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Topic of the Day

"What is a Functional Assessment?"

Recently on the Psych-dd listserv (run though the good offices of the nice people at the University of North Dakota) there has been a protracted discussion of what exactly a Functional Assessment is and is not under the intent of IDEA.  While the term has been used to mean various things across a variety of professions and disciplines it is clear that under IDEA Congress was attempting to address assessment focused on producing measurable and positive behavior change in students with all manner of disabilities not merely those most seriously disabled.  The context provided, the new allowances within IDEA that standard psychometrics no longer have to be done tri-annually if all parties agree, clearly indicates that the term 'functional assessment' does not mean business as usual.  However, a Functional Assessment is required when interventions have failed to work and more individually-tailored interventions are needed under the circumstances.

A Functional Assessment, or Functional Behavioral Assessment, is a process which seeks to identify the problem behavior a student may exhibit (particularly in school), to determine the function or purpose of the behavior, and to develop interventions to teach acceptable alternatives to that behavior.

Direct observation of the actual behavior (or behaviors) in question, within the natural context under which it regularly occurs, is at the heart of the functional assessment process.   That process generally includes:

  • Identifying the behavior that needs to change;

  • Collecting direct observation data on the behavior;

  • Developing a "hypothesis" (best guess) about the reason for the behavior;

  • Developing an intervention to change the behavior;

  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the intervention;

  • Having patience to see how the behavior changes:

  • and, Being open to what the data indicate about this or new behaviors.

The first step in conducting a functional assessment is for the school team to identify and agree upon the behavior that most needs to be changed. Students can exhibit a spectrum of difficult behaviors; it will be important to develop a prioritized list, so that the most severe behaviors can be addressed first. There will be times when the most appropriate response to irritating but non-dangerous behaviors is planned ignoring, particularly when the student is working on correcting more severe behaviors.

The second step is to collect data on the occurrence of the targeted behavior, identifying not only its frequency and intensity, but examining the context (the when, the where, and the how) of the behavior.

The third step is to develop, from the data collected, an hypothesis about the function or purpose of the student's behavior and to develop an intervention based on the understanding developed about the triggers and supports for the behavior's occurrence.

After the intervention has been tried over a period of time, it will be important to test the hypothesis. Does the intervention need to be paired with other modifications or rewards to increase its effectiveness? Did the intervention reduce the problem behavior? If not, what other strategies can be considered? Is it necessary to reevaluate the hypothesis, or to develop another best guess about the reason for the behavior, or to collect more information? While conducting a functional assessment of a child's behavior may take a bit more time initially to complete, for those students for whom typical interventions have not been successful, developing an understanding of the cause of behavior may be key to helping them learn new behavioral skills.

Functional assessments have been used for many years with students who have severe disabilities, to help parents and teachers understand the function of inappropriate behavior and to plan effective interventions. Functional assessments are also a useful approach to evaluating the reason for inappropriate behaviors for students who have milder disabilities, when their behaviors do not improve with the use of typical school interventions. If you and the school staff are frustrated by a student's lack of behavioral improvement, a functional behavioral assessment may be a very good idea.

tips.gif (506 bytes)  Today's Resource Tip:

The Listserv, or forum, mentioned above is the Psychology-DD listserv run through the University of North Dakota.  It is devoted to the discussion of issues related to developmental disabilities and severe behavior problems.  To join the listserv you send the command SUBSCRIBE PSYCH-DD your first name your last name.  Instructions on leaving the forum, if you decide it is not for you, are included in your first message and all subsequent messages.  Listservs can be a very useful way of learning about a range of topics.  Good Luck!  envelope-tiny.gif (1664 bytes)


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