What is a Functional Analysis of Behavior in CBT?

functional analysis of behaviorBehaviors do not occur in isolation.

In order to change a behavior, we need to understand why we act that way in the first place.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a therapeutic modality that considers the triggers (antecedents), thoughts, actions, and consequences that make up a behavior (Bakker, 2008).

It is a complex chain, and there is not one single reason that a behavior occurs. Functional analysis helps us understand why a behavior occurs.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with detailed insight into Positive CBT and will give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.

What is a Functional Analysis of Behavior?

A functional analysis of behavior is an essential step in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when the therapist and client break down the behavior chain into its respective parts (Bakker, 2008).

They perform this analysis so that they may better understand why a desirable behavior works and why undesirable behavior happens. Once it is determined why and how a behavior is created, the therapist and client can then change the parts of the behavior chain to achieve a different outcome (O’Donohue & Fisher, 2009).

When a client has a maladaptive behavior, it may be difficult for the clinician to know where to begin. There are many factors at play in behavior, such as developmental level, past learning (experiences), social influences, and environmental influences.

A functional analysis allows a client and clinician to target which outcomes (consequences) they want to change and then work backward to identify the rest of the behavioral chain to determine the causes of the behavior. A functional analysis is, essentially, breaking down a whole into parts and targeting the part that needs to change in order to end a maladaptive behavior (Ferster, n.d.).

A functional analysis of behavior is the experimental way to assess the function (cause) of a particular behavior (Yoman, 2008). Three types of assessments can be done in a functional assessment of behavior:

  • Indirect (i.e., self-reporting),
  • observational, and
  • experimental (analysis) (Yoman, 2008).


The Theory Behind The FA

theory behind functional analysisIn CBT, the reasons behind the behaviors are called “functions” (O’Donohue & Fisher, 2009).

Functions explain to us how any given behavior works in its environment.

A functional analysis is a step in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that is used to identify problematic thinking and where change can best begin.

At its core, it is a breakdown of the operant and respondent conditioning to determine the relationship between the stimuli and responses (Yoman, 2008). It determines the reason and purpose for a behavior and often involves the direct manipulation of one of the variables to change the target behavior.

A functional analysis of behavior is particularly useful with young children who are non-verbal or unable to self-report on their behaviors. It is also useful when used with adults who are unable to find insight into the cause of their behaviors.

Since it does not rely on self-reports, but on direct observation, the client and clinician can objectively analyze the behavior and develop a quick intervention plan.

Generally, the most common functions (causes) of problem behaviors are:

  1. Access to social attention
  2. Access to items or activities
  3. Escape/Avoidance of unpleasant stimuli or task
  4. Sensory Stimulation


Applications of The FA

A functional analysis of behavior is most often used as a part of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

CBT and DBT are skill-based modalities and may provide a client with fast relief from maladaptive behaviors without extensive psychoanalysis, which is why a functional analysis of behavior is often used when working with non-verbal or autistic children, since the primary method of analysis is observation, instead of subjective self-reporting (Kohlenberg, Kanter, Bolling, Parker & Tsai, 2002).

When a client notices that they have “got into a rut” or developed a bad habit or a maladaptive way of coping with certain situations, functional analysis can determine the reasons why that behavior exists and to quickly create a plan to alter the behavior into something more desirable.

Clients that come into your office complaining about the same bad habits they have every week, but feel powerless to stop repeating the same mistakes, would benefit from a functional analysis of behavior.

When it is partialized (broken down into pieces), then the client gains a more in-depth understanding, not only of why the behavior is occurring but what factors maintain the behavior (Kohlenberg, Kanter, Bolling, Parker & Tsai, 2002). When the root cause of the behavior is changed, then the outcome (consequence) usually changes.

This is an excellent tool for clients that are looking for quick changes that can have lasting effects.


How To Perform a Functional Analysis

observation as part of functional analysisTo perform a functional analysis, the clinician should first start with an assessment to determine what habits and behaviors are causing feelings of distress in the client (Yoman, 2008).

Often a functional analysis determines the ABCs of an event since they identify the series of events called the antecedent, the behavior (action), and the consequence (outcome) (Bakker, 2008). The functional analysis is conducted when behaviors are manipulated (altered) to determine their strength in the behavioral chain.

The steps are:

  • The Antecedent: The clinician will examine the client’s behaviors – how frequently a behavior is displayed, under what environmental contexts the behavior occurs, and other people that may be involved. The clinician is trying to determine the antecedent, the triggers, that cause that particular behavior chain. These are the events that occur directly before the thought, behavior, and consequence.

    • The Thought: Next, the clinician may ask the client to identify a corresponding thought that happens whenever that trigger occurs. If the client is non-verbal or unable to identify a thought, this step may be skipped. Often (but not always), these thoughts will be negative or self-deprecating.

  • The Behavior: Then, the clinician and client will identify the behavior that comes directly as a result of that trigger and thought. This is the action that happens as a result of the trigger and corresponding thought (belief).

  • The Consequence: Finally, the clinician and client will determine the consequence of the behavior. What happens as a result of this behavior chain? When the consequence is determined, and the analysis is looked at as a whole, it is easier to decide which parts of the chain are perpetuating the maladaptive behavior. When that part of the chain is changed, the rest of the behavioral chain should change in response.

Finally, the clinician and client determine which part of the behavior chain must be targeted to make a lasting change. An intervention is decided upon to alter the behavior and, thus, the outcome. The new behavior chain is tested and changed if needed, until the desired consequence is achieved.

The basis of a functional analysis is experimenting with the behavior chain, making alterations, until the results are improved.


2 Real-Life Examples

Breaking your Fast

You skipped breakfast, and now you are hungry (antecedent). You go to the staff room where there are free donuts. You are so hungry that you eat three donuts (behavior). As a result, you get a stomach ache from the donuts (consequence).

Since you hate feeling sick, you talk with your therapist and decide to change the behavior chain. Your therapist suggests that you eat breakfast every day. Now, you eat oatmeal before work (antecedent). When you see the donuts in the room, you are no longer hungry. You ignore the donuts (behavior), and you feel great the rest of the day (consequence).


Acting Out

A student continually misbehaves in class and gets sent to the principal’s office. You decide to analyze the student’s behavior. You observe that the student’s “bad” behavior occurs every day at school.

Besides, you observe the student acts out as soon as the teacher announces that it is reading time. The student then throws a tantrum and throws books across the room. The teacher sends the student to the principal’s office for acting out.

In this case, the antecedent is when the teacher announces that it is reading time — this is the trigger for the student. The student may not identify the corresponding thought, but if they can verbalize it, they may think something like, “I’m embarrassed because I can’t read well. I don’t want the others to think that I am stupid”.

The behavior occurs as a result of the antecedent and corresponding thought. The tantrum allows the child to escape the difficult situation (reading time). Escaping from the room reinforces the child’s behavior because they are able to avoid a negative situation.

Therefore, the child may begin to act out during other times as well when embarrassed or frustrated. When the behavior chain is altered, and no escape is allowed, the child will no longer feel the need to act out during the reading time.


4 Worksheets for Your CBT Sessions

The ABC Functional Analysis Worksheet will help you identify the triggers (antecedents), behaviors (actions), and outcomes (consequences). This worksheet will help you break down the behavior chain into parts so that you can identify where you need to amend the behavior chain.

The Coping Styles Formulation will help you identify those thoughts and feelings that may be reinforcing maladaptive coping strategies or that may be preventing you from using more adaptive CBT techniques.

This Case Formulation Worksheet will help you determine how the problem developed in the first place. This worksheet focuses more on internal systems (thoughts, feelings) that perpetuate and can help alleviate a problem behavior.

The Daily Exceptions Journal combines traditional CBT with positive psychology to shift the focus of therapy to what is right instead of what is wrong. It helps you keep daily track of changes and improvements.


4 Books On The Topic

A review of the functional analysis of behavior is included in many books on cognitive behavioral therapy, educational psychology, dialectical behavior therapy, and applied behavior analysis.

These are some books that you may find useful when conducting a functional analysis of a client’s behavior.


Functional Analysis in Clinical TreatmentFunctional Analysis in Clinical Treatment

By Peter Sturmey

Although functional analysis was initially designed for an educational setting, this book describes the use of FA for a variety of psychological issues.

The book explains in detail the framework of FA, how to use FA in treatment planning, and how to implement FA to work in conjunction with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

This book explains the various cases in which FA can be used, including with ADHD, Autism, and even in occupational training.

Available on Amazon.


Functional AnalysisFunctional Analysis: A Practitioner’s Guide to Implementation and Training (Critical Specialties in Treating Autism and other Behavioral Challenges)

By James T. Chok, Jill M. Harper, Mary Jane Weiss, Frank L. Bird & James K. Luiselli

This book explains several of the most commonly used methodologies in functional analysis.

It is mostly geared towards the occupational training of staff in schools where the student population has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, the training can help any clinician learn the basics of FA, and worksheets can be used in direct application with clients.

Available on Amazon.


How to Think Like a Behavior AnalystHow to Think Like a Behavior Analyst: Understanding the Science That Can Change Your Life

By Jon Bailey and Mary Burch

A beginner’s guide to behavior analysis, this book presents the science of functional analysis in a fun and entertaining way.

It includes practical information on the direct application of functional behavior analysis in a therapeutic, educational, or community setting.

Available on Amazon.


Handbook of Applied Behavior AnalysisHandbook of Applied Behavior Analysis, Second Edition

By Wayne W. Fisher, Cathleen C. Piazza & Henry S. Roane

This book provides clear information on the theory, research, and science of behavioral analysis, including functional analysis.

It also addresses professional and ethical issues in behavior analysis. This book is geared more towards seasoned professionals who want to expand into the field of behavior analysis.

Available on Amazon.


A Take-Home Message

It is never easy to change a behavior. But when the cause of a behavior is understood and the parts that maintain that behavior are identified, it becomes easier to change the outcome. One change in the behavior chain should cause noticeable and lasting changes for a client.

Sometimes we miss the trees when looking at the forest, and a functional analysis of behavior reminds us that a forest is made up of trees. When we break down the complex into simple parts, we can implement changes more efficiently and with less stress.

As a client begins to implement small changes, these develop into bigger habits, and the goal is to help the client build more adaptive coping strategies.

A functional analysis of behavior is not a way to identify the developmental and psychological causes that a behavior started in the first place. Still, it is a way to quickly identify problem behavior and provide fast relief for your client.

The hope is that with many small changes of behavior, your client will develop more adaptive coping strategies that last a lifetime.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our 3 Positive CBT Exercises for free.


  • Bakker, G. (2008). Practical CBT: Using Functional Analysis, Problem-Maintaining-Circles, and Standardised Homework. Australian Academic Press.
  • Ferster, C. (n.d.). A functional analysis of depression. Retrieved from http://www.personal.kent.edu/~dfresco/CBT_Readings/Ferster_1973.pdf
  • Kohlenberg, R. J., Kanter, J. W., Bolling, M. Y., Parker, C. R., & Tsai, M. (2002). Enhancing cognitive therapy for depression with functional analytic psychotherapy: Treatment guidelines and empirical findings. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 9(3), 213-229.
  • O’Donohue, W. T., & Fisher, J. E. (Eds.). (2009). General principles and empirically supported techniques of cognitive behavior therapy. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Yoman, J. (2008). A primer on functional analysis. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice.

About the Author

Dr. Katherine Compitus is a licensed clinical social worker, doctor of social welfare, and animal behavior scientist. She is trained in multiple modalities including CBT and DBT and is a Certified Hypnotherapist and Certified Family Trauma Therapist. Katherine is the founder and chairman of Surrey Hills Sanctuary, a non-profit organization providing veterinary social work services in New York State.

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