The Importance of Data Collection

Why collect data? What does data collection have to do with your child’s behavior(s)?

In my last blog, I explained the term, S.E.A.T. SEAT is a tool to help us understand and root out the cause of a child’s unexpected and usually “bad” behavior. Was it a sensory issue, an escape issue, an attention issue, or a tangible issue that led up to a behavior?

Now, I ask…Why do we bother to find out why a child had a behavior? Why don’t we just deal with that behavior and be done with it?

Because finding out the “why” of a behavior – what caused my child to have a meltdown or trash the classroom or whatever – is important in helping lesson his or her future behaviors. Our children with autism have a lot going inside their bodies and often cannot deal with our world. They act out inappropriately until they learn what it appropriate.

I first learned the importance of collecting data a few years ago when my son was displaying an affectionate yet often bothersome behavior. My child decided to give me hugs. LOTS of hugs. He wanted to always hug me and wanted me to hug him in return. It became an obsession.

After two weeks of too many hugs, I mentioned it to my child’s DTT supervisor. She immediately asked me to spend the next week tracking the data on this behavior. “Data on the behavior?” I said. “It’s just my son displaying affection for his ‘Mommy,’ isn’t it?”

“Yes and no,” she responded. “I’m really thinking it’s an OT-related behavior.”

I tracked the hugging for a week and my child was hugging me no less than 20 times a day. There’s affection… and there’s too much affection.

His supervisor was right. This hugging was an OT-related issue. Based on my Mommy-hugging data, my child’s DTT supervisor then devised an OT plan for our child and called our child’s OT therapist to coordinate the plan with her. She explained that our child was sensory-seeking and hugging me (constantly) was an available way for him to satisfy his OT needs. Mommy was very available to him. And, yes, I’d always return the hug! He was helping himself in the OT world. From that point on, I understood the value in data collection to help lesson my child’s behaviors.

What else can you do with data collection?

A few years later, I took data collection a step further. During my child’s current school year, I am using data collection to help my child begin to wean off his need of a school aide.

How am I doing this?

I asked my child’s aide to track the number of regulation breaks that my child needs during the day. There is an actual category for putting in a number for the number of times during a school day when he needs to leave the class because his “engine is running high.” Typically, the number that is recorded is either zero or one. Last week, however, there was a 45 minute period of time when it was three! Why three? What happened during that time when my child was so dis-regulated that he felt he needed to ask for three regulation breaks?

Turned out it was an assembly morning and my son was simply not in the mood to sit on the auditorium floor with 100 other students.

Yet, that was data that I wanted. Assembly mornings are hard for my son, and now I have the proof. We’re not losing his aide this year – and most likely not next year, either – but armed with some data I will hopefully be able to help him on days when I can anticipate problems. Through experience and data collection, I can help him on days when I know he’ll need to sit with 100 other students on the hard auditorium floor, be still with his body, and quiet with his voice.

During this school year, if I continue to see a problem on assembly mornings – using the supporting data – I’m going to conclude that an adjustment needs to be made as to how my child can get through assembly mornings.

How do I collect data?

First of all, understand that tracking data takes some time. You can’t gather reliable data during one or two days. For the hugging problem, it was a week. For weaning my child’s aide, it’s going to be a year or more.

To track the hugging data, I simply took out a piece of paper, wrote down the days of the week, and added a hash mark for every hug on that day. Then, I added them up for each day.

That was all I did. Tracking data does not have to involve anything fancy nor do any computers need be involved. I think it’s more important to just observe and record and don’t worry about getting it perfect. If you miss one or two hugs, that’s fine. I remember being away from the house with my son for half a day during that week and went I got home I asked myself, “Did he hug me three times or four during out outing?” I couldn’t remember the exact number. I chose three and wrote it down and didn’t beat myself up over it.

Some tracking methods may involve more than a hash mark and a number. A therapist, for example, may need an explanation of the behavior to be able to request the most appropriate strategy to attack that behavior. They may need more information.

However, there is one exception I can think of. If your child is into self-injury, it is much more important to stop that actual injury-related behavior as quickly as possible. Do not leave your child to fend for himself during that behavior. You cannot leave your child like that because you have to go write down the data.

When the situation is calm, take out whatever it is you are using to log the behavior and do your best to recreate what had happened. Try to be detailed. It’ll be enough for a therapist to interpret, especially if there are multiple observations.

That’s the beauty of data collection. Strive for as much information as possible. Keep in mind both quality and quantity. Do you best to archive an event then hand the results to an expert who can help. Remember, your child’s therapists cannot completely understand a behavior because they are not around your child nearly as often as you are. They need your help.

Date collection is another useful tool. It’s another way you can help your child. It is even more work, however. You actually have to take the notes, make the hash marks, remember what led up to a behavior, etc. It is one more thing.

Data collection usually is not permanent, though. And, it may provide necessary information to help choose a proper strategy that will alleviate a problem. You may gain insight into your child’s behaviors that you never would have if you weren’t really observing and logging and breaking down a behavior into small enough pieces to write it all down.

Consider embracing data collection. It may just lead to a happier and healthier household.

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