In previous posts, we’ve talked about what “serious behaviors are” and how they can interfere with a child’s receipt of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). In today’s posting, I want to discuss how assessment of behavior can and should take place.
As with any other type of assessment in special education, the assessment of behaviors that interfere with learning must be done by a qualified professional. Specifically, the implementing regulations of the IDEA (see 34 CFR 300.304(c)(iv) and (v)) requires that assessments be administered by “trained and knowledgable personnel” and “in accordance with any instructions provided by the producers of the assessments.” This is particularly the case with standardized assessments, but you also have to bear in mind that, as a result of NCLB and its influence on the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA, the use of scientifically research-based methodologies and practices must be used to collect relevant data and develop appropriate programming for all children, including those with handicapping conditions. (See 34 CFR 300.35 and the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (aka NCLB) 9101(37).)
Many parents have attempted to litigate the issue of what constitutes appropriate assessment, arguing for the use of Applied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”), with mixed results. Many of these cases, however, have had to do with the pursuit of a scientifically research-based methodology proven to yield positive outcomes for children with Autism as an across-the-board instructional strategy. ABA is actually a method of analyzing behavior and applying that knowledge to whatever contexts are appropriate to the individual being served, hence the title “Applied Behavioral Analysis.”
What is known, regardless of what you call it, is that behavioral interventions are most successful when the function of the behavior is identified and addressed rather than the structure of the behavior. I can remember as a child getting into trouble for fighting with my younger sister and being told to “stop fighting” but no effort was made to actually resolve the disputes we were having. We were simply ordered to quit interacting in a displeasing manner, leaving our actual conflicts unresolved for many years. This is a perfect example of the adults in the situation addressing the structure of the behavior – what it looks like – rather than the function served by the behavior – that is, the behavior’s purpose. It’s treating the symptom rather than the disease.
For example, one of the students we have been representing is a high school student with sensory integration issues, high anxiety, and Autism. He is easily overwhelmed by noisy and busy environments and is tactile defensive, particularly once he reaches an agitated state. At that point, he will put his head down on his desk until he processes through whatever mental log-jam has occurred and is ready to return to his situation. When this happens, people need to leave him alone rather than add more stimulation to his experience so he can clear through all of the inbound data and return to a point where he is receptive to additional input. He’s gotten very good at self-regulating this way and will immediately return to his school work once he has mentally checked himself out by putting his head down on his desk for a couple of minutes or so.
This has been known for many years, now, but it seems to be the case that every so often a new person will be placed in his learning environment who disregards what is already known and thinks that he or she can somehow overcome this student’s neurology by doing things his/her own way. The last time this happened, our student had become, once again, overwhelmed by a very chaotic learning environment over which his teacher exercised poor control; he put his head down on his desk. While the aide assigned to him and the teacher left him alone, another aide in the classroom took it upon herself to go over to him and try to “speed up” his recovery process by “talking him through it.” She didn’t understand that she was actually giving him more data to process and making it take longer for him to recover. She was actually making the experience increasingly painful to the student and when he told her to leave him alone, she made the mistake of putting her hand on his shoulder. She intended it to be an encouraging gesture, but it was sensory overload for him at that point and his automatic response was to slug her.
There was no thought in his actions. It was a fight-or-flight response. When he realized what he had done, he was mortified. As with many people on the Autistic Spectrum, he is a very rules-based person and he has been raised by good parents who have made it clear that hitting is not appropriate. He knew what he had done was wrong and he was terribly remorseful. This put him into a psychological tailspin and the anxiety, which was already heightened in the first place, kicked into high gear. He developed somatic complaints of severe headaches and painful gastro-intestinal problems and began engaging in school refusal behaviors. His clinical psychologist found that the physical symptoms were tied to the anxiety he had about returning to that classroom and recommended home/hospital instruction until the situation could be resolved. The District arranged for a home instruction teacher to come to the house while things were worked out, which held him over academically and aided in his recovery from his emotional trauma, but he was unable to work on his socialization skills at home being away from the other students with whom his social skills work was being done prior to this event.
This is the kind of stuff that can result in a denial of a FAPE. One person who fails to take a student’s IEP seriously can undermine the entire program if he/she doesn’t respond to the behavioral issues appropriately. But the first step is identifying the function of the behaviors. What useful purpose do they serve to the student? This information is needed not only to develop an appropriate behavior plan for a student, but also to appropriately implement it and suggest improvements to it over time.
In the example given above, the behavior in question was the student withdrawing from academic instruction. This behavior serves a useful function for the student and putting his head down on his desk was a positive replacement behavior taught to him when he was much younger at a time when his only response to over-stimulating situations was “I gotta get outta here!” and he would elope from the classroom, running across the campus as fast as he could to get away from the overwhelming situation. There were clear-cut environmental antecedents and behavioral antecedents that cued the adults in the room that he was reaching the point where he was going to need to “check out” for a couple of minutes. The consequence and, thus, the function of the elopement behavior was to permit the student to both escape from and contend with the sensory overload he experienced, as well as self-regulate. His nervous system just can’t take that much inbound data at once. It’s a manifestation of his disability.
What he needed, and what he ultimately got, was a more socially acceptable way of self-regulating in a situation like that. Essentially, he needed a socially acceptable tool that would let him go off “autopilot” and “steer the ship manually” as it were, making deliberate decisions about what to do with many pieces of incoming data, putting it all away in the proper processing centers of his mind, and clearing through the bottleneck of sensory information before returning to the academic task at hand.
That’s how behavioral assessment and intervention planning is supposed to work. From there, it’s all about training the staff on the intervention plan, implementing it in the day-to-day course of affairs, and collecting on-going data on its efficacy so that improvements and needed tweaks can be made to it as time goes on. The plan has to evolve at the same pace that the student makes progress towards the behavior goals in which the inappropriate behavior is not only extinguished, but replaced with a more appropriate coping strategy that sees the student’s evolving needs met.
Please keep your eyes open for our next posting, in which we will discuss the differences between FBAs and FAAs, and when each is meant to be used. As always, if you have any questions, please post a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.