The Search for an Effective Treatment for Noncompliant Children with Multiple Other Problems: Testing for the Response Covariation Phenomenon

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Recently, support has increased for treating more than just one target behavior concurrently, rather than sequentially. The major reason for this support is increased reporting of collateral changes in behaviors (treatment side effects) when only one behavior is targeted for change. The present study investigated three issues: (a) Does response covariation occur in a natural setting? (b) Is response covariation actually a phenomenon caused by interactions within a complex behavioral chain? (c) Is there a clearly superior approach to treating children with multiple behavioral problems within a model of response covariation? This study was conducted in an elementary school in southern Minnesota. Four subjects were used for the study. The subjects ranged in age from 3 years 1 month to 5 years 6 months, and were comprised of 1 female and 3 males. Treatment sessions lasted 45 minutes daily. Behaviors targeted for change were rates of compliance and on-task behavior. Because compliance and on-task behavior are often referred to as topographically similar, placement of feet was also targeted for change with 2 of the 4 subjects since it is topographically dissimilar from the other targeted behaviors. Rates of academic performance were also monitored, but not targeted for change. Following baseline, three interventions were used on 2 subjects (reinforcement of compliance, reinforcement of on-task behavior, and reinforcement of having two feet on the floor), and two interventions with the remaining 2 subjects (reinforcement of compliance and reinforcement of on-task behavior). Rates of changes in behavior were monitored for response covariation and collateral changes. Results of this study provided partial support for the questions under investigation. Response covariation was seen to exist in a natural setting (classroom); however, it was discovered that the covariation measured during the intervention phases preexisted in many cases during baseline. This discovery raised doubts and concerns about previous studies claiming treatments that produced covariation. The response covariation phenomenon appears to be the result of a change in magnitude of behavioral responses, as opposed to a change in the relationship between behaviors. None of the treatments tried in this study appeared clearly superior. These results and others are discussed in terms of their implications for future research in treating children with multiple behavioral handicaps.

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