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Learning the Functional Analysis- A Spicy Data Review Meeting

blog post Dec 10, 2022
functional analysis learning blog

Learning the Functional Analysis- A Spicy Data Review Meeting

 Disclaimer: All persons and the company described herein are fictional. Any resemblance to humans or companies, real or fake, is coincidental and unintentional. 

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Bryan, the newly-minted BCBA® that we met in previous posts, enjoys working for his new company. He has only been there a few months, but he is already much happier than he was at his previous company. Here, his caseload is reasonable, his colleagues are helpful, the clinical director is experienced and organized, and they implement a performance monitoring system that allows him to earn paid time off during quarterly reviews. Indeed, there is much to love about Ideal World Behavioral Solutions (IWBS)! 

One of his favorite things about IWBS is the monthly data-review meetings. Usually, during data-review meetings, each BCBA®  presents data from 3-4 cases, for a total of 5-10 min each, with some Q & A time thrown in. These meetings allow for peer review and information sharing. The coffee and snacks are an added bonus. 

This month will be Bryan’s first time presenting during data review. He is excited for the opportunity, but he is having a hard time deciding which data sets to present. He oversees several cases and has many data sets for each case. He feels like he has too many choices and wonders if his colleagues experience similar choice indecision. 

He looked for instructions or guidelines for data presentations in IWBS’s handbook of performance expectations, but he did not find any mention of data review meetings. So, he asked a few of his colleagues how they choose which datasets to present. They said that there are no formal rules, but they usually choose data for one of three reasons: They want help or feedback, the data and/or intervention are interesting, or they want to allow analysts-in-training (technicians who are enrolled in graduate programs or completing supervised fieldwork experience) opportunities to present their work. 

Given he is in his first year of practice, he doesn’t yet supervise any analysts in training, so he cannot showcase his technicians’ work. He does, however, have a few interesting datasets to share; and, as much as he does not want to admit it, he needs some help with a case he was assigned earlier this week. 

After watching his colleagues present their data, it is finally his turn. It’s his first data presentation—not only at IWBS, but ever—and he’s nervous—er, excited—to share and learn. He starts by presenting two datasets: The first demonstrates a learner’s acquisition of toothbrushing skills, and the second shows the effects of picture prompts on describing past events. His colleagues give him helpful feedback, and he takes fervent notes on their suggestions: Get interobserver agreement on toothbrushing data and procedural reliability on the technician’s prompt sequence, use a multiple-probe design to demonstrate efficacy of the picture prompt….He writes so quickly that his hand shakes the podium where his notebook rests. 

When it is time for his third and final data presentation, he feels his heart start to beat a little faster. He does not yet have data for this case, only a verbal report, and he is unsure how the absence of data will be received during a data review meeting. 

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“I have a new case,” he says. 

His colleagues look at him expectantly. He feels his voice falter and palms start to sweat. 

“Mateo is a 5-year-old male with various diagnoses.” Bryan briefly describes the child’s diagnoses, history of interventions (none behavior analytic), and verbal repertoire. 

He shifts his weight from foot to foot. Hesitantly, he admits that he doesn’t yet have data to show. He thinks he sees a few of his colleagues raise their eyebrows, but he stills himself continues on. 

“I wanted to share what I have learned thus far about Mateo because he engages in challenging behavior, and I know you all have more experience with assessment of challenging behavior than I do. I need some guidance as to how to proceed.” 

He scans his colleagues’ faces, which have softened with understanding. His eyes land on his closest colleague, Sia, who nods and smiles gently, as if to say, “Go on.”

Encouraged, Bryan continues, “Mateo’s parents, Marta and José, are most concerned about aggression (hitting, biting, kicking), loud vocalizations, and crying. During my initial interview, I learned that Mateo has been on the waitlist for a year, during which time he started school. According to his parents, aggression and tantrum behavior started about the same time he started school. They noted that crying and loud vocalizations occur at different times during the day, but aggression is most likely to occur towards his sister around mealtimes—especially when Marta is making dinner, after José leaves for work.” Sia and others look quizzical. Brian clarifies, “José recently started working night shifts.” 

Bryan reiterates that he is hoping for some direction about what to do next, given he does not have much experience designing assessments or treatments for challenging behavior. 

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“Did you conduct a structured or open-ended interview? Have you gotten ABC data?” asks his colleague, Kaylen. She is a veteran BCBA®—going on 10 years, a fact she makes known regularly—and is always one of the first to comment during data review. He admires Kaylen’s passion and eagerness to share her knowledge, if not her forwardness. 

Bryan replies, “I instructed the techs to take ABC data on all challenging behavior. I asked them to call me on the walkie-talkie if any aggression occurs. Thus far, they have collected data on crying and loud vocalizations but have not seen aggression. It is Mateo’s first week at the clinic, and the technicians are still pairing themselves with reinforcement, not placing demands.”

Margot, the Clinical Director, who has been listening from behind the projector in the back of the room, jumps in. “It is okay that you don’t have data to share yet. I’m glad you felt comfortable asking for help. It sounds like you’re on the right track, and collecting ABC data is a good step, for now. Eventually, you won’t need it, of course: After you identify the function, or functions, and have an intervention in place, ABC data become moot.” She looks pointedly at Kaylen, who avoids her gaze. Bryan wonders if this is a topic they have discussed before. 

Margot continues, “I assigned you Mateo’s case because of your experience in early intervention. I know you have not had much experience with challenging behavior, other than implementing treatments others’ designed. I thought it would be a good learning opportunity for you. I wonder, would you feel more comfortable to have a mentor to guide you through the assessment and treatment design process?” 

Bryan feels a wave of relief. “Yes, I would like that very much,” he says. 

“Good,” Margot smiles. “I will think about who to assign as a peer mentor; I will email you and that person later today to arrange a meeting to discuss expectations and roles. Before I do, I am curious to know, have you ever conducted or seen a functional analysis (FA), Bryan?”

“No,” Bryan says. He doesn’t know why his tone was defensive. He knows he is a safe space to share his limitations, but, for whatever reasons, he is embarrassed to admit his own, especially with respect to FAs. During graduate school and fieldwork, he learned about various forms of interviews (indirect assessments), and he was taught the importance of ABC data collection (descriptive assessment), but neither his professors nor his supervisor (at his previous employer) taught him to conduct FAs. He has never seen or been a part of an FA in real life. In fact, in the ABA groups he follows on social media, he has heard a lot of dissent and negativity surrounding FAs. 

Given his learning history is bereft of FA methodologies, he find himself at a loss for words. Instead of asking a follow up question or tacting what he feels—embarrassment and fear—he says something that he immediately regrets. It was something he heard one of his peers during his graduate coursework say during class; it went unaddressed by his professor, so he assumed they were correct. 

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“Isn’t FA dead?” Bryan’s face goes from red to white during the ensuing silence. 

It feels like minutes pass, but it is only a matter of seconds before Margot chuckles—not because the statement amuses her but because she knows countercontrol when she sees it. Clearly, she has hit a nerve; for whatever reasons, Bryan does not feel comfortable (or does not have a history of) admitting to his gap in knowledge. She does not want to rebuke him, but she does want to correct him and any others who might be under this impression. She says, “No, not at all! Remember, during last month’s data presentations, Jessica presented an FA dataset.” 

Jessica jumps in, “You might not have recognized it as an FA because I called it a synthesized contingency analysis. Another term for that same thing is ‘practical functional assessment, PFA.’ I totally get why you’d be confused—there are so many acronyms that obscure the fact they’re all FA variations.” 

Bryan feels blood rush to his face, and his heart rate increases to aerobic levels. “Oh, yes, now I remember. Yeah, I didn’t realize that was an FA.” He mumbles an apology and his voice trails off. He desperately wants to sit down. 

Margot says, “Yes, the terminology is confusing and off-putting. Some disagree, but, I think that, because Jessica’s analysis involved a manipulation of response contingencies in at least one test and control condition, it’s simpler if we stick to existing, commonly accepted terminology, FA. Then we can specify exactly which type of manipulation was made, such as the use of a latency measure or a synthesis of putative reinforcement contingencies.” Jessica, Sia, and some of the others nod, almost as if they’re doing a slow clap.

Margot continues, “There’s a lot we could unpack there, but we’re running out of time. For now, let me say, I’m so sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Bryan. We openly discuss limits to our scope of competence during these meetings. I think we all recognize that we’re lifetime learners.” 

Bryan looks relieved, and Margot continues, “I’ll follow up after the meeting and, like I said, we can arrange a time to talk with your peer mentor in the next few days.” 

“OK, thank you. And you didn’t make me uncomfortable,” Bryan lies. “I look forward to learning more,” he says, truthfully. He thanks everyone for their input and takes his seat. 

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As she shuts down the projector, Margot thinks about Bryan’s third case presentation. She feels guilty for putting him on the spot about FAs. She knows that many graduate programs do not train students to conduct FAs, and she suspected Bryan had never been a part of one. She should have stopped talking after saying that she’d email him later today. She feels a knot in her stomach, but she knows she cannot linger in remorse for too long – she has too many other things to do! As she walks back to her office, she stops by Jessica’s desk to ask if she would be willing and able to mentor Bryan while he designs an FA and treatment. Jessica eagerly agrees, so Margot returns to her office to send Bryan the email she promised.

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Merely half an hour after the data review meeting, Bryan gets an email from Margot. He is impressed! His previous supervisor was so overloaded that she wasn’t able to follow up so quickly. 

He opens the email and sees that Margot apologized again for putting him on the spot. He wishes he hadn’t denied his discomfort; he was clearly uncomfortable admitting his lack of knowledge publicly. He recognizes that both denial of discomfort and admitting flaws publicly are two things he could work on. After the meeting, Sia said in passing, “Sometimes, you have to be made uncomfortable to move.” She was right. Maybe he will say that in his reply instead of continuing to deny his discomfort.

He also sees that Jessica will be his peer mentor, which he is happy about, and that Margot assigned him a handful of articles to review before their meeting. At first, he scoffs at the reading list—when does she expect him to read articles? But then he sees that Margot added, “I’d like for you to read all of these articles, if you have time. However, I know that you have a lot of existing responsibilities, so if you can only read the first one, that will be a good starting point.” That’s a relief! 

He is also relieved to see that she attached most of the PDFs. Rather than ask her to send the ones she forgot to attach (he respects her time, too), he quickly logs into his BACB® portal, navigates to the resources tab, and locates the missing articles himself. (He was so happy to have recently learned that he can access some of the field’s best journal articles for free!) 

Little does Bryan know that Margot wanted to assign him several more readings, but she narrowed it down to three that are immediately relevant; she included the fourth as a bonus, to give him some historical perspective:

  1. Iwata, B. A., & Dozier, C. L. (2008). Clinical application of functional analysis methodology. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 1(1), 3-9.
  2. Hanley, G. P. (2012). Functional assessment of problem behavior: Dispelling myths, overcoming implementation obstacles, and developing new lore. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 5(1), 54-72.
  3. Holehan, K. M., Dozier, C. L., Diaz de Villegas, S. C., Jess, R. L., Goddard, K. S., & Foley, E. A. (2020). A comparison of isolated and synthesized contingencies in functional analyses. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 53(3), 1559-1578.
  4. Schlinger Jr, H. D., & Normand, M. P. (2013). On the origin and functions of the term functional analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 46(1), 285-288.

Bryan saves the PDFs to his iCloud, for easy access should he want to listen to them on his PDF reader app on his phone. 

As he packs up his computer, he reflects on the rollercoaster of emotions he experienced today. He is grateful to have such a supportive environment in which to grow as a behavior analyst, and he looks forward to learning more about FAs from Jessica. Bryan is hopeful that, with some guidance, he will be able to provide Mateo with the best behavioral care possible in order to produce meaningful outcomes for him and his family. 

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Written and edited by Dr. Jennifer N. Haddock, BCBA-D

Jennifer is currently an Adjunct Professor at the University of Kansas, where she teaches in the online master’s program in the Department of Applied Behavioral Science. She began working with neurodivergent populations when studying at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but she was not introduced to behavior analysis until after graduating, in 2005. It was love at first play-based procedure, and she never looked back. In the 17 years since, she studied at North Carolina Central University; the Florida Institute of Technology; California State University, Los Angeles; and the University of Florida, where she obtained her Ph.D. She completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and was an Assistant Professor at McNeese State University before moving to her home state of North Carolina to care for her aging father. She is unfathomably grateful for all of the learning, teaching, and life-improving opportunities that have and continue to come her way. These days, you can find her teaching online courses in behavior analysis; consulting with ABA companies; guest reviewing for behavioral journals; driving between North Carolina and Georgia; spending time with her family and dog, Risley; teaching and practicing yoga and meditation; gardening; and/or writing for Everyday Behaviorist, her Facebook blog.

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