As we continue to shift the paradigm in education to be trauma-informed, the archaic concepts of behaviorism continue to be utilized throughout schools across this country and even the globe.  The idea that a student of any age, being surveyed with such questions is truly incomprehensible.   Until we, educators, can release the idea of control, compliance, and looking at behavior as the sole choice of children, we will continue to traumatize children in our schools.   The paradigm shift needs to occur is with the adults, educators, as we are not “fixing” broken children because they are not broken!  By design, the historical systems established in education to “help” children extinguish behaviors are grounded in disproven approaches that can be harmful.  Students have always brought the impacts of stress and trauma into our schools, and it is time to change the way we support them.  It is time to embrace trauma-informed education fully.” 

Greg Santucci, Occupational Therapist

Greg Santucci is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the Founding Director of Power Play Pediatric Therapy. For over 20 years, Greg has been committed to providing neurodevelopmentally informed therapy services to children, as well as workshops to parents and professionals promoting compassionate, collaborative and brain-based interventions to support children of all abilities.

What do you think would help improve your behavior?

“This question seems to forget that all children want to behave, meet expectations and do well. All children want to make their parents and teachers happy. Doing well feels better than doing poorly, and doing poorly is certainly not working out better for the child. If the child is having difficulty “behaving” or meeting expectations, there’s a problem to solve. To assume that they know how to improve their behavior implies that they knew how to “behave” in the first place, they just chose not to. With a developmentally-informed mindset, which this question does not have, an adult would work with the child to identify the lagging skills that impacted the child’s ability to “behave”.

Here are some answers I would love to hear from the kids: What would improve my behavior? Be less boring. Teach me the way Iearn. Back off when I’m having a bad day. Understand my stress cues and give me some space when I’m overwhelmed.”

What do you think should be the consequence for misbehavior?

“This question is a perfect combination of awful and mean. Having a child choose their own punishment for being unable to meet expectations? Misbehavior implies volition, that the child purposefully chose to behave how they did. That’s a dangerous assumption, and one that’s not only unfair, but can be completely demoralizing for a child who tried their best everyday but genuinely has a hard time meeting the expectations of school. What if it’s not misbheavior? What if its stress behavior? What if there is an invisible, internal stuggle (physiological, sensory, emotional) that the child is dealing with and the only way they can communicate this is through their behavior. If there’s an internal problem and you are asking the child to select a punishment for that internal problem, that is malpractice, and cruel.”

What motivates, reinforces or interests you?

“Did someone really just ask a child what reinforces them? Newsflash: kids don’t understand behavioral jargon.

Since this question is on a behavioral questionnaire, let’s re-phrase it so it says what they are really asking: “What do you like so we can bribe you with it to get you to comply?”.

If an educator has connected with the child, they should already know this! This question should not be asked of a child just to sniff out a reinforcer so they can hold it for ransom and have them ‘work for it’.”

What classes do you like and dislike, why?

“Gym and lunch. I think we should have larger blocks of gym and lunch.”

Why do you engage in the behavior? What do you hope to gain or avoid?

“Again, this question implies volition, and is developmentally-uninformed. If their behavior was a stress behavior, it didn’t involve the “thinking” part of their brain. It only involved the reactive part of their brain. If this is the case, which is true most often in younger students they will not be able to answer this question. They may honestly have no idea, so if they say “I don’t know”, they would be telling the truth.”

The verdict

Our experts agree this kind of questionnaire is missing the mark. If we want to help kids who are having a difficult time, we need to first acknowledge that they are having a hard time not giving you a hard time. We need to acknowledge that behavior is communication. We need to understand when children are in distress that their cortex is offline. We need to acknowledge the power and importance of relationships. We need to move away from approaches that aim to control behavior through reward and punishment. Let’s have conversations and form meaningful relationships. Let’s help the students who are struggling and need our help.

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