Strategy: Culturally Responsive Function-Based Thinking

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Most, if not all teachers have heard the term functional behavior assessment or FBA. A functional behavior assessment is defined as “a process of understanding behavior in the context in which it is observed and guiding the development of positive behavioral interventions that are relevant, effective, and efficient” (Sugai et al., 2000, p. 137). State departments of education across the country have similar definitions. Most schools either have in-house or district/regional supports in place to guide the process of developing a formal functional behavior assessment. This is a process that is usually lead by the Special Education team and includes mental health experts such as guidance counselors and school psychologists. To address gaps in the implementation of FBA in school settings, “function-based thinking” (or FBT) has been identified as a means for general educators to consider the function of behaviors without engaging in the formal FBA process (Hershfeldt, Rosenberg, & Bradshaw, 2010). Part of the FBT process would include a culturally responsive (CR) approach in that a teacher’s awareness of their own behaviors and how they respond to students can help to identify culturally responsive ways in which they might be able to support the student in their classroom.

Sometimes, the disruptive behaviors students demonstrate deem it necessary to formally assess a student to determine if they are receiving the supports that they need in order to be successful. Oftentimes, disruptive behaviors are easier to address and can be managed in the classroom without a formal process. This is not to say that if a student demonstrates the need to receive formal services, that the process of engaging in function-based thinking on the part of the classroom teacher would be a sufficient replacement of that process.

Oftentimes, when a student presents behaviors that are undesirable by the teacher, the learning process is negatively affected, either for that individual student, multiple students, or for the entire class. Too many disruptions can cause the teacher to spend more time than they should trying to “fix” those behaviors they deem to be disruptive. Relationships with and between students can be negatively affected, along with the overall climate of the classroom. Taking time to really examine what a student might be trying to convey when they are engaging in unproductive behaviors can help you as the teacher to consider what you can actively do to help your students be successful. You may not always get it right the first time and there might be some trial and error to the process, but being willing to examine not only the student’s behavior, but yours as well, will provide the best results.
How Function-Based Thinking Connects to CARES

When reflecting on classroom and instructional practices, it is important to remember that thoughts, feelings, and actions are influenced by the environment and people around us. Correspondingly, changes to the environment can result in shifts in behavior, creating improvements or greater difficulties. With this in mind, it is essential to focus on the culturally responsive (CR) component of the FBT process. Student and teacher values, expectations, and assumptions are informed by one’s culture. When there is a mismatch in student and teacher cultures, this can contribute to the problem as an antecedent of the behavior problem. Furthermore, some behaviors that a student exhibits might be culturally accepted within their personal circles outside of the classroom but be in stark contrast to what a teacher considers to be acceptable. This difference in belief of what types of behavior may or may not be acceptable should be discussed between the student and teacher so that common ground can be found. Lastly, teachers should consider the consequences of the undesirable behavior, both from the student and the teacher perspective in order to consider whether those consequences are culturally appropriate.

A necessary part of the culturally responsive function-based thinking or CR-FBT process is that you, as the teacher, engage in critical self-reflection. Critical self-reflection is the awareness of:

  • How and why you choose to utilize certain practices, procedures, and materials in the classroom
  • How these choices impact student learning
  • How different teaching methods promote equitable outcomes, reducing barriers to student learning
Engaging in this part of the CR-FBT process can have several positive effects on the overall outcome. Critical self-reflection encourages and values student feedback. It incorporates student strengths and lived experiences that are brought to the learning environment (Moore et al., 2016).
Some key elements for engaging in function-based thinking:
As mentioned above, examining and identifying the ABCs: antecedents, behavior, and consequences are an essential first part of the FBT process. Within the FBT process, determining the motivation behind the student behavior is also an essential piece. Sometimes it can be difficult to correctly identify why a student might be behaving in a certain way, but if you examine what the student may be gaining from exhibiting the behavior, you may get closer to the correct hypothesis. Most often, teachers cite power/control, attention, and avoidance as the three main motivations for behavior. As you can see below, through decades of research, there are other possible motivations that could be causing a student to behave in a particular way (Jones & Jones, 2013).
Coopersmith (1967) Maslow (1968) Dreikurs (1972)
  • Significance
  • Competence
  • Power
  • Understanding
  • Self-actualization
  • Self-respect
  • Affection
  • Safety and security
  • Attention
  • Avoidance
  • Control
  • Coping
  • Play
Brendtro (1990) Glasser (1990) Kohn (1993)
  • Belonging
  • Mastery
  • Independence
  • Generosity
  • Love
  • Fun
  • Power/freedom
  • Survival
  • Collaboration
  • Content
  • Choice
  • Virtue

How To

How to Engage in the Process of Function-Based Thinking
There are three steps to the CR-FBT approach:
  • Step 1 – Cultural Reflection: Observe the behavior and consider points of cultural incongruity for the student which may contribute to the problem behavior.
  • Step 2 – Assessment: Assess the ABCs (Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequences), incorporating possible motivations related to culture and cultural difference.
  • Step 3 – Plan: Develop and implement a plan that will support behavior change by altering the As and/or altering the Cs and teaching a replacement behavior.
After completing the three-step CR-FBT process, you will need to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention(s) put into place.
Strategy Tool
CR-FBT - Strategy Tool
Use the CR-FBT strategy tool to help guide the process of examining the function of student behavior.


CR-FBT - Reflection
Take a moment to make sure your plan is going to work.

Goal Setting

CR-FBT - Goal Setting
Use the following form to set your function-based thinking goals.

References to Other Relevant Resources:

Hershfeldt, P. A., Rosenberg, M. S., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2010). Function-based thinking: A systematic way of thinking about function and its role in changing student behavior problems. Beyond Behavior,19, 12-21.

Jones, V., & Jones, J. (2013). Comprehensive classroom management: Creating communities of support and solving problems (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Moore, T., Jackson, R. G., Kyser. T. S., Skelton, S. M., & Thorius. K. A. K. (2016). Considerations for

professional development in equity-oriented instructional practices. Equity by Design. The Great Lakes Equity Center (GLEC). Retrieved from:

Sugai, G., Horner, R. H., Dunlap, G., Hieneman, M., Lewis, T. J., Nelson, C. M., Scott, T., Liaupsin, C.,

Sailor, W., Turnbull, A. P., Wickham, D., Wilcox, B., & Ruef, M. (2000). Applying positive behavior support and functional behavioral assessment in schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(3), 131-143.


Concentration Areas: Connection to the Curriculum; Authentic Relationships; Reflective Thinking About Cultural, Racial/Ethnic, and Class Differences; Effective Communication; Sensitivity to Students’ Culture

What is CARES?

CARES is an acronym for the five domains that research has found to be successful in engaging students of culturally diverse backgrounds at school. Each letter refers to a significant element of interaction within the classroom. Applying all five domains of CARES works because it promotes a better understanding of students and ourselves by using strategies that deepen those relationships every day.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All five CARES domains, together with the Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, support one another and need to be applied in the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

Research has shown that each of the five CARES domains has a significant impact on students and their behavior when used regularly and over time. Students who are known and understood by their teachers as individuals in the classroom report deeper connections academically and to their school. When teachers understand their own cultural heritage, they better understand the differences between themselves and their students and report higher levels of mutual respect with students. This also helps teachers to recognize the similarities they share with their students as well as recognize ways in which they are different. Students are more connected and engaged in classrooms where teachers welcome exploration; invite, acknowledge, and celebrate cultural differences; make relevant connections to the curriculum; listen attentively to understand how each student is approaching the concepts; and use humor and other effective communication tools.

CARES Overview

Greeting Students at the Door

Using Journals to Build Relationships

Identifying Reinforcers for the Classroom

Using Social and Emotional Coaching

Using Behavior-specific Praise

Using Active Supervision

Using Group Contingencies

Using Precorrection

Teaching Behavior Expectations

Providing Academic Feedback

Increasing Opportunities to Respond

Developing and Using Clear Academic Objectives

Posting and Using a Schedule

Coaching Process – Menu of Options

Coaching Process – Providing Feedback

Coaching Process – Introduction and Overview

Observation Practice 4

Observation Practice 3

Observation Practice 2

Observation Practice 1

Using an Attention Signal

Teaching Classroom Routines

Physical Classroom Structure

Values Card Sort – Example

Card Sort Introduction

Coaching – Interview Guide

Opening the Meeting

Defining and Teaching Classroom Rules

Mrs. James

Miss Faber

Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate

Concentration Areas: Smooth Transitions, Pacing of Instruction, Student Engagement, Clear Expectations, Use of Praise, Use of Reprimands, Level of Disruptive Behavior

What is Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate?

Positive Behavior Supports refers to the proactive ways that teachers work with their students, as well as the ways that teachers respond to challenging situations with students. The focus is on recognizing and affirming student strengths rather than punishing them or taking something away from them. A positive approach to the classroom will promote a classroom climate that is welcoming to all students and is a place where students want to engage with the teacher, each other, and the curriculum. All individuals, students and teachers, and the interactions between and amongst all classroom members play a role in the climate.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, together with the CARES domains, support one another and need to be applied to the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

In a classroom climate that is positive and welcoming to all members, the classroom becomes a safe place where culture and diversity can be openly discussed. A supportive climate is one that promotes student engagement and success. Students feel supported and motivated to be an active member of the classroom community. The teacher taking a positive and proactive approach creates a climate of care and respect and promotes desired student behaviors. This classroom is also a place that provides consistency to students, which is especially important for students who may experience stress and uncertainty outside of the school building. Teachers who have positive and proactive classrooms report fewer disruptive behaviors from their students, an increase in student achievement, and better overall perceptions of school climate.

Double Check Classroom Check-Up Overview