Teach By Design
Data-based decision making
Apr 10, 2018

Motive, Motivate, Motivation: Why Are My Students Doing That?!

Knowing the function of a student's behavior is the difference between creating a support plan that works versus creating one that makes things worse.

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When you fill out an office discipline referral (ODR) you fill in some standard information to document the incident:

  • Student name
  • Time it happened
  • Where it happened
  • Action taken

Do you ever include your best guess for why a student did what they did? Perceived motivation (or the function of a behavior) may not be something you consider when you’re filling out an ODR, but it’s critical when deciding how to improve a student’s social and academic outcomes. How do you know how to stop a problem behavior if you don’t know what’s maintaining it in the first place?

A student’s reasons for acting out are rooted in one of two motivations: getting something or avoiding something, specifically activities, attention, or stimulus.

Either a student wants to get something or they want to avoid it. She either wants first dibs on the basketball court or she wants to get out of basketball drills altogether. On paper, naming the function of a student’s behavior seems easy enough.

And yet…

In the 2016-17 school year, there were 5,290,881 office discipline referrals (ODRs) written in the School-Wide Information System (SWIS). SWIS is an online application schools use to enter office discipline referrals (ODRs) and generate reports based on those data to drive decision making. Of these referrals, almost 33% listed Unknown as the perceived motivation of the student’s behavior. Maybe naming a behavior’s function isn’t as clear as it seems. What’s going on?

Let’s start by looking at why knowing the function of a behavior so important.

The Research

Two separate studies identified students whose behavior limited their progress in school.[1],[2] Each study started by identifying the problem behaviors most affecting each student during the day. After determining when they were most likely to see those behaviors happen, researchers came up with their best guess at why these students did what they did. Working with their hypothesis, they asked teachers to implement two types of interventions: one aimed at the function of the behavior, and the other not. Can you guess what happened?

Here is what happened for one student (Ingram, Lewis-Palmer and Sugai, 2005):

The figure above is from a student named Carter. Carter’s problem behaviors meant he was disengaged from class about 50% of the time. The hypothesis was Carter wanted to avoid difficult tasks. The functional solution they implemented let him take a break sometimes. The non-functional solution relied on the school-wide approaches for problem behaviors: teachers reminded Carter of the classroom expectations and gave him a reward ticket when he behaved appropriately. The function-based intervention not only decreased his problem behavior, but also created consistency in his behavior.

Both studies found similar results across each student they observed. Problem behaviors occurred more frequently when teachers offered non-function-based interventions than when the interventions were rooted in what motivates the student.

To hone in on the function of a student’s behavior, specialists use a process called functional behavioral assessment (FBA). FBA is a set of procedures used to identify the things in a student’s environment that motivate and reinforce their problem behavior. The process relies on interviews with teachers and students as well as a series of observations leading the person conducting the FBA to a final result. The detail you get from a formal FBA is incredibly useful. However, its formality also makes determining function seem like something complicated and better left to specialists to figure out. It doesn’t have to be.

Drs. Sheldon Loman and Chris Borgmeier knew how important motivation was to creating behavior support plans that actually work. They also knew depending on specialists to conduct formal FBAs is an expensive resource to use for more minor problem behaviors. They came up with a strategy called the Practical FBA – a way to take the concepts of a formal FBA and simplify them so that anyone in the building could use them proactively. Once they created the tools, teachers needed training.

The Training

Drs Chris Borgmeier, Sheldon Loman, and Kathleen Strickland-Cohen created a training focused on bringing school teams up to speed on FBA concepts and implementing behavior support plans (BSP). In addition to being useful for teams to complete, they wanted to create something that could be shared school-wide with every staff member in the building. Training all teachers and staff members in function-based thinking can provide them with the skills they need to better understand and address problem behavior in their classrooms[3].  After testing it out in person, it was time to share the training with a broader audience…

The Basic FBA training is available online, right now, for free!

Whether you decide to take the full 7-module course or the abridged 2-module, school-wide training, there are similar components throughout. Each module includes an introduction to the content and interactive activities letting you practice with the material. You get feedback along the way if you answer a question correctly or not, as well as opportunities to go back and hear the lesson again if you missed it the first time. There is even a homework assignment provided – a way to take what you just learned and apply it in your own classroom. A certificate of completion marks the end of the training. Each module takes about an hour to complete.

I checked out the school-wide training – the two modules intended to teach everyone in the building about function of behavior. Here are some of the highlights.

Know Your ABCs…

…Or in this case, Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. There are specific terms used to talk about function. Before you can expect everyone to participate in collecting motivation data, you need to get everyone using a common language. The ABCs are fundamental.

Antecedent: the context where the behavior is most likely to happen. It’s the combination of a place (routine) and an event (trigger) creating the perfect scenario for a certain behavior. Meet me in a conference room at work after I just edited a technical document and you’ll get a different set of behaviors out of me than if we’re at a happy hour enjoying the patio on a sunny Friday afternoon. The same is true for student problem behaviors; they’re more likely to happen in specific contexts described as the Antecedent.

Behavior: something you can observe and describe to someone else so they would recognize it when they see it. It’s the difference between saying a student was disruptive, which could be any number of behaviors, and saying the student yelled across the room.

Consequence: what happens directly after the behavior. It could be the student goes to the office, it could also be other students laughing at the joke someone just told. The consequence to notice is the one most meaningful to the student.

Identifying these three components – the ABCs – give anyone observing problem behaviors the full picture of how an incident unfolded.

One referral does not create an entire intervention or plan…but each referral adds a piece of information necessary for understanding the function of a student’s behavior. It’s better to take your best guess than it is to leave that information out.

Use It In a Sentence

This is my favorite strategy from the modules: Insert the ABCs in a sentence, mad-lib style, and you get the context. (Note: The routine plus the trigger create the antecedent.)

During [insert routine], when [insert trigger], the student [insert observable behavior] and as a result [insert consequence].

Completed, the sentence might look something like this:

  • During math, when I assigned a multi-digit multiplication worksheet, Martin broke his pencil and put his head on his desk, and as a result, I walked over to his desk and helped him get started.
  • During reading, when students are doing independent work, Ella whispered something to two other students, and as a result, her friends laughed and kept talking to her.

The sentence organizes the antecedent, behavior, and consequence to create meaning and maybe even elicit a connection you didn’t notice as everything happened in the moment. The context where the behavior occurs leads us straight to function. As Dr. Borgmeier explains, “When people think about behavior in isolation – without considering triggers and responses – they are more likely to place responsibility for the behavior within the student and admire the problem. When we frame the behavior within the context, it can lead us to begin thinking about things we can change in the environment to support the student.

Look for Patterns

Asking teachers to take a best guess at a student’s perceived motivation when they’ve never thought about it before might be a big ask.

“What if I guess and I’m wrong?”

“What if my student is doing this for a totally different reason?”

Walking through the modules, I felt this feeling distinctly in section six of the first module. I wrote an office discipline referral (ODR), including my best guess at the student’s perceived motivation, based on a video example. I second-guessed myself a few times before deciding on Avoid Task. In the very next slide, the referral I wrote appeared next to several other referrals the student received for similar behaviors. Even though my referral didn’t identify the same motivation as the others, there was an observable pattern.

The lesson here is this: One referral does not create an entire intervention or plan…but each referral adds a piece of information necessary for understanding the function of a student’s behavior. It’s better to take your best guess than it is to leave that information out.

Teach a Replacement

When a student’s behavior is disruptive and becoming chronic, sometimes they just need to know there is an alternative. It’s tempting to expect students to just do the right thing when you ask. It’s also not likely students will jump from problem behavior to appropriate behavior immediately; those problem behaviors serve a purpose.

A replacement behavior is a more appropriate behavior that serves the same function as the problem behavior. For example, let’s say you ask the class to get started on a math worksheet and one student does everything he can do avoid that task. It’s not reasonable to expect that asking him to stop breaking his pencils and just start doing the worksheet will get him to change his behavior. The motivation for his behavior is to avoid the task altogether. The replacement behavior should serve that same function. Teaching him to ask for a short break during the work time gets him what he’s looking for while also pushing him to get started on that worksheet. Behavior change is a process and replacement behaviors are a good first step.

Know When to Ask for Help

All of these strategies are good for those disruptive behaviors that are more frustrating than they are dangerous. Any time students start doing anything that’s a danger to themselves or to others in the room, or they just keep up with whatever they were doing in spite of your best efforts, it’s time to ask for another pair of eyes. Specialists have more detailed assessments and expertise they can use to add to the conversation. Use the resources available to you to get the help you need.

Plans supporting students can do one of three things: Make things worse, do nothing at all, or make things better. Identifying what sustains a student’s problem behavior – avoiding or getting something – is critical. Teams rely on a student’s patterns to develop plans that match the function and make things better in your classrooms. When you document problem behavior, your best guess at a student’s motivation is better than no guess at all. Remember, no one will create an entire behavior support plan based on one referral, but one referral lets the team know what the behavior looks like in your context and adds to the pattern.

If you think you, your school’s behavior teams, or even your whole school could benefit from an overview, the Basic FBA training is an excellent place to start.

The Basic FBA online training is full of practical strategies and nuanced ways to think about motivation of problem behavior. It’s also an efficient way to provide an introductory training to a large number of people at no cost. If you struggle to get everyone in your building informed about motivation, share these modules with your school. Use them as a way to introduce the concepts and follow up in a staff meeting to answer their questions. When everyone not only knows how to identify what motivates problem behaviors, but also why certain students have specific behavior support plans in place, the whole system runs more effectively.

1. Newcomer, L. and Lewis, T. (2004). Functional Behavioral Assessment. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 12(3), pp.168-181.
2. Ingram, K., Lewis-Palmer, T. and Sugai, G. (2005). Function-Based Intervention Planning. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 7(4), pp.224-236.
3. Borgmeier, C., Loman, S. and Strickland-Cohen, M. (2017). ABC Tracker: Increasing Teacher Capacity for Assessing Student Behavior. Beyond Behavior, 26(3), pp.113-123.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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