Skip to Content

Breaking through challenging behavior

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A sixth-grade Iowa student was on his school’s collective last nerve. His challenging behavior was, at best, disruptive. At worst, he was a physical threat to himself and others.

His behavior ran the gamut – from hair-pulling, grabbing, kicking and scratching staff to injuring himself – up to 100 times an hour.

Even though the student, who was within the nonverbal autism spectrum, was already in a self-contained classroom – attending school two hours a day with two people supervising him – the faculty were at wit’s end. Could they do anything for him? Would he be better off being placed in an institution?

In this particular case, the answer is no. That’s because an assessment designed to identify specific behavior challenges led staff to apply effective interventions.

Today, the child attends school full time and spends only 80 minutes of the day one-on-one with a teacher. The rest of the time, he is in general education classes. And his acting up as many as 100 times an hour? That’s reduced to less than once a day.

The child’s drastic and impressive improvement stems from a function-based assessment that most state Area Education Agencies (AEA) are ready to bring to Iowa’s classrooms. Though Functional Behavior Assessment has been around for more than 30 years, effective implementation has been spotty. The creation of the assessment replaced therapies that were popularized in the 1960s, such as corporal punishment and even electrical shocks to suppress bad behavior.

Sean Casey, a consultant in challenging behaviors at the Iowa Department of Education, has been in charge of training consultants at the AEAs.

“This is the first time that training for these assessments is available statewide,” Casey said. “Teachers who face challenging behaviors can seek out their AEAs for an assessment that will give them the tools to effectively deal with challenging behaviors.”

In the case of the sixth-grade Iowan with challenging behavior, staff were perplexed – and more – before the intervention.

“They were ready to send him to an institution which, as it turns out, would have been an injustice to the student,” Casey said. “And speaking from a budget point of view, it’s extremely costly to a district that places a student outside the district.”

But costs weren’t foremost in the minds of the educators dealing with the student. Just making it through the day was.

Heartland AEA consultant Emily Donovan said when the school sought her help, she found the challenge formidable.

“During Sean's sessions on ethics and throughout his talks, he discussed being able to identify when you are in over your head and need assistance or need to refer a student on to someone with more expertise,” Donovan said. “When this student came to me, I thought this may be the case of needing to refer on.”

If Donovan was having doubts, they were amplified by the concerns of the teachers and even the child’s mother.

“I remember his mom telling me in an Individualized Education Program meeting that she was willing to consider out-of-district placement because he has autism and he will always be aggressive,” she said. “They've had these problems several times since he was very young.  I told her that I didn't believe the aggression was a result of his diagnosis and that we could treat it if we understood what he was communicating with his aggression.”

Staff members, particularly those who experienced a significant amount of physical aggression from the student, were not as optimistic about an intervention.
By incorporating Functional Behavior Assessment, Donovan’s challenging behavior team was able to conclude that the child was attempting to communicate in his own way. If he didn’t want to do something, he would become aggressive. Up until the assessment, it worked because his teachers and family would back off.

The assessment led the team to develop a behavior intervention plan that essentially focused on rewarding good behavior and not caving in to the bad. He now understands that his aggression will not give him what he wants. Moreover, the strategy enables him to make requests, such as taking a break, giving him some control on his own life while maintaining proper behavior.

“Our goal was to get him down to zero physical aggressions,” she said. “One of the associates told my colleague that I must be crazy if I thought he was going to get down to zero! And, guess what? We got him to zero.”

Today, the student is thriving.

“The staff and district have such pride in this student and embrace him,” Donovan said. “They also reference this case whenever new challenging students present themselves, and the district is determined more than ever to serve kids in their community school.”

A good assessment is essential to determining the problem and then matching effective intervention strategies.

“Otherwise, it’s like throwing a dart at a dartboard and seeing if something sticks,” Donovan said. “With good assessment and matched intervention, we are able to get better results faster.”

Casey said that only about 2 percent of Iowa’s students have received a function-based assessment.

“Studies show that the percent really should be significantly higher, which means a lot of kids who could benefit from the assessment are not getting it,” he said.

Continued training sessions for AEAs, Casey said, will enable more children to be reached.

“We know that when a child doesn’t have to be placed in an institution, it’s a win-win-win for the student, the family and the school district,” he said.

For more information on Functional Behavior Assessment, contact Casey at

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on December 16, 2017 at 4:49am.