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Contextualized assessment of behavior change

This research examines how a contextual approach to assessment can enhance our understanding of child psychopathology and our ability to interpret and predict children's responses to intervention.

Contextual versus syndromal assessment of behavior change in at-risk youth:
A National Institute of Mental Health funded investigation of behavior change
processes and treatment effect durability

Background. This research investigates how contextual approaches to assessment can enhance our understanding of child psychopathology and improve our ability to interpret and predict children's responses to psychoeducational interventions. Children's psychosocial functioning is often conceptualized in terms of overall frequencies of problem behaviors, and commonly measured using standardized syndromal instruments that ask informed observers to make summary frequency statements about overall behavior levels. Likewise, studies of children's responses to interventions typically focus on overall indices of symptom change. In contrast, contextual approaches to assessment developed in the present research emphasize both the patterning of children's behavior over different social contexts and how often children experience those contexts in their social environments. Like individual functional behavior assessments conducted on children in special education settings, contextual assessment focuses on the events that elicit a child's behavior problems (i.e., under what conditions is this child aggressive) rather than overall rates of behavior (i.e., how often is this child aggressive). These patterns reveal the social interactional meaning of children's behavior problems, help identify interventions that are more likely to be successful, and provide important information about the efficacy of an intervention. Unlike functional assessments, which tend to be highly individualized, the contextual assessments investigated in this research are designed to be applicable to a wide range of children, making them appropriate for standardized screening and assessment work in schools and clinics and in program evaluation research.

Recent evidence suggests that despite their prominence in the field, syndromal measures like the Child Behavior Checklist /Teacher Report Form can fail to detect individual differences among children in the social situations that elicit their behavior and may hamper efforts to predict who will show enduring benefits from treatment. For example, two children may show aggressive "acts" equally often, even though one is primarily aggressive in response to peers, and the other primarily aggressive in response to adults. Syndromal measures ignore this contextual variability and thus do not reveal critical differences between the children in their psychosocial functioning. Similarly, a child whose aggression to peers is reduced by an after-school intervention may show circumscribed improvement in his interactions with peers at school, whereas a child whose treatment gains are seen mainly in her interactions with adult counselors may later show improvement primarily in her interactions with teachers or parents. A syndromal assessment of change would not distinguish between these or other specific change processes, and as such would have difficulty predicting how treatment gains might carry over and manifest themselves in other settings.

Specific Aims of Current Research. The specific aims of this research are: (1) to investigate how well syndromal versus contextual assessment methods reveal children's responses to treatment and predict durability of treatment effects across settings; (2) to investigate gender differences in the contextual patterning of children's problem behaviors and how they may be linked to differential treatment response; and (3) to develop efficient, multi-informant contextual rating methods. We will collect data on 360 children with emotional and behavioral problems before, during, and after Wediko Children's Services' intensive 45-day summer treatment program. Data collection will take place over three consecutive summer sessions. Teachers and parents will provide syndromal and contextual ratings of behavior problems in the spring and in the fall of the following school year. Counselors in the summer setting will provide those same ratings at three points during the summer. They will also complete hourly behavioral observations during the summer. Counselors, teachers and parents will also rate how much they believe children have changed over the course of the summer treatment program.

Goals of Current Research. This project will provide important information about how different children change in response to Wediko's intensive summer treatment program, and how that change carries over into the home and school settings in the fall. More broadly, the research will provide researchers, clinicians, and educators with tools to better detect treatment effects that are context-specific yet potentially important, better evaluate why interventions impact children differently, and better predict the transfer or non-transfer of treatment gains to other settings. Contextual assessment methods should also improve communication between parents, teachers, clinicians, and other professionals by clarifying how and why behavior so often differs over settings (e.g., home, school, therapy).

Investigators. This research is being conducted by Audrey Zakriski, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College and Jack Wright, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Psychology at Brown University, in collaboration with Harry Parad, Ph.D. Executive Director, Wediko Children's Services, Diana Parad, LICSW, Director of the School-Year Program, and Larry Tucker, Ph.D., consultant (and former Wediko senior staff member), and with the support of Wediko Children's Services senior consultants and staff, as well as Connecticut College and Brown University students.
Data Collection Overview
Spring '06, '07, '08
Parent completion of
• A syndromal measure of child behavior problems: Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL)
• A contextual measure of child behavior problems: Behavior Environment Transactional Analysis (BETA)
Teacher completion of
• A syndromal measure of child behavior problems: Teacher Report Form (TRF)
• A contextual measure of child behavior problems: BETA

Summer '06, '07, '08
Staff completion – three times during the summer - of
• A syndromal measure of child behavior problems: TRF
• A contextual measure of child behavior problems: BETA
• Daily syndromal and contextual behavioral observations on Palm Pilots
• End of the summer Impressions of Change ratings

Fall '06, '07, '08
Parent completion of
• A syndromal measure of child behavior problems: CBCL
• A contextual measure of child behavior problems: BETA
Teacher completion of
• A syndromal measure of child behavior problems: TRF
• A contextual measure of child behavior problems: BETA

Brown faculty collaborators:

None

Other project collaborators:

Dr. Audrey Zakriski, Connecticut College, New London, CT
Back to Jack Wright's Brown Research Profile
Research at Brown: Jack Wright: Contextualized assessment of behavior change
Brown.edu Brown Research home page
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