The “Why” of Ecological Assessment

Part 1 of The Ecological Assessment: The Why, the What, the How

November 22, 2021 by Sue Cecere, PT, MHS

A boy in a Rifton Pacer looks at a communication device with his therapist.In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized with language supporting participation in the natural environment. This has challenged school-based practitioners to use the natural environment as a basis for assessment, using activities that occur in those learning environments as a focus of our goals, objectives and interventions, and to measure and describe outcomes within the context where those activities occur. It is important for practitioners to make the connection between students’ performance and their ability to participate in school related routines, aligned with classroom and age-appropriate expectations.1

The intersection between participation and performance as articulated by the International Classification of Function (ICF) framework can be assessed using a top-down approach. A top-down approach is preferred because it supports a student’s need to be involved in a situation and the design of interventions that will support the student’s mastery of meaningful tasks to support participation in that situation or activity.

With its focus on participation and assessing the impact of environmental and personal factors on participation, the ICF framework provides a foundation for school-based assessment. Leveraging the environment and the student’s personal factors can facilitate access and participation in the school setting, meeting the mandates of IDEA. Additionally, the ICF supports a holistic view of the student; its application can broaden the assessment focus; shifting it away from the student’s health condition to supporting more possibilities for engagement in educational experiences and achieving educational benefit. Using the ICF can support the provision of services and supports on the basis of a student’s functional profile rather than administrative categories or medical diagnoses.2

Since learning environments are complicated due to a myriad of factors such as the number of students, the type of programming and curriculum, as well as changing expectations and inclusiveness, your assessment needs to comprehend what makes a classroom tick, how the student interacts with the teacher and staff and vice versa, the student’s ability to access the environment and curriculum, their level of engagement with classroom expectations and sense of being included in that environment. Ecological assessment is the perfect fit. “Ecological Assessments have both a setting focus and a student focus. Ecological Assessments study the nature of all behaviors required to be reinforced in a particular setting, and the specific circumstances under which those behaviors must occur. It then compares these requirements to the abilities and experiences of the student.”3

Ecological assessment concepts come from the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner, a developmental psychologist and the father of ecological theory. He posits that child development is the intersection of concentric systems of influence that become more complex as the child develops: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem and the macrosystem. The microsystem, the closest to the student and most influential, includes the immediate family, classroom teachers and staff, teacher practices, classroom ecology and the bi-directional relationships within that system. The mesosystem includes the student’s interactions with those events and staff members outside of the classroom. The exosystem consists of the school’s climate and inclusiveness and those who have influence over the classroom ecology. The macrosystem is comprised of cultural contexts and the student’s socioeconomic status and his/her ethnicity or race. “The developmental indicator important for assessing children’s growth is how their behavior unfolds to match or more closely approximate that of others within the social and cultural contexts (systems) in which they naturally would be participants.”4 Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory recognizes the quality and context of a child’s environment and its impact on the child’s development.

Applying ecological theory concepts to school-based practice challenges us to think differently about approaching assessment. IDEA, the mandate of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), and focus on inclusion reinforce a need for a paradigm shift regarding the assessment of students with disabilities for special education and related services. To support LRE, potential barriers to inclusion must be identified. The literature identifies child factors and environmental factors that may present challenges to the success of inclusion.5 Student participation in inclusive settings should influence how we assess and instruct, plan and service; therefore, assessment should be conducted through ongoing evaluation of a student engaged in typical activities and routines.6

A boy standing in a Rifton Prone Stander, using a communication device with his therapist.The US along with many other countries embraced inclusion as the standard of educational practice in the UN Convention on The Rights of Individuals with Disabilities in 2006.7 Despite the endorsement of inclusive practice, one of the challenges that remain is the preferred method of assessing children with standardized psychometric diagnostic tests. These tests can influence classification of students, making presuppositions as to what they can and cannot do. This type of assessment is based on a medical impairment model and a static model of “how we have always done it,” resulting in assessment that may not be useful for educational planning. “Psychometric tests may be valid in determining dysfunction, but their validity in determining educational needs can be questioned.”7

When we begin to look at our students’ needs relative to what they are expected to do in relationship to peers and their environment, we start to examine how the students interact with those who are teaching and supporting them. We begin to see what the student can do relative to peers and expectations, and examine barriers to engagement and achievement. We look at students’ personal factors and how those factors impact learning, access and participation. This approach helps us look beyond the student’s disability or medical diagnosis and embrace the role of related service provider – using corrective, developmental and supportive services to strengthen student access, participation and benefit in the learning environment. Enter the application of the ICF and the interrelationships within the domains of the framework; ecological theory dovetails with the application of the ICF as they both examine the interaction of the student with the environment and the people in that environment, knowing these factors influence growth and development.

See Part 2: The “What” of Ecological Assessment and Part 3: The “How” of Ecological Assessment.

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  1. Goldstein, D., Cohn, E. & Coster, W. (2004) Enhancing Participation for Children with Disabilities: Application of the ICF enablement Framework to pediatric Physical Therapy Practice. Pediatric Physical Therapy 114-120.
  2. Rune J. Simeonsson, ICF-CY: A Universal Tool for Documentation of Disability, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities Volume 6 Number 2 pp 70–72 June 2009
  3. Retrieved May 4, 2018 from
  4. Jackson, L., Ryndak, D., & Wehmayer, m. (2008-2009). The Dynamic Relationship Between Context, Curriculum, and Student Learning: A Case for Inclusive Education as a Research-based Practice. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities Vol. 33Y4, No. 4-1 pg.180
  5. Gal, E. Schreuer, N., & Engel-Yeger, B. (2010). Inclusion of Children with Disabilities: Teachers’ Attitudes and Requirements for Environmental Accommodations. International Journal of Special Education.25(2). 89-99.
  6. Bagnato, S., Mclean, M., Macy, M. & Neisworth, J. (2011). Identifying instructional targets for early childhood via authentic assessment. Journal of Early Intervention. 243-253
  7. Retrieved September 27, 2021 from

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