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Behaviors Linked With LD: How a Functional Assessment Can Help

What Is Functional Assessment - Children Behavior Problems If there’s something troubling about your child’s behavior and academic performance, don’t wait. Have a meeting with your child’s teacher to discuss what might be going on. But if puzzling behavior persists, you can request that the school conduct a formal assessment to get to the heart of your child’s behavior and any academic challenges, says Thomas McIntyre, PhD, professor of special education at Hunter College of City University of New York. One part of this might include a functional assessment to better understand what’s driving your child’s behavior. “From this diagnostic testing can come suggestions for intervention, modifications, adaptations and supports,” says McIntyre.

What Is a Functional Assessment?

Has your child been cutting up in class? Thumbing her nose at work? Have timeouts and trips to the principal’s office failed to produce lasting results? If so, you may have already realized that punishment alone is a little like trimming weeds without pulling up their roots. It addresses the symptom without getting to the cause of the behavior.

A functional assessment is a term used to describe an approach to understanding why a child is behaving in a particular way and whether there are specific, often non-academic factors that are contributing to the child’s frustration with learning. This approach relies on a variety of techniques and strategies that help you and your child’s teachers understand what's behind any inappropriate behavior—whether a learning disability (LD), conflict with classmates, emotional problem, or a combination of factors like these.

Steven E. Curtis, PhD, who is a psychologist and former special education director at Seattle University, says the assessment works like a “movie camera.” It allows members of the assessment team to watch what’s happening with your child in different environments. Then it’s possible to analyze the sequence of events to see what’s prompting the behavior. “Although a history can be helpful, the functional assessment focuses on the ‘here and now’ to figure out what’s happening,” says Curtis. It helps create a “big picture” about the behavior.

Similar behaviors in different children can have very different causes. That’s why the individualized, comprehensive nature of a functional assessment can be so helpful in uncovering information that’s unique to your child. If you or your child’s teacher jumps to conclusions, however, your solutions may become square pegs in round holes.

If your child attends a school that uses Response to Intervention (RTI), functional assessment may already be part of the plan, says McIntyre. RTI is a federally recognized multi-tiered approach to helping children achieve success that begins with a careful look at the types of instruction and support that are provided to all students in the general education classroom. This approach, together with information gathered by functional assessment, may provide the essential information needed to support your child. However, parents need to understand that not all schools use RTI, so a formal RTI approach may not be an option for addressing your child’s behavior issues.

How Does a Functional Assessment Differ From a Formal Evaluation for LD?

A functional assessment is much more narrowly focused than a comprehensive evaluation for learning disabilities. And, it is not used to determine if your child has a disability as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and therefore might be eligible for special education and related services. The formal LD evaluation process includes a variety of tests to measure your child’s cognitive ability, academic skills, language skills, and social and emotional status—but it does not always focus on the what, when, where, how and why of behavior. A functional assessment may be incorporated into a formal evaluation for learning disabilities if your child’s behavior is an area of concern, but in many instances, it isn’t automatically part of that process.

Who Participates In a Functional Assessment?

Tobey Shaw, principal of the Frostig School, a K–12 school in Pasadena, California, for kids with learning disabilities, says that a team approach works best because the many people involved see things from different perspectives. “We ask for input from a variety of sources,” says Shaw. “The classroom teacher may see things differently than the physical education teacher, for example, because different skill sets are called for in those different settings.”