HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Functional assessment: A positive approach to misbehavior at school

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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

Functional assessment and children with learning disabilities

The greatest good functional assessment can serve for a child with LD is to teach the child appropriate ways to get what he wants. Functional assessment should be conducted with any child with a disability who receives special education services and whose behavior impedes his or her own learning, impedes the learning of others, or may lead to disciplinary action. Only in this way can school staff generate a meaningful behavior intervention plan to help a child who is struggling with inappropriate behavior. A behavior intervention plan lays out the specific activities adults will undertake to:

  • Prevent the problem behavior from occurring.
  • Use positive approaches when a child does misbehave.

The goal of functional assessment in dealing with inappropriate behavior is threefold. We want to:

  • Rearrange the events that occurbefore a child misbehaves (antecedents) so that they now prompt the occurrence of appropriate behavior.
  • Change the consequences that come after a behavior occurs so that the consequences are more likely to reinforce a child for performing appropriate behavior.
  • Most importantly, teach the child a replacement behavior. A replacement behavior is an appropriate behavior that the child can perform that accomplishes the same goal as the inappropriate behavior. Without teaching a child a replacement behavior, meaningful, positive changes in behavior will be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.

Here is an example: Andrew is making animal noises in class. Some of the kids are laughing at him. Others are telling him to "shut up" and "act more mature." Both of these reactions (consequences) result in him getting attention from peers. His teacher can punish him for the rest of the school year, and it will have little or no effect on Andrew's behavior, other than perhaps inspiring Andrew to switch to other types of noises. This is because attention is a powerful reinforcer that all humans strive to obtain. So, when Andrew weighs staying after school (punishment) against making animal noises (to get attention from peers), he's likely to choose to make animal noises. Attention from peers feels good more than staying after school feels bad, and Andrew's scenario repeats itself daily in classrooms around the country.

Roles and responsibilities in functional assessment

Functional assessment will not yield relevant information unless there is cooperation among school, parents, and children. All three have important roles and responsibilities.

A variety of information should be collected from several sources during the first phase of functional assessment:

  • Teachers have a responsibility for collecting behavioral observations. The principal or team leader's role is to facilitate the process and stay in communication with parents.
  • Parents play an integral role in providing information to the school on when the behavior of concern occurs and under what circumstances.
  • Peers can be a valuable source of information in several ways. They may be able to tell us when and with whom the behavior occurs. They may provide an indication as to whether the child is rejected or neglected by others. This yields information on the type of ways the child tries to obtain attention. Peers may also serve as change agents by helping the child engage in appropriate behaviors.
  • Finally, the child himself can provide us with valuable information. At the most basic level, we can simply ask the child why he is misbehaving. Although we may get "I don't know" for a response, this strategy is underused and can greatly expedite the functional assessment process.

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."