HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Functional assessment: A positive approach to misbehavior at school

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By John W. Maag, Ph.D.

Conducting functional assessment

There are two phases of functional assessment:

  1. Generating hypotheses about the purpose of a child's misbehavior
  2. Testing those hypotheses

Generating hypotheses

To generate hypotheses (or "best guesses") about what purpose a child's misbehavior serves, a teacher or consultant collects information using one or more types of techniques. The more information collected, and the more diverse the types of information collected, the more informed the hypothesis will be. The goal is to identify the emergence of any patterns in behavior. Therefore, teachers, parents, peers, and other significant players may be interviewed. A teacher can record behavioral observations in various ways. For example, she can simply tally the total number of times per hour or per day that a misbehavior occurs. Or she can record the number of times the misbehavior occurs during different types of activities, for example, during recess versus during reading instruction. This phase ends when the behavioral observations are completed. Then we need to test our guess to see if it's accurate.

Testing the hypotheses

To test the hypotheses (or confirm our best guesses) about the purpose served by a child's misbehavior, we must make some alteration to the environment or curriculum. This requires four steps:

  1. Define the misbehavior using objective words, for example, "doesn't finish work," rather than, "lazy."
  2. Count the behavior over a period of days.
  3. Alter some aspect of the environment or curriculum.
  4. Continue counting the behavior to see if it decreases during the alteration. If it does, then our hypothesis is confirmed. If there is no change in the behavior, then we develop another hypothesis and test it.

Here is an example of how this second phase might be implemented. Suppose that a child talks to others as a way to escape a school task she perceives to be too difficult or boring. We might count either the number of times she talks to others or how long she talks to others, either during a particular class/activity, or over the whole day. We might then alter the school task so that it is more interesting and/or easier for her. The thinking here is that if the child talks to others to avoid a difficult and/or boring task, then there would be no reason for her to talk to others (i.e., escape) when the task is easier and/or interesting.

However, if the child continues talking to others with the same frequency after we alter the school task, then we formulate a new hypothesis: She is talking to get attention from peers. This hypothesis can also be tested by making a simple environmental alteration: Move her seat away from peers. If she stops talking, then our hypothesis that talking served the function of obtaining attention is confirmed.

In the past, functional assessment has typically been conducted by a consultant or a team of educators. However, there are now techniques available that allow individual teachers to conduct functional assessment with little outside consultation. My colleague, Dr. Pamela Larson, and I came up with a quick, research-tested form that teachers can use to generate testable hypotheses: the Functional Assessment Hypotheses Formulation Protocol (FAHFP). Don't let the long, technical name discourage you from suggesting its use to teachers and other school staff. It is much simpler to use than its name implies.

When a child is disciplined for behavior that is a manifestation of his disability

Any student with a disability and an IEP who engages in behavior requiring disciplinary action of more than 10 consecutive school days within the same school year is entitled by federal law to a "manifestation determination" hearing to determine whether the student's misconduct is directly related to his disability. Several types of evidence are gathered to make this determination: input from the teacher, peer relationships, behavioral ratings, and an assessment of the child's motivation for the behavior.

Note: IDEA 2004 allows schools to remove students regardless of whether the behavior was connected to their disability in cases involving weapons, drugs, or alcohol at school or at a school function, or causing an adult or student at school serious bodily harm.

Knowing your child's rights under the law will help you to work more effectively with school staff to improve your child's behavior.


Larson, P. J., & Maag, J. W. 1998. Applying functional assessment in general education classrooms: Issues and recommendations. Remedial and Special Education 19: 338-349.

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."