Collecting and analyzing data is a crucial component of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Clinicians and practitioners need data to understand the function of behaviors. They can then use this data to create hypotheses and create intervention strategies.
The primary method for assessing behavior change is through repeated data collection (Najdowski, A. C., et al., 2009). The exact data collection method you utilize to track, analyze, and record all of this data will depend upon your unique goals. For example, teaching new social skills may require different data collection methods than changing education behaviors.
Luckily, there are many data collection methodologies out there to assist ABA professionals in leveraging continuous data collection to achieve positive changes.
Clinicians, therapists, and specialists all use data to create actionable behavioral support strategies. Whether you want to decrease negative behaviors (e.g., tantrums, violence, aggression, etc.) or increase positive behaviors (e.g., socialization, sharing, etc.), you need to benchmark the effectiveness of your program. Over the course of your time with a child, you may form multiple hypotheses and adjust your program strategy. That’s fine! In fact, the ability to rapidly shift goals and actions based on incoming data is precisely what makes ABA so incredibly effective at provoking long-term behavioral changes.
But, ensuring that your programs are effective can’t be accomplished with a single data set. There are simply too many variables. Luckily, over the years, ABA specialists and researchers have devised a plethora of data collection methods to help you gather the type of data you need to progress.
The frequency/event and rate recording method involves counting and recording the number of times a behavior happens within a specific time frame. This can be how many times a child bangs their fist against the desk or how many times a student bites their pencil eraser. Frequency/event and rate recording can help clinicians and professionals determine how problematic an issue is and the best course of action to take for a specific behavioral issue. It can also help prove the value (or inadequacy) of treatment models over time.
It’s important to remember that frequency/event and rate recordings are only useful for situations where you wish to measure an event with a distinct beginning and end. It should also only be used to measure behaviors that you can accurately count (i.e., behaviors that are slow enough to measure with precision) and behaviors that only last for a small amount of time (given the window of measurement.) So, if you are working with a child who typically gets aggressive for up to 45 minutes, trying to measure how many times they get aggressive in a 3-hour time frame isn’t going to give you an accurate picture of behavioral changes throughout a therapy model.
While frequency/event & rate recording can give you insights into the number of behaviors that happen in a time frame, you may want to know how long a specific behavior lasts. Depending upon your goals, the length of time that an action (e.g., tantrum) lasts may be a significant benchmark for your strategy. In this case, duration recording allows you to record how long a behavior lasts.
This method is also useful for behaviors that are too fast (e.g., chattering teeth) or too variable (e.g., tantrums) to count with frequency/event & rate recording. Let’s take a moment to clarify that it is perfectly acceptable (and recommended) to use more than one data collection method. So, you can measure both the rate/frequency of a behavior as well as how long it lasts. The more data you have, the better you understand the behavior, its cause, and your treatments.
To correct negative behaviors and spark positive social change, clinicians may use cues or words to help encourage behaviors. Latency recording involves measuring the time that it takes for a behavior to occur after a verbal cue or an event. For example, you may want to know how long it takes a student to stop talking when you say “quiet down.” Similarly, you could record how long it takes a student to quiet down after you turn off the lights in the classroom.
This method is useful for measuring the impact of verbal cues and events. Let’s say that you’re measuring “quiet down” to help curb a negative social behavior in an extremely talkative child. You want to introduce a communication response that helps halt the behavior, teaching the child boundaries. In this case, knowing how long it takes a child to halt (or begin) behavior at that cue gives you insights into the long-term effectiveness of your strategy.
We measure behaviors to create positive support plans. So sometimes, discovering the cause and effect of behaviors is important, as it helps clinicians and specialists better formulate these support plans. Unlike the above data methods, the ABC method relies on qualified data — not necessarily quantified. ABC data is measured by taking the antecedent (the events that occur before a behavior), the behavior, and the consequences of said behavior.
Remember, observers can only find correlations using ABC data. A hypothesis can certainly be (and usually is) drawn from ABC data. But the data in itself doesn’t prove any functional relationships between A, B, and C. This is a time-consuming data collection strategy that requires plenty of notations and a keen eye for behavioral triggers.
While ABC data can help you draw correlations between triggers and behaviors, scatterplots help you draw correlations between the time of day and behavior on a broader scale. For example, do you want to know if a student hits other children more frequently during art class? To figure that out, you would use a scatterplot.
Scatterplots start by segmenting time into small blocks. For instance, you may want to measure a specific behavior throughout the school day. To start, you would break the day down into 15-minute blocks. Then, you would mark a symbol into the block each time that behavior occurs. At the end of the day, you should be able to see time blocks where there are far more symbols, giving you an indication that the time of day during those blocks may be a trigger.
All of the data collection methods we’ve mentioned so far share one thing in common — they require constant attention. So what if you’re in a situation where you can’t constantly pay attention and record behaviors? In that case, interval recording can be a massive asset. In interval recording, the entire observation window is split up into blocks of time. Then the clinician observes whether or not a behavior occurs during that time frame.
There are a few variations on interval recording like whole-interval and partial-interval. The primary purpose of interval recording is time constraints. Since frequency/event, ABC, and scatterplots give you better overall insights into behavioral patterns, interval recording isn’t the strongest behavioral data collection method — but it is one of the easiest.
Another variation on interval recording is time sampling. This method is primarily used by clinicians who are focusing on large groups of in-need students. Time sampling involves splitting large chunks of time (e.g., every 20 minutes) into a bunch of smaller chunks of time (e.g., 1 minute every 20 minutes) and recording the presence or absence of a behavior within or at the end of the interval.
So, let’s say that you’re a clinician seeking to measure the behaviors of a large group of students during a group project. Time sampling allows you to monitor each child independently while also overseeing the entire group over a period of time. Like interval recording, time sampling is not the most robust data collection method, but it’s incredibly useful for specific situations.
Your ABA goals are dependent on data. You need a constant stream of incoming data to prove the effectiveness of your programs and discover new avenues of opportunity. With multiple unique data collection methods, clinician and professionals have plenty of options. Whether you need to leverage interval recording in a time-crunched classroom or ABC recording to hyper-focus on an individual student, there is a data collection method out there to help you accomplish your behavioral goals.