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Functional analyses and treatment of precursor behavior

Najdowski, A., Wallace, M., Ellsworth, C. & MacAleese, A. (2008). Functional analyses and treatment of precursor behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41, 97-105.

Functional Analysis of Behavior (FBA) involves manipulation of antecedents and consequences that are thought to maintain problem behavior to develop hypotheses regarding the function of the behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).  However, some problem behavior is so dangerous or problematic that evoking these behaviors is unsafe and unethical.  As a result, Najdowski, Wallace, Ellsworth, MacAleese, and Cleveland (2008) conducted a study on three individuals with severe problem behavior to see if precursor behaviors (the behavior which immediately preceded the more severe behavior) served the same function as the problem behavior.  Their study is predicated on the idea that manipulation of antecedents and consequences that surround precursor behavior, if it serves the same function as the problem behavior, will likely have the same effect on the more severe problem behavior because they are in the same response class.  As a result, experimenters could then conduct FBA around precursor behavior and develop effective treatments without having to have the individual engage in severe problem behavior.  In their study, Najdowski et al. (2008) measured the occurrences of severe behaviors, precursor behaviors as well as appropriate alternative responses, the dependent variables during FBA and Functional Communication Training (FTC), the independent variable.  Indirect assessments were conducted to determine specific precursors to severe behaviors and FBAs were conducted.  Once a function was identified from precursor behavior, treatments were developed and tested.  Results from their study show that during FBA sessions a specific function was identified for each participant and zero occurrences of severe problem behavior.  Treatments, in the form of individualized and functionally equivalent mands, were then implemented to replace the need for precursor for each participant.  Baseline was then conducted and showed high levels of precursor behaviors and little to no use of the alternative mand.  During FTC treatment sessions, however, this pattern was reversed and all participants reduced precursor behavior and increased use of the alternative mand.  This indicated that precursor behavior and sever problem behavior are functionally similar and thus effective treatments can be developed from antecedent and consequence manipulation surrounding precursor behavior. 

A strength of the Najdowski et al. (2008) study is the knowledge that precursor and severe problem behavior are functionally similar.  By conducting FBA on precursor behavior, experimenters are not limited by having to use ineffective practices such as using protective equipment and/or conducting brief FBA on the more severe problem behavior.  According to Cooper et al., (2007) FBA are useful in determining the function of a problem behavior so effective treatment and functionally equivalent replacement behaviors can be determined.  As a result of this study, ethical analysis of severe problem behavior can be possible.  An additional strength of this study, which Najdowski et al. (2008) point out as a possible weakness involves identification of the individualized precursor behaviors through indirect assessment.  Although, according to Cooper et al., (2007) direct assessments are more reliable than subjective recollections of behavior through indirect assessment, in this study the indirect assessments were highly accurate at identifying the precursor behaviors to the severe problem behaviors.

A weakness of this study, according to Najdowski et al., (2008) was the fact that FBA was never conducted on the severe problem behavior.  Although the results of their study were impressive, they are at best speculative because antecedents and consequences were only manipulated around the precursor behaviors which may have been unrelated to the more severe problem behaviors.  According to Cooper et al., (2007) FBA is designed to identify the function of behavior and the reinforcers that maintain it and as a result the authors can only conclude with certainty that their FTC interventions had an effect on the precursors to the more severe problem behavior.  An additional weakness not discussed, is the fact that there was an inequitable delivery of the FBA conditions.  Only one subject was exposed to the alone condition and another subject was the only one to be exposed to the tangible condition.  In this regard, Najdowski et al. (2008) deviated from the traditional model outlined by Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, and Richman (1994) which could possibly weaken their study. 

The results of this study are highly relevant for any service provider for adults with disabilities.  Sexually inappropriate behavior, for example, is a concern that many in adult services cannot manage to bring under control and often refuse to address.  Since conducting FBA on sexually inappropriate behavior would be unethical, one could on the precursor behaviors similar to the Najdowski et al. (2008) study and possibly develop treatments based on scientific research as opposed to guessing.