A METHOD FOR CONDUCTING A FUNCTIONAL BEHAVIORAL ASSESSMENT
Most teachers recognize that many classroom discipline problems can be resolved by consistently applying standard management strategies. Strategies proven to be effective include: teaching students how to comply with well-defined classroom rules, providing students more structure in lessons, making strategic seating assignments, and posting a class schedule, to mention a few. These proactive procedures can sometimes even alleviate the need for more intensive interventions. Today, many teachers learn about other solutions to the problems they face through teacher assistance or intervention assistance teams. Regardless of the source of this information, school personnel generally should introduce one or more standard strategies before seeking to initiate the more complex, and often time-consuming, process of functional behavioral assessment. A formal assessment usually is reserved for serious, recurring problems that do not readily respond to typical discipline strategies, impede a students learning, or have been ongoing.
In addressing student behavior that impedes learning, IEP teams usually will work with the referring classroom teacher to define, in concrete terms, the exact behavior of concern (e.g., Trish is verbally and physically aggressive toward other students on the playground.). Using this description of the behavior, the IEP team or other school personnel can conduct initial observations of both the student of concern and 1-2 classmates selected at random. By observing other classmates, the team will be able to determine the seriousness of the problem and the discrepancy between present behavior and what is considered to be an acceptable level of behavior. Finally, initial observations may indicate that many students have similar discipline problems and that the solution may actually rest in changes in classroom practices.
In collecting preliminary information about student behavior, the team should also take into consideration teacher expectations for student academic performance as well as classroom conduct. It might be that teacher expectations for the student exceed or fall below the students ability to perform. The resulting behavior problems may stem from a sense of frustration, fear of embarrassment, or boredom.
In assessing a students behavior, it may be important to consider whether a particular response may relate to cultural differences or expectations. For example, in some cultures, making eye contact with adults is considered rude; in others, peer competition is discouraged. Remember that no two students (or their families) are the same, regardless of their gender, cultural or ethnic background. As part of the IEP team, parents can provide valuable information regarding the behaviors their culture values. School personnel should be aware that differences may exist, respect these differences, and work to adopt the familys perspective when considering student behavior. When making judgments about cultural differences or expectations, professionals who are qualified to make such statements may be another resource to the IEP team. Such individuals may be in a good position to assess the impact of cultural differences on learning.
One way for the IEP team to judge the significance of the behavior exhibited by the student of concern is to pose the following questions:
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then the team should proceed with a functional behavioral assessment. The following vignettes illustrate the fact that problem behavior can vary widely and that various factors can influence student behavior. The vignettes also show that not all problems require complex solutions or a functional behavioral assessment.
Mrs. Gambino, the seventh grade social studies teacher at Havelock Middle School, reported that according to her mid-term progress report, Tommy, a student with a learning disability, was in danger of failing. Together with Mrs. Lofties, the special education teacher, they determined that the problem probably stemmed from Tommys not doing his homework every night, rather than from his not having the knowledge or skills to complete it. Mrs. Gambino explained that although she modifies the homework assignment to help Tommy, whose disability makes it difficult for him to write, he still doesnt complete the assignments. She explained that the homework assignments were given so that the students have an opportunity to practice using what they learned during class, and it was important for them to spend time doing them so they could keep up with what was being taught.
Mrs. Lofties asked how many other students in her class came without having their homework. Mrs. Gambino explained that she did not take up the homework or grade it. Mrs. Gambino explained that students kept their homework in their notebooks so they could use it to study. "I dont believe in giving kids grades for homework," she explained. "I dont think you should grade practice work." Mrs. Lofties suggested that for the next five days Mrs. Gambino observe Tommy and the other students in his class to see how many had completed homework assignments. Mrs. Gambino said she would watch the students as they were discussing their homework assignments and record (without the students knowing) who did not have their homework. They agreed to meet again after the five days had passed.
During their next meeting, Mrs. Gambino and Mrs. Lofties looked at the homework data. It seemed that on any given day about 25 percent of the students did not have their homework. They decided that the problem was more widespread than just with Tommy and worked together to develop a plan to increase the class homework production. They developed a system where Mrs. Gambino could check to see if each student had completed his or her homework. If everyone in the class came with his or her homework, then she would give the class one point. When they accumulated 15 points they would be allowed to bring snacks to class the next day and eat while they worked. Mrs. Gambino thought it would be a good idea and decided to try it in all of her classes. Mrs. Lofties and Mrs. Gambino decided to meet again in two weeks to see how things were going.
In two weeks, Mrs. Gambino reported that it took the students a couple of days to get into the swing of the "game," but now most classes were earning points daily. She said that Tommys grades were improving, and at this time a functional behavioral assessment was not deemed necessary.
Vignette II "This is the third time in two weeks Trish has been sent to the office for fighting on the playground! Something has to be done!" Ms. Osunas tone showed her exasperation with her students behavior. Ms. Frey, the principal, agreed with Ms. Osuna but explained that her options were limited. "Weve tried keeping her in during recess, but that does not seem to help. We also tried to reward her for playing nicely on the playground, but that didnt work either. I agree that this is getting out of hand. No other student in this school has had so many office referrals for problems on the playground. I am willing to listen to any suggestions you might have." Ms. Osuna suggested they include Mr. Church, Trishs LD resource room teacher, in their discussion.
After speaking with Ms. Osuna and Ms. Frey, Mr. Church realized that Trishs behavior was significantly different from those of the other third graders on the playground, had been going on for some time, was possibly a danger to other students, and didnt change when the usual interventions were tried. "I suggest we call a meeting of her IEP team and discuss conducting a functional behavioral assessment to try to determine what might be causing Trish to behave this way. Ill ask the secretary to call Trishs parents and set up a meeting time that would be convenient for them."
At the meeting, Trishs mother, Mrs. Waldo, explained that Trish was the same way with her brothers when she was at home. "They hit each other a lot. I yell at them, but they dont listen to me." Mr. Church explained to the IEP team about functional behavioral assessment and suggested they do an assessment to find out more about why Trish was being physically aggressive. Mrs. Waldo was relieved, "I was so afraid you were going to tell me that she was going to be suspended or sent away to a different school." Mr. Church explained that Mrs. Waldo could help with the functional behavioral assessment, too. He explained that he would like to talk to her more about Trishs behavior at home and he could give her some questions that she could ask Trish to help them with the functional behavioral assessment. After deciding what each person could do to contribute to the assessment, everyone agreed to meet again in two weeks to discuss his or her findings. Meanwhile, playground supervision would be increased to make sure that no one got hurt.
The vast majority of classroom challenges can be successfully addressed through the kind of collaborative efforts illustrated in Vignette I. School personnel should try to distinguish between problems that can be eliminated through informal assessment and universal interventions (i.e., interventions designed for use with the entire group) and those that demand functional behavioral assessment and individualized positive behavioral intervention plans and supports.
Before determining the techniques to use to collect information about student behavior, school personnel must identify specific characteristics of the behavior that is interfering with learning. This way, it is possible to narrow the definition to make it easier to observe and record the behavior. If descriptions of behaviors are vague (e.g., poor attitude or aggressiveness), it is difficult to measure these behaviors and determine appropriate interventions. Even behavior as unacceptable as aggression may mean different things to different people. For example, some may feel a threatening gesture represents aggression; others may not. A precise definition, one that includes examples (and nonexamples) of the behavior of concern, should eliminate measurement problems stemming from an ambiguous description of behavior.
In collecting information to refine the definition about behavior, it may be necessary to observe the student in various settings (e.g., classroom, cafeteria, playground, and other social settings), during different types of activities (e.g., individual, large group, or cooperative learning), and to discuss the students behavior with other school personnel or family members. This will help the IEP team to determine the exact nature of the behavior and to narrow its scope of the examination of the problem situation. These multiple observations increase the likelihood that IEP teams will be able to accurately assess relevant dimensions of the behavior, thereby allowing them to write accurate behavior intervention plans. Information should be collected on:
Once the behavior of concern has been identified, it is important to complete the definition of the behavior. For example, initial observations enable the IEP team to more accurately define Trishs aggression as, "Trish hits, kicks, or uses threatening language (e.g., "Im going to kill you!") with other students during recess when she does not get her way." Other examples of well-defined behavior include defining verbal off-task behavior as: "Charles makes irrelevant and inappropriate comments during reading class (e.g., "This is dumb." or "Anyone could do that."); and hyperactivity as: "Jan leaves her assigned area without permission (e.g., walks around class, goes to reward area of class), completes only small portions of her independent work (e.g., 3 of 10 problems), and blurts out answers without raising her hand.
Since students often evidence multiple rather than single behavior problems, when defining problem behavior, IEP teams may group multiple problem behaviors together. For example, Charles "call-outs," "put-downs of classmates," and "vulgar comments made about a lesson" might be defined as disruptive acts. However, if an intervention plan fails to change these behaviors, it may be necessary for the team to separate, individually define, and assess each of these behaviors. Also, it may be necessary to prioritize the behaviors and decide which to address first (e.g., the most disruptive behavior, the easiest behavior to modify).
By collecting and analyzing various kinds of information about behavior that significantly disrupts the teaching and learning process, school personnel are better able to select the most appropriate interventions. Information on the social/environmental context, antecedent and consequent events (i.e., events preceding or following the behavior, respectively), and past events that may influence present behavior, assists teams in predicting when, where, with whom, and under what conditions certain behavior is most/least likely to occur. While the Amendments to the IDEA call for a functional behavioral assessment approach to determine the specific factors that contribute to problem behavior, they do not recommend specific assessment techniques or strategies.
Information from a variety of assessment techniques should lead the IEP team to better understand the problem behavior. Depending on the nature of the behavior of concern, it is crucial that multiple means be used to collect information about the behavior. This might include a review of the students records (educational and medical), along with an evaluation of a sample of the students academic products (e.g., in-class assignments, tests, homework). In addition, the use of various observation procedures; questionnaires; interviews with parents, teachers, and other school personnel (e.g., bus driver, cafeteria workers, playground monitors), as well as interviews with the student; and perhaps medical consultation should allow data collection tailored to produce information that will help the IEP team to better understand the causes of the specific problem behavior.
There are several ways the IEP team can categorize student behavior for purposes of behavioral intervention planning. One way is to characterize student behavior according to its function, separating actions which "get something" that is positively reinforcing for the student (e.g., peer attention or adult approval) from behavior intended to "avoid (or escape) something" that is aversive to the student (e.g., academic assignments that are too demanding, interactions with specific peers). For example, the IEP team may determine that Mandy makes wisecracks during class lectures because she finds the laughter of her peers very rewarding. On the other hand, Bill, who is not prepared to participate in class discussion, may make wisecracks to be sent out of the room and thereby avoid being called upon to answer questions. Many times, the students misbehavior stems from multiple sources rather than a single source. Mandys wisecracks, while resulting in peer attention, may also serve to draw attention away from the fact that she does not know the answer.
In addition to categorizing behavior by function, the team should attempt to distinguish between behaviors that stem from a skill deficit versus those that result from a performance deficit. Skill deficits involve an inability to perform the appropriate behavior. For example, Bill does not have the sight word vocabulary necessary to read his social studies text aloud; Trish does not have the social problem-solving skills to interact appropriately with her peers on the playground.
Behavior that is linked to a performance deficit reflects the fact that the student is able to engage in the desired behavior but fails to do so when specific conditions are present. Performance deficits are manifested in various ways. For example, Jeff generally is able to control his temper when confronted by a peer ("Whats your problem, jerk?"). In some instances, however, outside factors influence his behavior, as when hunger, fatigue, or extreme frustration override self-control. In contrast, Juan may not be able to discriminate exactly what behavior is expected of him within a particular social context; Juan may not see any relationship between what is expected of him and what he wants to get out of the situation (e.g., to be verbally supportive of a classmate he really dislikes). Or, Juan may be unable to deal with competing emotional responses (e.g., anger or frustration). In Figure 1, we have combined several classification options to account for the fact that problem behavior may stem from multiple sources. Figure 2 gives a specific example, of how Trishs behavior might be categorized using this form. While categorizing behavior by function is integral to functional behavioral assessment, recognition that problems can also relate to either skill or performance deficits, or both, can contribute significantly to development of a sound behavioral intervention plan. Finally, it is also important to remember that one behavior may have an impact on other behaviors the student may engage in.