Academic journal article School Psychology Review

A Descriptive Analysis and Critique of the Empirical Literature on School-Based Functional Assessment

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

A Descriptive Analysis and Critique of the Empirical Literature on School-Based Functional Assessment

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article provides a wide range of information for 100 articles published from January 1980 through July 1999 that describe the functional assessment (FA) of behavior in school settings. Results indicate that FA is useful for ascertaining the variables that control high-frequency problem behaviors in students with low-incidence disabilities and for designing effective interventions for those behaviors. Few studies, however, have examined low-rate problem behaviors and involved students with no disabilities. Moreover, few studies have applied FA to academic behaviors, had school personnel conduct FA without assistance, presented social validity data, or ascertained the relative effectiveness of different variations of FA. FA has great promise for school psychologists, but more work in several areas is needed if this promise is to be fulfilled.

A number of recent articles written for school psychologists have included discussions of functional assessment (FA) (e.g., Daly, Witt, Martens, & Dool, 1997; Kratochwill, Sheridan, Carlson, & Lasecki, 1999). In essence, FA involves collecting data that allow for the generation of hypotheses regarding the antecedents and the consequences that evoke and maintain a particular behavior. These data provide a rational basis for developing interventions.

There is, however, some ambiguity concerning what the term "functional assessment" means and the range of procedures FA-encompasses (Cone, 1997). The term is sometimes used synonymously with "functional analysis," but Cone suggests that FA should be used to "refer to the activities involved in describing and formulating hypotheses about potentially controlling variables," whereas "functional analysis" should be used to refer to "testing or verifying those hypotheses via the systematic manipulation of environmental events" (p. 260). From this perspective, it is useful to view FA as potentially encompassing four phases: (a) a descriptive phase in which various methods (e.g., direct observation, interviews) are used to gather information about the variables that are functionally related to the target behavior, (b) an interpretive phase in which hypotheses are developed concerning the variables that control the target behavior, (c) a verification phase in which these hypotheses are formally tested, and (d) an in tervention phase. The third phase may be accomplished through functional analysis (Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, & Richman, 1982/1994) or through testing assessment-based treatments (Dunlap et al., 1993). In the present article, FA will be used to refer to any combination of the four phases listed above. As defined here, and consistent with the suggestions of Gresham, Watson, and Skinner (this issue), FA encompasses the range of methods and procedures (e.g., interviews, rating scales, observations, experimental manipulations) used to identify environmental variables that support the occurrence or nonoccurrence of target behaviors.

FA has been used for many years by behavior analysts (e.g., Bijou, Peterson, &Ault, 1968; Carr & Durand, 1985; Iwata et al., 1982/1994; Skinner, 1957) and studies have shown that FA can contribute to the effective treatment of a variety of school problems in students with, for instance, severe developmental disabilities (e.g., Lalli, Browder, Mace, & Brown, 1993; Mace, Lalli, & Lalli, 1991; Repp & Karsh, 1994), emotional and learning or communication problems (e.g., Dunlap et al., 1993; Dunlap, Kern-Dunlap, Clarke, & Robbins, 1991), and disruptive behavior disorders (e.g., Northup et al., 1995). In fact, the results of such studies have led scholars to suggest that FA may be more valuable than traditional psychiatric or school-based diagnostic procedures (Kratochwill & McGivem, 1996; Zentall & Javorsky, 1995).

Interest in FA is not new in school psychology (for a historical review, see Ervin, :Ehrhardt, & Poling, this issue), but this interest intensified greatly with the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA '97). …

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