Data Collection Methods: Continuous vs Discontinuous Measurement in ABA

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) relies heavily on data to make informed treatment decisions. Professionals in the field must choose the data collection method that measures the right behavior. They analyze data to determine the effectiveness of interventions. If the data demonstrate progress, interventions continue. If the data reveal a trend in the wrong direction, the professional changes the intervention.

The right data collection system provides information needed to determine the effectiveness of programming. Choose either a continuous data collection method (frequency, rate, duration, or latency) or a discontinuous data collection method (partial interval, whole interval, or momentary time sampling). The right method provides accurate data that are sensitive to behavior change. Continuous methods provide the most accurate data, although they can be difficult to utilize in busy environments. Discontinuous methods offer an estimate of the occurrence of behavior, but can be used even when staff can’t attend to the learner’s behavior throughout the entire session.

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Data collection methods in ABA infographic

Contents

Continuous Data Collection Discontinuous Data Collection Other Data Collection Methods Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Type of Data Collection Method 5 Ways to Make Frequency Data Collection Easier and More Discrete Choose Your Data Collection Method Download Data Sheets

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Continuous Data Collection

Continuous data collection methods measure every occurrence of a behavior. These methods either count each instance of the behavior or the specific amount of time a behavior occurs. These methods allow you to measure behavior along the basic dimensions and accurately detect change in the behavior. Choose a continuous method when programming requires a complete record of behavior. Several different systems provide continuous data.

Frequency

Frequency provides a simple count of the behavior that occurs. Record the frequency of the behavior using tally marks, a clicker, or even small objects. Moving small beads from one pocket to another when a behavior occurs provides a simple way of discretely counting the occurrence of the behavior. Once the session ends, count the number of beads and enter that number onto your data sheet. Use frequency measurement when the behaviors:

  • Have a clear beginning and end
  • Occur at a rate that can accurately be counted

Frequency measures both desirable and undesirable behavior such as the number of times your client pees on the potty or throws toys. Simple frequency counts are easy for staff to collect; however, they don’t take into consideration how long each session is and can be misleading when session duration varies widely. For example, 10 instances of behavior occurring in a 30-minute session is quite different than 10 instances occurring during a 4-hour session.

Record frequency data using tally marks or use a clicker to count then record the total on a simple frequency data sheet. Download the simple frequency data sheet below to get started.

frequency data sheet aba
ABA Frequency Data Sheet

Rate

Rate measurements level the playing field regarding session duration. They reflect the frequency of behavior that occurs over a period of time. This type of data provides you with more information than frequency data alone and typically is a more accurate representation of the behavior. To calculate rate, divide the frequency by the duration of the session (i.e. minutes or hours). Rate is expressed as a number per unit of time (i.e. 6 instances per hour or 12 instances per minute).

Use rate data when:

  • Session duration is inconsistent
  • You measure the behavior during some parts of the day but not others

As with other continuous data collection measures, rate data can be used to document behaviors targeted for increase or decrease. You may choose to use rate data to determine the number of times per hour your client mands for something he wants or engages in aggressive behaviors.

Record rate data in much the same way that you record frequency data, but specify the period of time the behavior occurred during (i.e. per minute, per hour, per day, etc.). Download the simple rate data sheet below to get started.

rate data sheet aba
ABA Rate Data Sheet

Duration

Duration data measure how long a behavior lasts from beginning to end. When defining behaviors to be collected by duration recording, professionals must identify an onset and offset to ensure accurate measurement. A stopwatch or timer in a data collection app provides the most reliable duration data. Avoid estimating duration by expecting staff to look at a clock or watch to measure the time. Use duration recording when the behaviors:

  • Have ambiguous beginning and end
  • Last for an inconsistent period of time

Again, duration could measure both behaviors you want to increase as well as those you are looking to decrease. Amount of time spent engaging in imaginative play or in a tantrum are examples of behaviors you might measure using duration data.

Record duration data by noting the amount of time a behavior occurred during each occurrence. You can also calculate the frequency of the behavior by counting the number of times you recorded the duration. Download the simple duration data sheet below to get started.

Duration data sheet aba
ABA Duration Data Sheet

Latency

Latency measures the time between the discriminative stimuli (SD) and the response. This measure allows you to evaluate the speed of responding to a particular stimulus. For example, you may use latency data to increase the rate of responding during DTT (by decreasing latency) or you may use it to decrease the rate of responding prior to hearing the full SD during DTT (by increasing latency). Use latency data when:

  • Responses occur too slowly or too quickly following the SD

Latency measures provide highly specific information. To record latency, initiate the time on a stopwatch following the delivery of the SD and stop the time as soon as the learner begins to respond.

Record latency data by recording the SD and the amount of time it took the learner to begin the response. Download the simple latency data sheet below to get started.

Latency data sheet aba
ABA Latency Data Sheet

Learn more about continuous data collection:

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Discontinuous Data Collection

Discontinuous data collection systems measure only a sample of behavior that occurs by breaking the session down into small increments of time. Although these data are potentially less accurate than continuous data collection methods, they are easier to collect in busy environments. There is an inherent error in each method of discontinuous measurement (Fiske & Delmolino, 2012). When choosing a discontinuous measurement method, consider these errors carefully. The chart below describes these errors.

Discontinuous Measurement MethodType of ErrorUse for:
Partial Interval RecordingOverestimates the occurrence of behaviorBehavior decrease
Whole Interval RecordingUnderestimates the occurrence of behaviorBehavior increase
Momentary Time SamplingNeither overestimates nor underestimates the occurrence of behaviorHigh frequency, behavior increase
Comparison of the errors inherent in discontinuous measurement methods

Partial Interval

Partial interval data breaks the session into equal parts (intervals). Record if the behavior occurred at any point during that interval. Since the behavior only needs to occur once or for a small fraction of the interval, partial interval data overestimates the occurrence of behavior. Use partial interval recording when:

  • The behavior does not have a clear start and stop
  • The behavior occurs at such a high rate that it’s impractical to attempt to count each occurrence
  • An estimate of the frequency of the behavior is acceptable

Keep in mind that because partial interval data provides an overestimate of the occurrence of behavior, you want to use the smallest interval that is practical for your situation. The larger the interval, the more inflated the data. Often, due to the overestimation of this method, professionals use partial interval to document behaviors targeted for reduction. Examples of behaviors you might record using partial interval data include the occurrence of stereotypies or screaming across an entire day, if either behavior occurs at a high rate.

Because staff only need to attend to the behavior if it occurs, partial interval recording can be more efficient for busy staff to collect than monitoring for and counting each occurrence of a given behavior.

Whole Interval

Whole interval data again breaks the session into equal parts (intervals). Record if the behavior occurs throughout the whole interval. Since the behavior must occur for the entire amount of the interval, this method underestimates the occurrence of the target behavior. Use whole interval recording when:

  • The behavior occurs over long periods of time
  • It’s impractical to use duration recording in your setting
  • An overestimate of the behavior is acceptable

Because this method underestimates the occurrence of the behavior you want to use the smallest interval that is practical for your situation to ensure the most accurate reflection of the behavior. Often, due to the underestimation of the occurrence of the behavior, professionals use whole interval to document behaviors target for increase. This might include behaviors such as amount of time spent engaged in table work or functional play, assuming that these occur over significant periods of the child’s day.

Momentary Time-Sampling

Momentary time-sampling takes a quick snapshot of whether or not a behavior occurs. Identify an appropriate interval based on baseline data. When the interval is over, record whether or not the behavior is occurring at that time. This data collection method neither over nor underestimates the behavior; however, because not every instance of the behavior is recorded, the data are far less accurate than continuous data collection. Use momentary time-sampling when:

  • Other methods of data collection are impractical in your situation
  • You rely on someone else to collect the data who is unable to continuously monitor the behavior due to other responsibilities
  • It’s not necessary to ensure you get a complete recording of the behavior

Momentary time-sampling does not provide you with reliable data; however, busy professionals are able to collect data about behavior when they don’t have the ability to attend to the child for extended periods of time. Momentary time-sampling may provide sufficient information for behaviors such as working independently at school or playing alone at home.

Download Discontinuous Data Sheets

Interval data sheet to be used with partial interval, whole interval or momentary time sampling
Interval data sheet
Choosing a Data Collection Method in ABA-continuous versus discontinuous measurement
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Other Data Collection Methods

The above data collection methods provide the widest application for learning about the occurrence of an identified behavior. The list above meets most of the data collection needs of professionals in the field of ABA. Other methods capture information missed when using those methods. The below data collection systems are used less frequently and for more specific purposes than the methods listed above.

ABC Data Collection

ABC data is often a critical component when conducting a functional behavior assessment (FBA). This data collection method looks at what happens right before and right after the behavior you’re interested in. This allows for analysis of the context of the behavior to begin to determine a possible function. Although there are many ways to collect ABC data, one simple method is to create a form with checkboxes for commonly occurring antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. Not only does this make data collection simpler, but it also provides an easier method for analyzing these data.

ABC data sheet with check boxes
ABC data sheet

For more information on ABC data, see our posts: ABC Data: The Key to Understanding Behavior and Functions of Behavior in ABA: Complete Guide.

Scatterplot

A scatterplot provides information of the occurrence of behavior across different parts of the day, either time frames or activities. This method allows for a visual analysis to determine if patterns exist. The example below breaks the day into 1 hour blocks of time and then provides space to compare data across an entire week. This data sheet also provides space to document location. This allows you, at a glance, to see that the highest rate of behavior occurs from 7-8 pm at home. While it doesn’t give you a specific count of behavior, this information allows you to determine when you should look to collect that more specific data.

Scatterplot data sheet example
Scatterplot data sheet example

Permanent Product

Permanent product data provides a way for the professional to evaluate the occurrence of behavior after it has stopped. With this method of data collection, the professional does not need to be available to observe the behavior as it occurs. Schools use a lot of permanent product data recording for this reason. A teacher is unable to observe each of her students as they work, but she can look at the permanent products they produce (i.e. worksheets, projects, videos, etc.).

Probe

Probe data simply test to determine if a behavior occurs or does not occur in a given situation. In an effort to ensure that data collection does not interfere with teaching methods, a professional may choose to utilize a probe only data collection system for specific targets. If the professional chooses to do a probe prior to any teaching trials, we refer to this as a “cold probe.” Probe data allow for the professional to focus her attention on teaching methodology including errorless learning and prompt fading techniques. This data system is most beneficial when there are a limited number of individuals working with a client and who don’t rely on the data to know the correct prompt level to use during teaching.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Type of Data Collection Method

Each data collection method has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Consider these carefully before determining which system to use.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Continuous Data
Collection
~Most accurate
~Sensitive to small
changes in behavior
~Requires constant
observation
~Difficult to use without
1:1 staff
Discontinuous Data
Collection
~Easier to use in a
busy environment
~Provides enough
information for
many situations
~Able to track very high
frequency behavior
~Only an estimate of
behavior
~Must consider over or
under estimation when
analyzing data
~May need more time to
see changes in behavior
Comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of continuous and discontinuous data collection methods
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5 Ways to Make Frequency Data Collection Easier and More Discrete

Identifying the obstacles to accurate data collection helps reveal creative solutions to over come them. While you may experience specific obstacles in your practice, two obstacles seem to occur across various types of ABA programs. Often staff have the most difficulty in accurate data collection when they need to collect frequency data for high frequency behaviors or when the act of collecting the data becomes reinforcing for the child.

High Frequency Behaviors

Many children with autism engage in a variety of maladaptive behaviors that occur at too high a rate. Often behavior change occurs gradually over time. In order to determine the effectiveness of a behavior reduction plan, the data that are collected must be accurate. Although frequency and rate data collection may not be the most practical method for collecting data for high frequency behaviors, it is the most sensitive to behavior change, provided that the data are accurate.

Data Collection Becomes Reinforcing

Many children with autism don’t pay attention to data being collected by a professional. Other children find any form of attention motivating. When these children associate their behavior with the behavior of staff, the result may be an increase in this behavior. Traditional data collection techniques require staff to distinctly make some type of mark or electronic record. These methods lack the subtlety needed for children attuned to staff behavior.

Data Collection Techniques

Here are 5 options for easier and more discrete data collection. Each of these techniques offers its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Try them and see what works best for you!

1. Clicker Counters

Clicker counters are a great tool for counting high frequency behaviors and can easily be used to calculate rate (just calculate frequency/time). These clickers are a great way to track a variety of behaviors that occur frequently. You simply assign each behavior a color and click when the behavior occurs. They include a hook that you attach to a carabiner so you can attach them to a pocket or belt loop. These are affordable and available on Amazon . Their major disadvantage is the clicking sound that they make. Avoid these for children whose behavior is reinforced by staff collecting data.

Alternatively, digital finger counters provide the subtly you may need, but these counters can be sensitive and you risk counting behavior that doesn’t occur. If worn on a thumb, you may be less likely to accidentally hit the button. Again, these handy tools are inexpensive and easy to find on Amazon .

2. Small Objects in Pockets

Check out this low-tech option for tracking the occurrence of behavior. Put a collection of small objects in one pocket. As behavior occurs, transfer the corresponding number from that pocket into the other pocket.

This method offers some subtlety for well trained staff. To optimize discretion, staff put their hand in their pocket and carefully scoop one item into their hand as behavior occurs. Once the child looks away, staff move the items from that pocket to the other. The more frequently the behavior occurs, the smaller the objects must be.

With this option, you risk accidentally dropping the items either back into the original pocket or on the floor when transferring them. In addition, you must count each item at the end of the session. While this creates additional work, it may be the best short-term option if you need a low-tech, discrete data collection method.

3. Beads on a Pipe Cleaner

Sliding beads on a pipe cleaner offers another low-tech option for frequency data collection. When done well, it appears as though staff are simply fidgeting with the beads or doing a craft while not attending to the child’s behavior. Staff can slide a group of beads onto the top of the pipe cleaner and as behavior occurs, slide the beads to the bottom.

While this option may be reinforcing for staff as it can offer a calming effect for some, children may pick up on the fact that each time behavior occurs, staff pick up the beads. There are 2 ways to combat this effect: rotate between different low-tech options or have staff play with the beads throughout the day when behavior does not occur.

4. Technology

Technology offers a broad array of options from simple to complex. Many apps provide access to different methods to tally behavior as it occurs. Some apps export or graph this data for you as well. A simpler option is to open a note taking app and add an emoji or other character each time the behavior occurs.

Similar to the small objects method, this method requires staff to count the occurrences at the end of the session. This method offers some other nice advantages for children who attend to staff behavior. Adults on technology (phones, tablets or computers) is so common place that it essentially becomes unnoticeable to many children. In addition, children who are motivated by technology may be unpleased to see that the adult has found her own entertainment while he engages in the behavior.

5. Small Elastics on Fingers

A final low-tech and inexpensive option is to place small elastics on your fingers (hair elastics intended for young children work well). Place spares on one hand and as behavior occurs, roll them over to the other hand. To the child, this may appear as simple fidgeting.

This method may be inefficient for behaviors that occur at a very high frequency. In addition, some staff may find them uncomfortable on their fingers. This system also requires staff to count each elastic at the end of the session. Despite these disadvantages, you may find that this method works best for your specific circumstances.

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Choose Your Data Collection Method

The data collection method you choose must produce accurate data, measure outcomes, and be sensitive to change in the behavior measured (Fiske & Delmolino, 2012). Many factors influence the accuracy of data collection, including the:

  • Operational definition
  • Training of interventionists
  • Type of data collection system selected

For more information about writing clear operational definitions, check out our course Writing Operational Definitions.

Research in Data Collection Methods

Several studies evaluate the use of the different data collection methods in research studies. Two studies evaluate this trend during different time periods. Kelly (1977) looked at the research published in The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis from 1968-1975 and Mudford, Taylor, and Martin (2009). The results of their research are presented in the table below.

Time PeriodContinuous Data Collection MethodsDiscontinuous Data Collection Methods
1968-197559%41%
1995-200555%45%
Comparison of the use of continuous versus discontinuous data collection methods in the research

Across the 40 year span from the start of the first study to the end of the follow-up study, researchers balanced the use of continuous and discontinuous data collection methods. Although discontinuous data collection methods have their value, they fail to quantify the basic dimensions of behavior (Fiske & Delmolino, 2012). With the introduction of electronic data collection systems, continuous data measures are more practical and efficient than they were when only paper and pencil technology existed. Although this should lead to researchers relying more on continuous data collection measures, the studies reveal that it’s not necessarily the case.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Data Collection Method

When determining which data collection method fits your needs, you must consider many factors including:

  • Is the behavior potentially dangerous?
  • Does the behavior threaten the placement of the individual?
  • How frequently does the behavior typically occur?
  • Does the behavior occur over a period of time?
  • Does the behavior have a clear beginning and end?
  • Who will be collecting the data?
  • How long does the behavior usually last?
  • Is it a behavioral deficit or excess?

Fiske and Delmolino (2012) provided clear guidelines for choosing between a continuous and discontinuous data collection method. The table below is a description of their recommendations.

Continuous Data Collection MethodDiscontinuous Data Collection Method
Discrete behaviors with a clear onset and offsetAmbiguous breaks between the occurrence of the behavior
Interventionist can accurately record each instance The behavior occurs at a very high rate
Recording behaviors individuallyRecording multiple behaviors simultaneously
Interventionist responsible for 1 learnerInterventionist required to complete many tasks at once
When to choose a continuous or discontinuous data collection method

Serious, dangerous or severe behavior requires a system that provides accurate data. Strongly consider using continuous data collection when addressing these types of behavior. Behaviors that occur at an exceptionally high rate may require a discontinuous data collection method for accuracy. If you rely on parents or teachers to collect data, you should consider discontinuous methods. Taking all of these factors into consideration allows you to select the most effective and efficient data collection system for your ABA program.

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References and Further Reading

Fiske, K., & Delmolino, L. (2012). Use of discontinuous methods of data collection in behavioral intervention: Guidelines for practitionersBehavior Analysis in Practice5(2), 77-81.

Kelly, M. B. (1977). A review of the observational data‐collection and reliability procedures reported in the Journal of Applied Behavior AnalysisJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis10(1), 97-101.

Mudford, O. C., Beale, I. L., & Singh, N. N. (1990). The representativeness of observational samples of different durationsJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis23(3), 323-331.

Mudford, O. C., Taylor, S. A., & Martin, N. T. (2009). Continuous recording and interobserver agreement algorithms reported in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (1995–2005)Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis42(1), 165-169.

Repp, A. C., Roberts, D. M., Slack, D. J., Repp, C. F., & Berkler, M. S. (1976). A comparison of frequency, interval, and time‐sampling methods of data collectionJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis9(4), 501-508.

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