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Module 5: Determining the ABCs of Behavior via a Functional Assessment

Module Overview

In Modules 3 and 4, we began our discussion of planning for change by addressing the importance of being willing to change, for our own reasons and not due to the request of others, and clearly defining the behavior to be changed and any other behaviors that could be a threat to our overall plan’s success. In this module, we will discuss how to collect data and then use this information to conduct a functional assessment. This exercise will place us in the baseline phase which recall is when we gather data about how much the problem behavior or desired behavior occur.


Module Outline

  • 5.1. Methods in Data Collection
  • 5.2. The Functional Assessment
  • 5.3. The Baseline Phase
  • 5.4. Planning Sheet 4: Gathering Data and Conducting a Functional Assessment


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the who, what, when, where, and why of recording and data collection.
  • Clarify what is learned through a functional assessment and describe how to conduct one.
  • Clarify the importance of the baseline phase.
  • Complete and submit Planning Sheet 4 by the due date in the Course Schedule.



5.1. Methods in Data Collection


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define self-monitoring.
  • Clarify what the observation period is.
  • Differentiate between a natural setting and an analogue setting.
  • Describe three methods of recording.
  • Clarify the use of the ABC chart in data collection.
  • Outline a few ways to make recording easier.
  • Define reactivity.
  • Define interobserver agreement.


Recall from Module 2 that the three hallmarks of science are observation, measurement, and experimentation. The first two will be important to our discussion of data collection methods used in behavior modification. How so? First, remember that behavior is what we do, say, or think/feel and must be overt or observable. Since it is observable, we can use either naturalistic or laboratory observation. We can also figure out what caused it and what maintains the behavior in the future by observing the person in his/her surroundings. Second, when we say we wish to understand how often, long, or strongly a behavior occurs (i.e. frequency, duration, and intensity, respectively) we are measuring the behavior. The purpose of assessment or measurement, also from Module 2, is to discern if a treatment is necessary, which one, and whether or not it worked.

In the remainder of this section, we are going to more closely examine how measurement is carried out in behavior modification by tackling the following topics:

  • 1.1.Who does the recording?
  • 1.2.When do we record?
  • 1.3.Where do we record?
  • 1.4.How do we record?
  • 1.5.With what do we record?
  • 1.6.How can we make recording easier?
  • 1.7.What are some issues with recording?


5.1.1. Who does the recording?

In terms of who does the measuring, this may be a professional or other individual routinely associated with the individual such as a teacher, work supervisor, counselor, school bus driver, caregiver, or sibling. In the case of self-management or self-modification, you are doing the measuring and recording which is called self-monitoring.


5.1.2. When do we record?

In terms of when we record, we will have a clearly defined observation period and should choose a time when the behavior is likely to occur.


5.1.3. Where do we record?

In terms of where, we can choose a natural setting or place where the behavior typically occurs or an analogue setting or one that is not part of the person’s daily routine. This is the equivalent to naturalistic and laboratory observation, respectively. Finally, we can choose structured or unstructured events to observe which refers to whether or not there is a specific event or activity to observe and record.


Before moving on…….

Consider the following scenario. In the case of the child who acts out in class we may decide to observe him in the classroom (natural setting) during a group reading activity (structured event) from 1:15 to 1:45pm on Monday (observation period). Alternatively, we could choose to observe his behavior on the playground (natural setting) 15 minutes before (observation period) school begins (unstructured event). And finally, a special education teacher could pull the child out of class during the fifth period (observation period) and take him to another room (analogue setting) to talk (unstructured event).


5.1.4. How do we record?

When we record, we need to decide what method we will use. The following are possible:

Continuous Recording:

  1. What it is – When a client is watched continuously throughout the observation period and all occurrences of the behavior are recorded.
  2. Considerations – This technique allows you to record both frequency and duration. The frequency is reported as a rate, or the number of responses that occur per minute. Duration is the total time the behavior takes from start to finish. You can also record the intensity using a rating scale in which 1 is low intensity and 5 is high intensity. This could be useful if your behavior modification plan involves reducing disturbing thoughts such as suicidal ideation or feelings of worthlessness. It is possible that early in the plan these distressing thoughts are high in intensity and slowly decrease due to the strategies you use. By the end, they should be low or absent. An intensity measurement can help you see how successful you are. Finally, latency can be recorded by noting how long it took the person to engage in the desirable behavior, or to discontinue a problem behavior, from when the demand was uttered.
  3. Other Tidbits – You can use real-time recording in which you write down the time when the behavior starts and when it ends, and then do this each time the behavior occurs. You can look at the number of start-stops to get the frequency and then average out the time each start-stop lasted to get the duration. For instance:


Table 5.1. Example of the Real-time Recording Method


Product or Outcome Recording

  1. What it is – This technique can be used when there is a tangible outcome you are interested in, such as looking at how well a student has improved his long division skills by examining his homework assignment or a test. Or you might see if your friend’s plan to keep a cleaner house is working by inspecting his or her house randomly once a week.
  2. Benefit – This will allow you to know if an experimental teaching technique works. It is an indirect assessment method meaning that the observer does not need to be present. You can also examine many types of behaviors.
  3. Limitation – Because the observer is not present, you are not sure if the person did the work him or herself. It may be that answers were looked up online, cheating occurred as in the case of a test, or someone else did the homework for the student such as a sibling, parent, or friend. Also, you have to make sure you are examining the result/outcome of the behavior and not the behavior itself.


Interval Recording

  1. What it is – When you take the observation period and divide it up into shorter periods of time. The person is observed and the target behavior recorded based on whether it occurs during the entire interval, called whole interval recording, or some part of the interval, called partial interval recording. With the latter, you are not interested in the dimensions of duration and frequency. We also say the interval recording is continuous if each subsequent interval follows immediately after the current one.
  2. Example – Your observation period is the 50 minutes the student is in his home economics class and you divide it up into ten, 5-minute intervals. If using whole, then the behavior must occur during the entire 5-minute interval. If using partial, it only must occur sometime during the 5-minute interval.
  3. Alternative – You can also use what is called time sample recording in which you divide the observation period into intervals of time but then observe and record during part of each interval (the sample). There are periods of time in between the observation periods in which no observation and recording occur. As such, the recording is discontinuous. This is a useful method since the observer does not have to observe the entire interval and the level of behavior is reported as the percentage of intervals in which the behavior occurred. Also, more than one behavior can be observed.


Check this out…

The first and third methods ask us to examine the behavior while the second method focuses on some result of the behavior. When choosing which recording method to use, you need be sure you are clear on what you are measuring – behavior or result.


5.1.5. With what do we record?

Recording can be done in many ways. You might record instances of the behavior using low tech options such as paper and pencil, moving coins from the left pocket to the right pocket, or tearing a sheet of paper. Alternatively, you can go high tech with a computer, phone, using barcodes, or tablet. Middle of the road alternatives include a pedometer, stopwatch, or golf stroke counter.

No matter which method you use, you will ultimately want to record on what are called ABC charts (also called structured diaries). These tools record what environmental or internal events led to the occurrence of the behavior or the antecedent, what form the behavior took, and what happened afterwards or the consequences. ABC charts can look like the following:


Figure 5.1. ABC Chart

In terms of antecedents, which are the stimuli that led to the occurrence of the behavior, it is obvious that these can be events outside of us. Maybe a child acts out in class because he is encouraged to do so by another student. Or a student begins to twirl her hair when giving a presentation (a nervous habit). Or you don’t make it to the gym because your phone received a Facebook notification as you woke up for the day. These events all occurred outside the person. But can internal events, or thoughts/feelings cause a behavior too? Most definitely. You start checking your phone for updates because you are bored studying for your Intro to Geology exam. You procrastinate finishing a paper because of feelings of worthlessness and being overwhelmed. Or you made it to the gym out of a sense of dedication to losing weight. Be sure to record any and all antecedents that have occurred, whether they led to the desired behavior or an alternative behavior. The information you gain from these events is invaluable.

Remember too, the behavior will be something you have done, said, or thought/felt. The done and said aspects of behavior are overt and others may have witnessed them. The thoughts/feelings are internal and covert, and so honesty when recording will be needed. Be sure you record not only when you make the behavior, but also when you do not, even if preplanned. We need to consider our successes almost as much as we need to consider the failures. This is important in the baseline phase so we can figure out if there are specific antecedent manipulations that need to be put in place to ensure we make the desired behavior, and not the problem one.

As for consequences, these may have been delivered by someone else such as a parent, sibling, teacher, stranger, spouse, etc., or you could have delivered them yourself. Be clear as to what the source of the reinforcement or punishment (the consequences) is and talk about how it made you feel. This information is useful to understanding why the same behavior occurs in the future when the same stimulus is present.

Here is an example of what your ABC chart/structured diary may look like:


Figure 5.2. Sample ABC Chart


It is also a good idea to summarize your ABC charts. As you can see, the ABC chart is for one day and so you will have several charts throughout the course of a week. You could make a summary table for your exercise plan as follows:


Table 5.2. Sample Exercise Summary Table: Amount of Exercise Per Day (in minutes)

Your summary table shows that you increased your work out days by one each week and how long you worked out each day. You added a weekend day in Week 2 and then both weekend days in Week 3, and the amount of time you worked out went up from week to week. All three weeks you did not work out on Tuesday or Thursday and a closer review of your ABC charts/structured diary for the week (and the non-workout days) will show that the antecedent leading to not working out these days is a full day of classes. You could get up early in the morning to work out, but that would require waking up by 5am and by early afternoon you might be tired and fall asleep in class. You could wait until after classes end to go to the gym but that is when most students go, and it is incredibly busy. Also, you are usually tired from the day and at times sore, making working out not very appealing. As you move to your end goal of five days working out during the current semester, you resign yourself with working out all days but Tuesday and Thursday. This is a bit challenging as it requires you to work out four days in a row (Friday to Monday). From the analysis, you can figure out what works and what does not. It is worth examining your ABC charts as you go through your treatment plan so you can see if change(s) is/are needed.


5.1.6. How can we make recording easier?

To make recording easier, a few pointers will be useful:

  • Make sure you have your recording instruments with you when relevant. If you are trying to increase the frequency of working out, make sure you have something to record your workout with you at the gym. This could be your phone and an app such as Fitbit or a small notebook you take with you. If you are recording water consumption, have your phone (and the Fitbit app) with you all day long so you can record as you drink. Record keeping should become natural and a part of your normal day. Early on, you could hang post it notes or have reminders on your phone to record your data. If you are trying to increase pleasure reading, have your ABC chart by the bed so you can record how many pages or how long you read (based on what your behavioral definition says) as soon as you are finished or when you start and stop (as in the case of real-time recording). If you make it easy to record your data, you are more likely to do it.
  • Record right away – Remembering exactly how many water bottles you drank can be hard if you wait until bedtime to record for the day. Don’t rely on your memory. Record as the behavior occurs. The information you record about your antecedents and consequences will be more accurate too. Describe all relevant aspects of the situation – how you felt, who was present, your thoughts, what others were doing, where you were, the time, etc.
  • Be honest. If you are trying to lose weight and are doing so by reducing caloric intake, list all foods you ate for the day, and in what portion size you ate them. Do not omit anything to make your numbers look better. You can lie and only you would know, but the success of your plan will be seriously compromised.
  • Review your ABC charts and the summary table you make.  Look for patterns that lead to your success, but also antecedents, whether external or internal, that thwart your success.


5.1.7. What are some issues with recording?

Measurement is not without issue. First, reactivity, or when the process of recording a behavior causes the behavior to change, even before treatment is applied. This may make obtaining baseline data to compare with treatment data difficult. If the nutritionist wants to reduce the consumption of high fat, salty foods in her client to help with weight loss she will need to know what the client eats normally. If the client alters his behavior upon knowing what the focus of the nutritionist is, then comparison data will not be possible. Of course, in the case of self-monitoring, used in self-modification plans, the actual monitoring itself is part of the treatment and so we expect that keeping a food journal or using an app such as Fitbit will alter one’s behavior. We will not want to record all the bad food we normally eat and so will refrain from making poor choices so we do not have to record it. Obviously, these poor food choices are a source of embarrassment for us and we will be less likely to make them when they will be judged by others. This of course assumes the person records his food choices honestly.

A second issue is that of interobserver agreement, also called interrater reliability, and is when two people independently observer the same behavior and record that it occurred. Ideally, we will want a high percentage as this indicates a great deal of agreement, most researchers shoot for at least 90%, with 80% being the minimal amount of agreement. If reliability is lower than both observers need to ensure they are using the same precise definition of the target behavior.


5.2. The Functional Assessment


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define functional assessment.
  • Outline what information is gained from a functional assessment.
  • Differentiate indirect and direct assessment.
  • Describe functional analysis.
  • Clarify when each method will be needed.


5.2.1. What is Functional Assessment?

A functional assessment is when we much more closely scrutinize the antecedents and consequences to see what affects the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a desired or problem behavior, all to maximize how effective our plan/strategies will be.


5.2.2. What is Learned from a Functional Assessment?

This scrutiny involves gathering several important types of information which include:

  • The Behavior – what makes up the problem behavior or the desired behavior. It may be that in the case of a problem behavior, several sub-behaviors are included. For instance, earlier we described a student being disruptive in class. This is fairly general and could include the sub-behaviors of getting out of his seat without permission, talking without being called on, verbally or physically harassing other students, being uncooperative, ignoring directions from the teacher, or acting aggressively on the playground or during gym.
  • The Antecedents – what stimuli in the environment, or thoughts/feelings in the person, lead to the behavior’s occurrence/non-occurrence. These stimuli will actually predict the behavior in the future. To develop an effective plan, you must know what cues there are for the behavior but also make sure you go back far enough in time to find the true cause. If a person does not socialize, it could be due to worry about embarrassing him or herself but examining deeper reveals a parent who told the individual he was worthless and no one would ever like him. This reason would obviously need more work undoing/correcting than simply worry about looking foolish. Either way, if is safe to say, or is predictable, that the individual will not strike up a conversation with another student waiting in line to pay for his textbooks early in the semester if there is concern about being embarrassed or subconsciously, you hear your parent’s voice and condescension. You will also want to know if there are certain situations, events, times, etc. that lead to the desired behavior or the problem behavior.
  • The Consequences – these are any events that follow the problem or desired behavior and maintain it. Face it. If you don’t derive some benefit from making the behavior, there is simply no reason to make it. This goes for problem or desirable behaviors. If you wake up in the morning, play games on your phone, and really enjoy it, you will not be as concerned about getting to the gym to workout. The consequences are particularly reinforcing for you and maintain the problem behavior. If during the process of deciding to engage in behavioral change (see Module 3) you decide that being in shape and losing weight is more important, you will encounter stronger reinforcers for working out then you do for playing games on your phone. You might even realize that while you are on the recumbent bike, you can spend a few minutes on your favorite game, so you are not losing out on this fun activity while you get into shape. In Module 9, we will discuss techniques to increase the reinforcing value of the desirable behavior and to decrease the reinforcement gained from a problem behavior. In short, motivation is key and centers on consequences.
  • Previous Interventions – It may be this is not your first time attempting to change the behavior. Maybe years ago you changed it, maintained that success for several years, but then relapsed for any number of reasons. You will want your current applied behavior analyst to know what was part of your treatment plan before. Some elements may have worked while others may not have…then. Times change and so do people and you might find that video games were reinforcing 10 years ago but not so much today. Analyzing these interventions will help you to figure out what might work again, all while acknowledging a new approach may be needed.


5.2.3. How do we learn this information during a functional assessment?

Functional assessment information is collected via three general strategies. These include informant or indirect methods, direct observation or assessment, and functional analysis. It is important to understand that use of these methods is all about forming a hypothesis about the ABCs of the behavior which can be confirmed and used to develop a plan. Let’s examine the three methods.

Indirect assessment or informant methods include the use of interviews, checklists, questionnaires, and rating scales to gather information on the target behavior from the person exhibiting the behavior or from knowledgeable others (i.e. people who know the person very well). The information can be gathered easily and does not take much time to do. Bear in mind that it does not occur in real time but is dependent upon the accurate recall of the individual being questioned.

Direct observation or assessment is used when the behavior is observed and recorded as it occurs, or in real time. For direct assessment to be accurate, there must be a precise definition of the problem behavior (See Module 4). Unlike indirect assessment, direct takes more time and effort but does not rely on memory. Information can be gathered by writing a description of the behavior and each antecedent and consequence for the behavior, or by using a checklist with columns for the ABCs of behavior. Possible antecedents which may cause the behavior and possible consequences for the behavior, are listed in each column and then checked off as they appear. Collect direct observation data until a clear pattern is apparent which will take several days to achieve.

Which type of assessment is more accurate? If you answered direct assessment you are correct. With indirect assessment, a person’s memories may be inaccurate, and the observer may not have had a precise definition of the behavior they were to observe and record.

But indirect and direct assessment are descriptive in nature. They allow you to develop hypotheses about what causes the behavior (the antecedents) and what maintains it (the consequences) but not to establish a functional relationship (See Module 2.3. for more information on what this entails).

Functional analysis is designed to test stimuli or consequences that are predicted to be related to the occurrence or nonoccurrence of the behavior. The indirect and direct assessment techniques should have generated at least one hypothesis to test. The process involves presenting environmental events and seeing the effect on the person’s behavior, and/or manipulating the consequences of the behavior. The advantage of this method is that a functional relationship can be established but functional analysis requires skilled personnel to carry out the procedure, a great deal of time and effort, and possibly approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB; for more on what an IRB is, please see: https://www.fda.gov/RegulatoryInformation/Guidances/ucm126420.htm).


The complexity of the behavior determines how many of the above methods will be used. As a general practice, you should use the following procedure:

  1. Use indirect/informant methods first, such as the behavioral interview. Develop a hypothesis.
  2. Now move to direct observation. Once done, confirm your hypothesis or conduct further indirect and direct assessments.
  3. In some cases, you might need to conduct a functional analysis.



5.3. The Baseline Phase


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe the importance of the baseline phase.


As we discussed in Module 2.2., the baseline phase is when we collect data but do not attempt to change our behavior. No strategies are in place. We are trying to find out how often, long, or intensely we engage in our target/desirable behavior or a problem behavior. In cases when we are not making the desirable behavior at all, such as going to the gym or using a planner to organize our school work, a baseline phase is still useful for determining why we do not engage in the desired behavior and/or why we make a problem behavior. Typically, we continue with the baseline phase until a clear pattern emerges and this can take a few days at least. For the purposes of this book and course, we will use a two-week baseline phase (one week in shorter summer courses).

After your behavior modification plan has run its course, you will compare the level of your behavior after the strategies were used against the level of the behavior before they were use. As such, the baseline phase serves as a comparison with the treatment phase.


5.4. Planning Sheet 4: Gathering Data and Conducting a Functional Assessment


Section Learning Objectives

  • Complete and submit Planning Sheet 4.


It is now time to determine how you will record your behavior and gather baseline data about the ABCs of your behavior. To do this, you will complete one ABC chart for each day of the two-week (or one during summer) baseline phase. You will record whether or not your behavior occurs.


Planning Sheet 4 can be found in Appendix 1: Self-Management Plan Documents, at the back of this book. It is 18 pages long so be sure you look at all 18 pages and it has 3 parts in total. It will take a few weeks to finish this planning sheet. See the Course Schedule for the due date. Also, take note of when your baseline phase is to run.



Module Recap

In Module 5, we discussed ways to collect data about the behavior, what causes it, and what maintains it. We also discussed the functional assessment and what information we can gain from it. The baseline phase is when we record occurrences of the behavior before any manipulation/strategies are employed. Planning Sheet 4 was assigned and takes us through the baseline phase in our projects. You will use much of the information gained in Planning Sheet 4 in your proposal so pay careful attention to what you are doing.

With the conclusion of this module we are now finished with planning for change. In Part III, we will explore strategies to bring about change. The discussion is general and in Part IV we will discuss how to narrow down which of the 30 plus strategies to use.

I hope you have enjoyed learning about data collection and functional assessment in behavior modification.


STOP – Complete and submit Planning Sheet 4 –

See Appendix 1 to obtain it.



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Module 5: Determining the ABCs of Behavior via a Functional Assessment by Lee W. Daffin Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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