Behavioral Assessment

D Joe Olmi & Elizabeth Lyons. Encyclopedia of School Psychology. Edited: Steven W Lee, Sage Publications, 2005.

Behavioral assessment is defined as an assessment process that seeks to understand behavior and critical environmental variables that increase or decrease the likelihood of its occurrence. In contrast to traditional assessment procedures, behavioral assessment relies on low-inference, idiographic (comparisons to that individual’s previous level of behavior) procedures, and has as its primary objectives the development and evaluation of appropriate treatments and interventions to ameliorate presenting problems.

In addition to the above characteristics (i.e., idiographic, low-inference, and treatment-driven), there are other defining characteristics of behavioral assessment. One is the assessment of situational–environmental variables influencing behavior, including information about events that occur right before the problem behavior (antecedents) and events that occur right after the problem behavior (consequences). Another characteristic of behavioral assessment is the use of multiple methods (e.g., interviews, observations across settings, rating scales) and multiple informants (e.g., parents, teachers, and the child). Using multiple methods and multiple informants is essential for obtaining information that is thorough enough to result in suitable treatment decisions.

Behavioral assessment is an ongoing process requiring repeated measurements. The assessment procedures are used not only to guide intervention development, but also to monitor all phases of an intervention. Prior to intervention development, a baseline of target behaviors is measured to assist in the development of an appropriate intervention plan and to set a criterion against which intervention effects are compared. Once the intervention, or treatment program, is implemented, frequent measures of behavior continue in order to evaluate the intervention. Appropriate intervention evaluation includes data collection throughout treatment leading to a decision of whether or not a desired behavior change resulted from the intervention.

The process of behavioral assessment has been viewed as analogous to the problem-solving process made popular in the school psychology and behavioral consultation literature. The problem-solving process can be defined as a number of phases that incorporate assessment and treatment. Most problem-solving models include four phases: problem identification and analysis, intervention design, intervention implementation, and intervention evaluation/follow-up.

The problem identification and analysis phase involves defining the nature and scope of the problem behavior. During this phase, information is gathered using multiple methods and informants to determine whether problem behaviors are in excess or deficit. If a behavior is in excess, analysis of the antecedents and consequences maintaining the behavior is conducted. If the behavior is a deficit, an analysis of whether the behavior is an acquisition deficit (i.e., the child does not have the skill to demonstrate the behavior) or performance deficit (i.e., the child possesses the skill, but is not demonstrating the behavior) is conducted. Once the problem has been identified, an appropriate intervention is designed to target the problem behavior. It is important to design an intervention that is individualized to the child and based on empirically validated treatments. Once the appropriate intervention is determined, it is implemented as designed. Assessment continues through frequent measures of the behaviors identified in the first phase of the process. In the final stage, the intervention is evaluated and decisions are made as to whether to continue the intervention as designed, to modify the intervention, or to select another one entirely. In this phase, follow-up measures are also taken to assess the effectiveness of the intervention over time.

The school psychologist, behavior therapist, or other assessment specialist is free to use any number of assessment procedures in either phase of the problem-solving or behavioral assessment process and is not restricted to prescribed procedures. In fact, many assessment procedures employed in behavioral assessment have their roots in traditional assessment. An early conceptual framework for the process of behavioral assessment was offered by Cone (1978) in his behavioral assessment grid (BAG). An extension of Cone’s model, offered by Gresham and Lambros (1998), focuses on six major components of behavioral assessment:

  1. Examining the type of behavior problem (i.e., excess, deficit, situational inappropriateness)
  2. Identifying the dimensions of the behavior (i.e., frequency, temporality, intensity, permanent products)
  3. Assessing the system used to demonstrate behaviors (i.e., verbal, motoric, emotional)
  4. Assessing the methods used to assess the topography, frequency, severity of the behavior (e.g., direct observations, rating scales)
  5. Determining the quality of data collected, or, in other words, the reliability (i.e., observer or instrument agreement), the validity (i.e., how well information gathered in assessment adds to positive outcomes in treatment), generalizability, and accuracy of data
  6. Assessing the social validity, including consumer satisfaction of the treatment process (e.g., opinions before and after treatment), how well the intervention was implemented as designed, and the social importance of the treatment effects.

In conducting a behavioral assessment, various methods are used that range from direct techniques to indirect techniques. A frequently used direct procedure in behavioral assessment is naturalistic observation, which involves observing an individual in a setting that is part of his or her regular routine. School psychologists may directly observe a child in the classroom, or a parent or teacher may be asked to record the child’s behavior during a certain period of time.

Direct observations may be conducted using a variety of techniques. Anecdotal observations are techniques that involve a written description or narrative that details a child’s behavior at a particular time and setting. The narrative can be recorded during or after an event and can provide information pertinent to the beginning stages of the problem-solving process. Some disadvantages of anecdotal observations are that the information provided is recorded from the perspective of the observer, it is not systematic or structured, and the process can be time-consuming.

Another observational technique is time/event sampling procedures. An example of an event sampling procedure is one in which the observer records specific behaviors as well as the antecedents and consequences of the behaviors (i.e., antecedent-behavior-consequence [A-B-C]). During A-B-C observations, information is recorded as it occurs, and these observations provide information crucial in identifying the problem behaviors in the first step of the problem-solving process. One disadvantage of A-B-C observations is that some behaviors may not be seen while the observer is recording behaviors.

Other examples of time- or event-sampling procedures include continuous recording (behavior recorded upon each occurrence)—during which the behavior frequency, duration, and latency (time between event and behavior) can be recorded—and interval recording—during which the occurrence or nonoccurrence of the behavior is recorded in time intervals throughout the observation. Interval recording can be conducted using one of the following time-sampling methods:

  • Partial interval, in which the observer records the behavior if it occurs at any point during the interval
  • Whole interval, in which the behavior is recorded only if it occurs throughout the entire interval
  • Momentary time sampling, in which the behavior is only recorded if it occurs at the start of the time interval

One disadvantage to using interval recording systems is that the percentage of intervals of problem behavior recorded may be an overestimate (partial interval) or an underestimate (whole interval) of the occurrence of the problem behavior. Of the interval recording techniques briefly described here, momentary time sampling typically provides the most accurate measure of occurrence of behaviors.

Another observation technique in behavioral assessment involves the use of systematic observational instruments that focus on specific behaviors. For example, the State-Event Classroom Observation System (SECOS) is used to observe several different behaviors within the classroom setting (Saudargas & Lentz, 1986). Another example is the Behavioral Observation of Students in Schools (BOSS) (Shapiro, 1996). This observation system uses a momentary time-sampling procedure to record student’s on-task behavior, off-task behavior, and teacher instruction. Although systematic instruments such as SECOS and BOSS are practical and useful tools, it is important that observers are appropriately trained in their use.

Direct methods are typically more accurate than indirect methods. In other words, direct methods result in less inference of behavior than indirect methods because they do not rely on recollection of past experiences and observations of the target child. Such methods are typically more accurate because the professional (e.g., school psychologist, teacher) is trained to observe particular target behaviors and record their occurrences when exhibited. A disadvantage of such techniques is that measures must be continuous and observer training is often time-consuming.

Some indirect procedures used in the process of behavioral assessment include interviews, rating scales, self-report measures, and permanent products. Behavioral interviews are a widely used tool in the assessment process and can take the form of an informal (unstructured) question-and-answer session or a more formal (semistructured) standardized protocol (e.g., Semistructured Clinical Interview for Children and Adolescents). One system often used in behavioral assessment is the behavioral consultation model developed by Bergan and Kratochwill (1990). This system offers a systematic format to guide the interviewee through the problem-solving process. Another system used is Sheridan and colleagues’ (1996) conjoint behavioral consultation process, which involves guiding both the parent and teacher of the targeted individual in the problem-solving process using an interview format.

Other indirect procedures used in behavioral assessment include self-report measures and rating scales from other informants. Self-report measures provide information about behavior that transpired at another time and/or place. They can be obtained through verbal means or through the use of behavior checklists or rating scales. In addition, other informants such as the individual’s parents or teachers may be asked to rate the individual’s behavior based on past observation and past experience with the individual. One commonly used example of a behavior rating scale is the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) (Achenbach, 1991). This scale is used to assess several different behavior problems in children. Finally, another indirect procedure that can be used in behavioral assessment is permanent products. This method can be used when a behavior results in a certain out-come that can be evaluated. For example, a teacher could collect daily math quiz grades as an indication of how a child is performing on a particular math skill.

An advantage of indirect procedures is that they can be used to gather a large amount of information, both general and specific. For example, an advantage of interviews is that follow-up questions can be asked to clarify and provide further information deemed important to defining the problem behaviors. Further, rating scales are useful in gaining pertinent information from teachers and parents, not only about the problem behavior (or referral concern) but also about other behaviors that may be a concern. Rating scales are generally cost- and time-effective, can provide a useful way to classify behaviors, and can provide useful pre- and postmeasurements to evaluate treatment. The major disadvantage of indirect assessment procedures is that the information gathered from such methods is based on an informant’s observation or past experience with an individual. This type of information can be subjective, biased, and may not provide accurate information related to the problem behavior.

As mentioned previously, the behavioral assessment process may include a host of possible procedures that can be used by a school psychologist or behavior therapist that range from direct to indirect procedures. Many of these procedures have their beginnings in traditional assessment, yet the objectives of behavioral assessment are very different from traditional assessment. The primary purpose of behavioral assessment is to determine the environmental variables contributing to or maintaining behavior and to design appropriate treatments and interventions, whereas the primary objective of traditional assessment is to diagnose and label. Further strengthening the link between behavioral assessment and appropriately designed treatment is the functional assessment and analysis methodology.

Functional assessment is a broad term referring to a set of procedures designed to determine environmental variables contributing to or maintaining behavior. These variables may be close in time or temporally distant. The procedures used in such an assessment typically include a functional assessment interview and direct observation to develop hypotheses regarding the function of behavior. Such an assessment may then result in an intervention that is directly or functionally related to the hypothesized function of the assessed behavior. A functional analysis can be considered one approach to functional assessment. It involves the systematic or experimental manipulation of variables or conditions that occasion behavior or the absence of behavior and results in treatment and intervention based on the information gained during the manipulation.

As in all behavioral assessment, functional behavior assessment can be described in terms of a problem-solving process (i.e., problem identification, intervention design, intervention implementation, and intervention evaluation and possible modification). For example, if Billy, a third grader, is referred by his teacher for having a high frequency of problem behaviors, then the first step in the problem-solving process would be to define and analyze the target problem behaviors. In this phase, an interview with Billy’s teacher would be conducted to determine the situational variables, antecedents, and consequences of the problem behaviors. Additionally, direct behavioral observations would be conducted by the school psychologist and/or the teacher to further assess the antecedents, consequences, frequency, and intensity of the behavior (i.e., problem identification). Based on information gathered, it could be determined that specifically Billy does not comply with teacher-presented directives. In other words, when instructed to cease or initiate a behavior by his teacher, Billy ignores the teacher or openly refuses to comply with the instruction. These behaviors typically occurred during large- and small-group instruction and are typically followed by reprimand, redirection, or individualized attention from Billy’s teacher. Therefore, in this particular case the hypothesized function of Billy’s noncompliant behavior is access to teacher attention.

The next step in the functional assessment process would be to design an appropriate intervention to increase compliance in the classroom or to teach and reinforce an acceptable alternative behavior in Billy that would serve the same hypothesized function as his inappropriate behavior. For example, the long-term goal for this particular student may be that he will comply with teacher directives 90% of the time. Short-term goals should also be established to work toward the long-term goal (e.g., child will comply with directives 70% of the time after undergoing two weeks of intervention).

In Billy’s case, an intervention program involving differential reinforcement using teacher attention in response to compliant behavior coupled with a program whereby Billy loses access to a preferred activity for noncompliance could be a preferred intervention approach. Another evidence-based intervention that could be implemented in Billy’s case is a daily report card or school–home note paired with a home-based contingency. In such a procedure, baseline or pretreatment data are gathered, specific point-based behavioral objectives are established, and home-and/or school-based contingencies are applied based on Billy’s success or failure in meeting his stated objectives. This procedure demands home–school collaboration and parent involvement in the intervention effort, and it has proved to be an effective approach to behavior problems such as those presented by Billy. Throughout such intervention efforts, behavioral data are continually gathered to assist in evaluating the efficacy of the intervention.

During this point in the intervention process, one of several decisions will be made. If the intervention was successful and behavior change was observed, the intervention should be continued. If the intervention was not successful, decisions for modifications to the intervention could be made. Additionally, it may be necessary to go back to the first step in the problem-solving process and assess whether the appropriate behaviors were targeted for change or whether the targeted behavior for change was appropriately defined. Throughout the functional assessment process it is critical that the school psychologist has the skills to guide the problem-solving process from the data-gathering phase to the intervention evaluation phase, aiding all those involved in the process (e.g., training the teacher how to appropriately implement the intervention). O’Neill and colleagues (1990) provide a more complete guide to functional assessment and analysis.

In summary, behavioral assessment offers the practitioner the opportunity to directly link the assessment and intervention design processes. Without such an approach, the school psychologist or behavior specialist would be less precise in developing potential solutions to problems experienced by children in the educational setting. Without such a process, teachers, parents, and children would experience ongoing problems that would have debilitating effects on the learning process.