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Introduction for the special issue on functional assessment and treatment development.

The literature on functional assessment and function-based treatments is robust. Since the seminal articles published by Carr (1977) and Iwata Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman & Richard, (1982/1994), the field of functional analysis not only flourished, but it has revolutionized the assessment and treatment process. Functional assessment procedures have been used to guide the treatment process for a wide range of behavioral difficulties, including, aggression, self-injurious behavior, disruption, property destruction, ritualistic behavior, feeding disorders, pica to name a few. This literature has consistently shown that understanding why challenging behavior occurs is far more important than what it looks like to develop effective interventions. Prior to this research, treatments for problem behavior were often selected arbitrarily, without knowledge of the cause, which ultimately led to less effective, non-function based interventions (Carr & Durand, 1985; Durand & Kishi, 1987; Kahng, Iwata & Lewin, 2002; Repp, Felce & Barton, 1988). The importance of this body of literature cannot be underestimated. The literature has had a tremendous impact on clinical practice as we currently know it. Not only have functional assessment and treatment procedures been shown to benefit individuals exhibiting problem behavior (see Hanley, Iwata & McCord, 2003 and Kahng, et al., 2002 for reviews on the topic), but the model of evidence-based practice employed by practitioners using the procedures has influenced federal and state legislation regarding best practice (IDEA, 1997, 2004).

While the literature on functional assessment and intervention development has changed the landscape of the educational system, gaps still remain in the translation of research to practice. Although these procedures have widespread support in the behavioral literature, they are often inconsistently applied in clinical settings. Some of these gaps are related to the use of empirically supported functional assessment procedures. Other gaps are related to treatment issues in applied settings. The current issue of Behavior Analyst Today will address some of these gaps in the literature related to the translation from empirical evidence to clinical practice.

There remain questions about the practical application of functional assessment procedures. The article by Delfs and Campbell (2010) provides a unique quantitative review of the empirical literature on the topic of functional assessment. The authors discuss the validity of different types of functional behavioral assessment as well as the use of the procedures to determine if behavioral function and treatment effectiveness varies as a function of diagnosis. Sloman (2010) outlines critical issues as they relate to the use of descriptive assessment. While research findings have been mixed regarding the validity, the author reviews the circumstances under which descriptive assessment may be most useful. In addition, Sloman identifies novel uses of descriptive assessment procedures that may be useful for monitoring treatment integrity and providing feedback on implementation. In the paper by Manente, Maraventano, LaRue Delmolino & Sloan (2010), the authors review best practices in the assessment and treatment of adults with autism. They identify some of the unique challenges to the implementation functional assessment procedures and identify procedural modifications to facilitate their use in applied settings.

Gadaire, Kelley, & DeRosa (2010) address one of the most glaring issues in the functional assessment and treatment literature at this time. Although the principles of operant behavior apply across diagnostic boundaries, the majority of behavioral assessment and treatment literature has focused exclusively on younger populations with developmental disabilities. As a result, best practice is often only extended to this population, and the extent to which other populations have benefitted from the advances in our science is limited. The authors highlight some of these generality issues in the literature and highlight areas in need of more research.

Hansford, Zilber, LaRue & Weiss (2010) provide a review of the behavioral treatment literature. In clinical settings, it is often the case that treatments are selected arbitrarily. The authors provide a general summary of the treatment development process. While reviewing best practices for matching treatment to function for challenging behavior, the authors also identify procedures for making the treatment development process more efficient and effective for the purposes of training and clinical effectiveness. In addition, Manente and colleagues (2010) describe some practical strategies for implementing function-based treatments with populations that present significant treatment challenges (adults with autism). Falcomata, Ringdahl, Christensen & Boelter (2010) describe procedures for selecting different mand (requesting) topographies during functional communication training. This kind of research is of particular importance to clinical researchers as it represents a strategy for providing individualized intervention using empirical evidence for the decision making process . Aspects of treatment, such as communication modality, may often be selected arbitrarily (based on the training of the practitioner, rather than best clinical fit). The authors provide a model for a more nuanced model of treatment development.

While the literature regarding functional assessment and treatment development is vast, there remain significant gaps that hinder widespread acceptance and use of the procedures in clinical settings. Our hope is that the current issue of Behavior Analyst Today will bring some of these important issues to the attention of behavior analysts who can continue to contribute to this evolving science.


Carr, E. G. (1977). The motivation of self-injurious behavior: A review of some hypotheses. Psychological Bulletin, 84, 800-816.

Carr, E. G. & Durand, V. M. (1985). Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 18, 111-126.

Delfs and Campbell (2010) A quantitative synthesis of developmental disability research: The impact of functional assessment methodology on treatment effectiveness. Behavior Analyst Today.

Durand, V. M. & Kishi, G. (1987). Reducing severe behavior problems among persons with dual sensory impairments: An evaluation of a technical assistance model. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 12, 2-10.

Falcomata, Ringdahl, J. E., Christensen, T. J. & Boelter, E. W. (2010) An evaluation of prompt schedules and mand preference during functional communication training. Behavior Analyst Today.

Gadaire, D. M., Kelley, M. E. & DeRosa, N. M. (2010) Research needed for focusing on additional generality of applied behavior analysis. Behavior Analyst Today.

Hanley, G. P., Iwata, B. A., & McCord, B. E. (2003). Functional analysis of problem behavior: A review. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 36, 147-185.

Hansford A., Zilber, I., LaRue, R. H. & Weiss, M. J. (2010). Practical issues in effective behavioral intervention development. Behavior Analyst Today.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. 20 U.S.C. [sections] 1400 et seq. (2004).

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, 20 U.S.C. [sections] 1400 et seq. (1997).

Iwata, B. A., Dorsey, M. F., Slifer, K. J., Bauman, K. E., & Richman, G. S. (1994). Toward a functional analysis of self-injury. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 197-209. (Reprinted from Analysis and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities, 2, 3-20, 1982).

Kahng, S., Iwata, B. A., Lewin, A. B. (2002). The impact of functional assessment on the treatment of self-injurious behavior. In Self-Injurious Behavior: Gene-Brain-Behavior Relationships. Schroeder, S. R.; Oster-Granite, M.; Thompson, T. (Eds). 119-131. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Manente, C. J., Maraventano, J. C., LaRue, R. H., Delmolino, L. & Sloan, D. (2010). Effective behavioral intervention for adults on the autism spectrum: Best practices in functional assessment and treatment development. Behavior Analyst Today.

Repp, A. C., Felce, D. & Barton, L. E. (1988). Basing the treatment of stereotypic and self-injurious behavior on hypotheses of their causes. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 281-289.

Sloman, K. N. (2010). Research trends in descriptive analysis. Behavior Analyst Today.

Corresponding Author:

Robert LaRue, Ph.D.

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center

151 Ryders Lane

New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901

Phone: (732) 932-3017

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Author:LaRue, Robert H.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Article Type:Report
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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