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:

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.

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:

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

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:

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.

References

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