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Step 2(3) of 5 Steps to Meaningful Behavioral Support: Indirect Assessments

To see the other posts in this series click HERE.

Our next step in the process of behavioral support is to
collect information from those around the individual who is demonstrating
challenging behavior.  We can do this in
a variety of ways using a variety of methods. 
A large variety of questionnaire’s / checklists have been developed over
the years that attempt to ask questions about the behavior and have informants
rate specific elements (e.g., does this behavior occur when the individual is
alone? or Is this behavior likely to occur when there is a demand placed on the
student?).  Some have the informant rate
the estimated frequency that one of the actions would result

in challenging behavior.  Sometimes it is just yes or no questions.  People that complete the checklists might be teachers, parents, paraprofessionals, related service providers, or anyone who can provide information about the student’s behavior, including at times the student.  

Another form of indirect assessment are interviews.  Interviews, like the checklists, can be completed by a variety of people including when we interview the student.  Interviews can be formal or informal.  Often when the interviewer has more experience, the interview will not follow a structured format, or will start that way and vary based on the answers provided.  A variety of interviews have been developed that have some validity to them that can be used.  The idea behind an interview is that it gives you an in-depth history of the challenging behavior and the individual’s development and skills.  It should help to clarify some issues about daily routine, communication skills, and patterns of behavior.  
The focus of any indirect assessment should be, at least in part, to develop some context for understanding the challenging behavior.  There are events that may affect the individual’s behavior that happen well before the actual observed behavior that will be relevant to the analysis.  For instance, if a student is sick or not feeling well, behavior problems may be more likely to happen when the teacher presents a math problem to the student than on other days when she presents the same problem to him.  Being sick is what we refer to as a setting event–it sets the occasion for challenging behavior to occur when the antecedent (the math problem) is presented.  If he feels sick, the math problem triggers challenging behavior.  If he feels well, it doesn’t trigger negative behavior and he does the problem.  We’ll talk more about setting events in future posts, but they are important to understand because they explain why students’ behaviors appear inconsistent (many times) and why there are good days and bad days.  Think of a day when you haven’t had your coffee (or if you are healthier than I am, your morning run).  You might be more likely to snap at someone when they presented you with a task to do that you weren’t expecting than on a day when you had coffee (or ran).  Indirect assessments are ways to find out about these hidden variables that affect behavior and to begin to think about how the current environment affects behaviors.  Indirect assessments could be used as a full functional behavior assessment required by special education law for individuals who exhibit behaviors that interfere with learning.  However, you have to be careful in their interpretation and typically you want to have some observational data as well to confirm what you’ve been told.  Here are some strengths and weaknesses of indirect assessments that we have to take into consideration:

Strengths / Positives

1.  They are easy to administer and they don’t take much time

The more skilled the interviewer and interpreter the stronger the results, but regardless it takes significantly less time to interview someone than to do an observation and see enough to collect data to analyze in direct assessment.

2.  They provide context

One of the biggest advantage, and the reason I list them as part 3 of step 2, is that they provide us with background information that allows us to plan our assessment and gain information that we can’t get from a snapshot observation.  They tell us when we should probably try to take data, because it was noted that it was a problem time.  They tell us what the individual’s strengths are in addition to what skills they have that we can enhance to get their needs met without problem behavior.  They provide information about setting events like difficulties sleeping, allergies, medication, illness, etc. that might set the occasion for a behavior to occur after another antecedent.  In short, they give us an ecological view of the context of the behavior.

3.  We can develop some initial hypotheses of the functions of behavior from them

We can come up with some initial ideas about the functions of the challenging behavior, if our reporters are accurate and if we can interpret them clearly. Typically behaviors need to be pretty straightforward with only one function and little complication for indirect assessments to be sufficient.  I typically tell folks to use them and develop hypotheses and test the hypotheses by developing interventions based on them.  If the behavior improves, you are good to go.  If it doesn’t you need more extensive information.

4. They tell you something about the reporter

Interviews, in particular, can often tell you more about the person doing the reporting than the individual with the challenging behavior.  This is important because you have to factor that into the equation. If the person is displaying significant anger toward the student you are assessing, that tells you something about the context of the behavior.  If the person indicates that the behavior is not that big a deal, that tells something else. I once interviewed a student about his own behavior and the way he said things was more informative than the information he provided.  When I asked him why it might be helpful for his teachers to like him (a question tailored specifically to him), he replied “Because that is the grease that makes the world go round.”  Interesting answer but it doesn’t answer the question.  However, it does tell me that he doesn’t have a clear understanding on that hidden curriculum item of why having your teachers like you might be helpful.  Similarly I had another student who was completing a self-checklist about his own behavior but refused to fill it out because he wasn’t supposed to share personal information with strangers.  The back and forth we went through, which ended up with us destroying the checklist form so I couldn’t see the answers he had written and erased (and him asking if we were going to throw it out why did we have to do it in the first place), was much more informative to me about his behavior than any of his answers could have been.

Weaknesses / Negatives

1.  Depend on the reliability of the reporter

When you ask someone to tell you about something you are seeing things not through their eyes but through their perceptions, memory and possible bias.  You are seeing their version and their memory of how things occur.  Consequently indirect assessment, because it asks someone to tell you about something that happened, is very susceptible to bias and bad memory.   Trying to remember something is bad enough.  Trying to remember something when the question is asked in a certain way is even more difficult.  If you are interviewing me or I am completing a checklist, you have the bias I bring to the interview about why the behavior is happening.  I might tell you that the kid is just mean or that he ALWAYS has problem behavior during PE.  I might tell you that he never has problems with me but he always does with the other paraprofessional.  Observational data may prove both of these statements wrong.  They are my perceptions and you can substitute them for real-time observations.  

2. Indirect assessments historically have a low reliability and validity

Their reliability, particularly for checklists can be as low as 50%.  That’s basically chance for some of these measures.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t useful, just that we need to be very careful about relying on their information.  Generally, if the interview is conducted by someone with experience with interviewing people about behavior, interviews may be more reliable because you can probe answers in a way you can’t with a checklist.  However, because everything comes with bias, we have to be careful in our interpretation.

3.  They don’t give us definitive hypotheses

Indirect assessment, because we aren’t manipulating and observing something, don’t give us what we refer to as a functional relationship.  We can’t say for sure that giving him a math problem CAUSES or TRIGGERS (careful how you use those words) challenging behavior.  We can say that it’s possible, but without observing a direct demonstration repeatedly, we can’t say this is a definite relationship.

So this post has gone on long enough and gives an overview of indirect assessment.  I will pick up with some descriptions and links to indirect assessment resources and what we know about them next time.  Until then, how do you use indirect assessment with your students?

Until next time,

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