Functional Analysis and Treatment Generalization for Problem Behavior

Research funded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant P01 HD055456 P3 (Translational Analyses of Chronic Aberrant Behavior Across the Life Span, P01 Co-PIs Michael Cataldo, Kennedy Krieger Institute; and William J. McIlvane, UMMS

William Dube

Co-Investigator: Dr. Eileen Roscoe, New England Center for Children

The goal of this project is to contribute to the development of an explicit technology of treatment generalization for chronic aberrant behavior (CAB). The past 20 years have seen significant advances in the development of intervention and treatment strategies for CAB. The technique of functional analysis (FA) in analogue environments is a prime example of a principled, widely used, and highly successful approach. Much less developed, however, is a technology for engineering the generalization of treatment gains obtained under highly controlled circumstances.

In applied behavior analysis, the controlling variables of problem behavior are often characterized by operant contingencies consisting of stimulus, response, and consequence terms. The conceptual foundation for this project concerns the status of equivalence relations between the contingencies in treatment and generalization settings. Our working hypothesis is that cross-setting equivalences underlie successful generalization.

The research is aimed at two stages of the treatment process. The first is the initial diagnostic stage in which the function of problem behavior is determined by FA. From our perspective, future generalization will depend on part to the extent that the FA environment creates a model that is functionally equivalent to the environment in which the problem behavior occurs. For example, if CAB is a function of social variables, then those variables must be represented in the FA analogue environment.

The second stage of treatment that is more traditionally associated with generalization, the transfer of treatment gains achieved within a controlled environment to the everyday settings in which problem behavior may occur. From our perspective, the FA-inspired treatment environment and the everyday environment must be equivalent in terms of relevant stimuli and consequences.

Overarching Questions

How can clinicians proceed when initial FA outcomes are not clear?

Why do some successful clinical interventions fail when extended beyond highly controlled treatment environments? How can generalization failures best be analyzed and remediated?

Specific Aims

  1. To develop and validate a protocol for identifying relevant variables following undifferentiated outcomes with standard FA procedures. Undifferentiated outcomes are FA results that do not clearly identify an operant contingency for problem behavior.
  2. To develop and validate a protocol for identifying both positive and negative reinforcement contingencies in FA Demand conditions. In typical practice with standard FA protocols, outcomes differentiated for Demand conditions are interpreted in terms of negative reinforcement only.
  3. To define and validate a process for applying stimulus-control shaping procedures to transfer the effects of successful CAB-reduction procedures from the clinical environment to the individual’s usual daily environment.
  4. To define and validate a process for (a) systematically identifying equivalence relations between therapists, the settings, and the materials in treatment and generalization environments; and (b) prescribing precisely targeted equivalence training procedures that promote treatment generalization.