HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Functional assessment: A positive approach to misbehavior at school

When punishment doesn't work, figuring out the reasons behind a child's unruly behavior is a more constructive approach.

By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

In the current climate of federally mandated accountability in the public schools, there is a predictable, increased emphasis on discipline practices. The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), like the 1997 law, guides public school discipline practices related to three assumptions:

  • All students, with and without disabilities, deserve to be educated in safe, well-disciplined schools, and orderly learning environments.
  • School personnel should have effective techniques to prevent behavior problems and to deal positively with them if they occur.
  • A balanced approach to discipline must exist in which the order and safety of schools is maintained, while also protecting the rights of students with disabilities to receive a free appropriate public education.

Functional assessment is a key aspect of the behavior intervention strategies mandated for IEPs by the 1997 and 2004 reauthorizations of IDEA. Functional assessment has been used extensively with students with developmental disabilities (such as mental retardation and autism) for more than 10 years. However, its use with students with learning disabilities (LD) has a more recent history.

According to IDEA, a student with a disability who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be disciplined in the same manner as any other student for 10 consecutive school days or less if the student violates the school's code of conduct. Parents should be familiar with and review the code of conduct with their child at the beginning of the school year.

If the student is disciplined for more than 10 consecutive school days within the same school year, school or district staff must conduct a functional behavioral assessment and implement a behavior intervention plan before the end of the 10th day, or before moving the student to an interim alternative educational placement. In many cases, a student with an IEP will already have a behavior intervention plan in place as part of his IEP in order to support learning. In fact, a student's IEP must include a behavior intervention plan whenever the student's behavior impedes his own learning or the learning of others.

If there is a behavior intervention plan already in place when the student is disciplined, the IEP team must review the plan to determine whether it is 1) still appropriate, and 2) has been properly implemented.

Functional assessment as an approach to discipline

Functional assessment is sometimes called functional behavioral assessment (FBA), for example, in IDEA. But this term is redundant because functional assessment always focuses on a child's behavior. At its most basic level, functional assessment answers the question of why a child behaves a certain way, so that adults can help the child change his behavior. Functional assessment is very different from the more traditional approach often used in schools of doling out a punishment and assuming that this resolves the problem.

In contrast, the goal of functional assessment is not to simply "punish" misbehavior, but to alter the environment to promote children's appropriate behavior, and to teach them more adaptive and acceptable ways to get what they want. A basic assumption of functional assessment is that all behavior is purposeful: It is performed to obtain a desired outcome or goal. That is not to say that a child is always aware of the reasons why he behaves in certain ways. We all select and perform behaviors unconsciously — out of habit and through repetition. Nevertheless, they serve some purpose. Furthermore, although a behavior may be inappropriate, the functional assessment approach assumes that the function (or purpose) the behavior serves is always appropriate.

We can test this assumption by applying it to a common function that behavior serves: to get attention. Children of all ages misbehave to get attention from teachers, peers, and parents. There is nothing wrong with wanting attention from others. Adults certainly try to obtain attention from others through the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, or the jokes we tell. However, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to get attention. A child who gets attention by asking peers before school to name their favorite basketball team or music group is using an appropriate way to get attention, whereas a child who is making animal noises in the classroom is engaging in inappropriate behavior.

A second basic assumption of functional assessment is that you can identify the purpose of a child's behavior if you observe and write down events that precede the behavior ("antecedents") and the events that follow the behavior ("consequences"). For example, the teacher tells Mary to stop talking to Judy (antecedent), Mary whistles (behavior), and the teacher tells her to stop whistling (consequence). It is reasonable to assume that Mary's whistling serves the function (or purpose) of getting attention. The more Mary misbehaves, the more attention she gets from her teacher. As this example illustrates, a child often prefers negative attention to no attention at all.

Comments from readers

"The article is full of good information. It tells you what functional assessment is and it is not. However it does not tell you how to identify Challenging behaviors from non-challenging ones."