Functional Assessment: Analyzing Child Behavior
By Mary Ellen Drecktrah, Ph.D., and Mary Ann Marchel, Ph.D.

It is 8:30 a.m. in Mrs. Nelson's early childhood program. Jason, a four-year-old, comes running in yelling, “I’m here!” On his way across the room, he knocks over Sarah's tower of blocks with his arms because they are spread out like airplane wings. He then moves on to the child-size workbench, where he decides to stop and pound some nails with a hammer. Not satisfied, he wanders off to the block area where he finds a fire truck on a shelf above his head. As he pulls the fire truck off the shelf, it drops to the floor, hitting his foot. He yells "ouch" loudly and hops around.

At 8:40 a.m., Mrs. Nelson tells the children to put away what they have been using and come to the rug for circle time. Jason turns away and looks out the window. When Mrs. Nelson comes to tell Jason to join the other children, he kicks over a LEGO® house another child had built and throws his body on the floor screaming, "no!" Mrs. Nelson places Jason in time out as the other children complete clean up.

It is now 8:50 a.m., and the children are seated on their rugs in the circle area. After five minutes in time out, Jason is invited to come join the other children in the circle, which he does. As Timothy walks to the window to report the weather, Jason blurts out, "It's sunny, sunny, sunny." Mrs. Nelson reminds Jason that it's Timothy's turn to talk, but Jason continues to interrupt. Each time, Mrs. Nelson stops the activity and says, "Jason, it's not your turn to talk." This approach does not appear to impact Jason's behavior, for he continues to disrupt the circle activities by talking or by making noises at inappropriate times.

Many children are impulsive, oppositional, and have inappropriate peer interactions. How can early childhood educators use proactive approaches to prevent some of the problems these children experience and create?

Behavioral Analysis
The A-B-C paradigm of behavior analysis can be very useful in determining behaviors that need to be modified in young children. A represents antecedent, which means the conditions or stimulus before a behavior occurs; B is for the behavior or response to the stimulus; and C represents the result of the behavior. These ideas form an approach to behavior management called applied behavior analysis (ABA).

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) focuses on modifying behaviors that are operationally defined and observable. Targeted behaviors are modified, shaped, increased, or decreased through systematic manipulation of environmental factors. Behavioral responses can be altered by manipulation of antecedent stimuli like environmental conditions such as explicit classroom rules or by manipulating the consequence that follows a behavioral response like teacher attention. The antecedent sets the stage for a specific response to occur, while the consequence changes the probability that the behavior will increase or decrease in the future (Alberto & Troutman, 1999).

Challenging or problem behavior like Jason's can include any behavior that is destructive, dangerous to the child or to others, prevents learning from taking place, or causes damage to property. Educators are responsible for teaching students with a wide range of disabilities (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994), yet many are not prepared to handle challenging behaviors. Early childhood educators, especially, have seen an increase of children who demonstrate challenging behaviors due to the inclusion of children with disabilities as mandated by ADA and IDEA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal civil rights law, went into effect in 1992. This legislation states that people with disabilities are entitled to equal rights in public accommodations. Consequently, more preschoolers with disabilities are in preschools, child care centers, and family care homes (The Division for Early Childhood & NAEYC, 1993). Many of these children have challenging behaviors like Jason.

Another federal legislative mandate for individuals with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA Amendments of 1997 require local education agencies to conduct a functional assessment and develop a Behavioral Intervention Plan for students with disabilities when their behavior is an issue (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation, 1997). Incorporating behavioral analysis principles into the assessment of these children results in functional behavioral assessment.

Functional Behavioral Assessment
A functional behavioral assessment looks at problem behaviors by analyzing behavior and interventions. Walker (1995) defined functional behavioral assessment as "...a systematic process for l) understanding the nature and causes of problem behavior, and 2) developing cost effective interventions for changing or reducing that behavior..." (p. 77).

This article will focus on the first part, that is, understanding the nature and causes of problem behavior. In this framework, behavior is looked at in its context—to analyze its function. The educator should ask the question, "What function does this behavior serve for this child, and what does he or she gain from this behavior?" The functions behaviors serve are often categorized into two areas: 1) obtaining a desired outcome or 2) escaping avoiding undesirable outcomes (Riechle & Wacker, 1993). Think about Jason's behavior during clean up time and how Mrs. Nelson responded (Jason threw a temper tantrum; Mrs. Nelson placed him in time out). By placing Jason in time out, Mrs. Nelson may have encouraged Jason's behavior by giving him access to the desired outcome, avoiding clean up. When this behavior is repeated with the same consequences, it reinforces the child’s escape behavior (throwing tantrums) when he or she is expected to clean up.

A functional assessment typically consists of interviews, direct observations, and environmental manipulations (O'Neill, Horner, Albin, Storey, Sprague, 1997). Observation and documentation are the best way to assess children’s behavior. It is useful in assessing how children function, how they interact with their peers, how they play, how they respond to different things in their environment, and also in monitoring children's progress over time (Wolery & Wilhen, 1994). Observation is an integral part of an evaluation. It can help determine a child's areas of strength and weakness, make individual plans based on observed needs, resolve a particular problem involving the child, evaluate the behavior plan efficacy, and gather information for the child’s record.

Performing a Functional Behavioral Assessment
The purpose of a functional behavioral assessment is to describe, predict, and identify the purpose of children’s behavior (Walker, 1995); increase the effectiveness and efficiency of behavior intervention plans (O'Neill, et al. 1997); and link evaluation/assessment to Individual Education Programs (IEP). A functional assessment could include the following steps:

1.       Define challenging behaviors. The first step is to identify problem/challenging behaviors and then precisely define the behavior in observable terms. It is useful to include examples of the behavior and the characteristic of the behavior that will be measured. Describe the child’s behavior clearly and specifically. For example, Jason's teacher, Mrs. Nelson, may identify "temper tantrums" as a behavior of concern. This is more clearly described in specific terms such as "kicking the toys" and "shouting no." How often are these temper tantrums happening and how long do they last?


2.       Select and describe settings for observation. The target behavior should be observed in two or three settings. One setting would be where the behavior was first noted as being a problem, one that is similar, and one that is quite different. For example, in Jason's case, the first setting where the behavior was apparent was in unstructured time before organized activities began, another setting would be during center time when youngsters have autonomy to choose activities, and a setting that would be quite different would be project time when Jason’s under direct supervision.

The environmental demands and the teacher's expectations in each setting should be considered. This information could provide a basis for planning an intervention plan for the child. Physical environment factors such as the proximity of the teacher, noise/activity distractions, and arrangement of the classroom should be considered. Behavioral expectations may include following certain rules and cooperating with individuals and small groups in play and work. It would be important to observe Jason in different situations to see if his tantrums or oppositional behaviors are used to escape other teacher expectations or if they were possibly used to express frustration.


3.       Select observation type. The two basic approaches to observation are qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative observation is descriptive in nature. The observer begins with ideas about what will be observed and describes the behavior that appears important. An example of this type is the anecdotal record in which the observer writes a summary of what happened during the observation. Quantitative observation can be done when the observer only watches what is occurring. Examples of this type would be data collection of the frequency of the behavior by event recording or time sampling. Many times qualitative observation precedes quantitative observation. Jason’s tantrums could be observed by using an event sampling procedure in which information is collected throughout the day to see how often and when tantrums occur.


4.       Develop data collection procedures. Data can be collected using several different techniques. It's important to document the frequency of the behavior, the length the behavior occurs (duration), and the intensity. Event recording works well if the behavior is infrequent. The child's behavior can be observed continuously and counted using a tally sheet or wrist counter. Time interval is useful if the behavior is more frequent, and a count of the behavior is made during a specified observation period.


5.       Analyze the learning environment as it impacts child behavior. Careful analysis of the physical environment can unveil information that is necessary to understand the underlying cause of a child's behavior. Features to consider are those related to transitions between activities in the daily schedule, the classroom floor plan, and staffing patterns. Does the daily schedule reflect consistency, effective transitions, and a logical sequence in learning activities? Are staff members assigned to areas with designated roles and responsibilities that match the needs of individual child learning needs? How is the classroom space allocated? Are learning areas arranged to promote child independence and social interaction with peers? In Jason's classroom, analysis of several features of the learning environment may pinpoint antecedents and associated behavior that result in the challenging behavior. Sometimes several different events occur and cause build-up of frustration for the child. Taken together these events may result in the child expressing problem behaviors at a later time. Also included in the anecdotal report is a list of possible consequences of Jason's behavior and interventions that may prevent Jason from engaging in challenging behavior.


6.       Interview others. A detailed interview allows individuals who have contact with the child the opportunity to review information about the child in more detail. This group of people may include parents, classroom teachers, or any adults who have caregiving responsibilities for the child. The purpose of the interview is to identify all possible factors that may predict or set the stage for the behavior to occur (the antecedent) and those events that encourage or reinforce the problem behavior (the consequence).


7.       Hypothesis of the behavior’s function. The information gathered through child observation and interviewing others will be examined to determine possible functions of the identified problem behavior. The function of the behavior may be to obtain a desired outcome, or it may allow the child to escape or avoid an undesirable outcome. In Jason's case, the challenging behavior that he engaged in was noncompliance to teacher direction. The form that the challenging behavior took on was throwing a temper tantrum (screaming "no" and kicking the blocks). Possible functions of the behavior might be: a) to obtain teacher attention, b) to get out of or avoid cleaning up the toys, c) to indicate anger or frustration, or d) to listen to the sound the blocks make. To develop a hypothesis of the function of Jason's behavior it is necessary to examine what happened before (the antecedent), during (the form of the behavior), and after (consequence) Jason threw a temper tantrum.


8.       Develop a behavioral intervention plan. From the data gathered through observation, a clear description of the problem behaviors and perhaps patterns of behavior will form the basis for a plan. The function of the child's behavior analysis should aid in developing the intervention plan.

Challenging behaviors, like Jason's, are present in most early childhood classrooms. Educators are looking for ways to handle these challenging behaviors. The procedures described here can be helpful in understanding the sequence and relationship between the events which could help identify the function of the problem behavior. When the function of the behavior is known, the educator can focus on an appropriate intervention.

Mary Ellen Drecktrah, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in special education at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh where she teaches special education courses in curriculum and instruction, early childhood, and learning disabilities.

Mary Ann Marchel, Ph.D., assistant professor, teaches early childhood special education courses at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

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