Longitudinal Research and Functional Behavioral Assessment Issues

By Walker, Hill M.; Sprague, Jeffrey R. | Behavioral Disorders, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Longitudinal Research and Functional Behavioral Assessment Issues


Walker, Hill M., Sprague, Jeffrey R., Behavioral Disorders


ABSTRACT The role of functional behavioral assessment is contrasted with a longitudinal risk factors exposure model for understanding and predicting maladaptive behavioral outcomes in applied settings, and the strengths and weaknesses of each approach are discussed. The functional behavioral assessment approach is viewed as having great value for analyzing and understanding the social contingencies and contextual factors that sustain maladaptive behavior within specific settings. The risk factors exposure model is more macro in nature and is useful for understanding and predicting the development of maladaptive behavior across time and settings in a longitudinal, developmental sense. The integration of the two approaches is viewed as necessary in order to gain a comprehensive, complete understanding of the origins and dynamics of maladaptive behavior patterns among at-risk children and youth.

This article brings the perspective of longitudinal research to bear upon the nascent current efforts to expand functional behavioral assessment procedures to the larger schoolage population of students with behavioral disorders. In a real sense, this interaction defines the nexus between macro, molar variables that are pervasive in their impact and operate across multiple settings (e.g., poverty, abuse, incompetent parenting) versus micro, molecular variables that tend to be highly setting specific and quite sensitive to situational contingencies and stimulus conditions (e.g., noncompliance with specific commands, disrupting others, situational teasing and bullying). Both approaches have value and utility in describing outcomes for at-risk students, but they operate in very different ways and at differing levels of specificity in doing so.

The longitudinal perspective is developmental in nature and rests upon a risk factors exposure model for explaining outcomes (Hawkins, VonCleve, & Catalano, 1991; Lynam, 1996). That is, pervasive exposure to key risk factors is associated with negative, destructive long-term outcomes (See Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992). Empirical evidence suggests that it is likely that this process model operates in the following manner to account for these outcomes:

I . Children and youth are systematically exposed to a host of risk factors over time (e.g., dysfunctional families, drug and alcohol involvement of primary caregivers, child neglect/abuse, unemployment, lack of school readiness).

2. These risk factors are associated with the development of maladaptive behavioral manifestations of them (e.g., defiance of adults, restlessness and overactivity, aggression, lack of self-regulation, disruptive classroom behavior, inability to focus and sustain attention, hostile attitudes toward schooling).

3. Short-term outcomes that result from these manifestations can include truancy, peer and teacher rejection, low academic achievement, school discipline contacts and referrals, and a larger than normal number of elementary schools attended.

4. These short-term outcomes, in turn, are strongly predictive of much more serious, longer-term outcomes including school failure and dropout, delinquency, drug and alcohol use, gang membership, adult criminality, and, in some cases, serious violent acts (see Cicchetti & Nurcombe, 1993).

Functional behavioral assessment procedures stand as a contrast to risk factor approaches. Most of the research in psychology on conduct disorder has subscribed to this basic model; intervention approaches have focused on reducing risk factors and building in protective factors that address maladaptive child behavior primarily within home and school contexts (Bierman et al., 1992). This approach, which is often epidemiological in nature and usually relies upon combined universal individualized interventions, holds great promise for the development of comprehensive solutions to the problems presented to our society by this burgeoning segment of the general population (Reid, 1993).

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