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;
observation data on the behavior;
Developing a "hypothesis" (best guess) about the reason for
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.