Foundations of Data Collection in the Classroom


The term data collection can strike fear into the hearts of teachers. I come across many people who detest the thought of having to collect behavior data on their students. I have to admit there was a time in my personal and professional life when taking data ranked up there with having a tooth pulled or getting a shot from doctor.

As times have changed so has the value of collecting data. Today we here the very common buzz term “response to intervention” as way to analyze how, when, and why children transition through educational continuums. To look at it more simply, how some children gain access to or independence from specialized supports.

But collecting behavior data doesn’t need to be a burden and it doesn’t need to take away from your day. Collecting behavior data for your students can be easy and efficient if you understand the three basic foundations of data collection in the classroom: right reason, make it relevant, and keep it simple.

Foundation I: Right reason

First and foremost, identify the value of collecting the data you seek. Why do you need it and what purpose will it serve? Answering these questions will help you ensure the data you are collecting serves the purpose for which it is intended. Your primary concern when it comes to data collection is making your collected data a useful part of the program. Data collected and analyzed should be used to mold the child’s program, assess the effectiveness of the selected interventions, activities, and teaching techniques, and to look for trends in the child’s behaviors and learning. If the data you collect has no real value, other than being a good visual for meetings, there really is little point in taking data at all. On the same note, data collected for the mere purpose of just doing it, serves little purpose and is a waste of your time.

Foundation II: Make it Relevant

The second foundation is to ensure that one is taking data that are relevant and appropriate for the behavior being documented and for the goals associated with that behavior. There are a number of different types of behavioral data that one can take:

Frequency – This is perhaps the most common form of data collected. Frequency counts the number of target behaviors that occur in a given period of time. When talking about frequency, typically you will here the words “how often does the behavior happen”. Frequency can be expressed in terms of rate.

  • The time period you choose depends upon the behavior you are trying to document. But it can also depend on the setting. If child only displays the behavior in one classroom and they are there for one hour, it would be reasonable that your period of measurement would be in that classroom for a period of one hour. If you were trying to count the number of self-initiated interactions with peers at recess, the period of time for each data collection session might be 20 minutes or so. However, if one were keeping track of how often a child chose a novel activity or item, the period of measurement could be a week or more. Or, if one were collecting data on how many times a child initiated eye contact during a conversation, each data session might only be a minute or so.

How might this be used?

  • Data on the frequency of a behavior are best used when the goal for a program is to increase or decrease the occurrences of a behavior. For example: Jamie will increase the number of self-initiated interactions she makes with peers to play from one to four during a 20 minute recess period.
  • Here’s another example: Joey will decrease the number of verbal or gestural prompts required to stay on task through from four to 1 for every 30 minutes of math instruction.

Ratio – Indicates the percentage of available opportunities that a target behavior occurs. Different from frequency which is a count of the number of target behaviors that occur in a given period of time, proportion looks at the number of target behaviors that occur in a given number of opportunities. If a specific direction is given 20 times throughout the day (opportunities for a correct behavior) and the child responds correctly 15 times (actual correct behaviors) the child exhibited the target behavior 75% of the available opportunities.

As teachers, we use this type of data all the time. Whenever you give students a worksheet or test you are usually measuring by proportion. If a child is given a worksheet with 10 problems and he correctly answers 8 of the problems, then the student exhibited the target behavior 80% of the opportunities.

How might this be used?

  • Data on the ratio, or proportion, of appropriate behavior are best used when the goal for a program is to increase the quality of a behavior. Here’s an example: Camille will increase following 2-step directions from 10% of available opportunities to 70% of available opportunities.
  • Here’s another example: Shawn will increase the accuracy of correctly answering 3 digit subtraction problems with regrouping from 50% of available opportunities to 90% of available opportunities.

Duration – Basically, how long the behavior occurs. The recording of duration data is used when working with behaviors that have a clear beginning and end and occur over a span of time. You can either work on increasing or decreasing the amount of time a behavior is displayed.

Duration can be used for the recording of episodic or chained behavior such as tantrums or crisis events in which there is usually a clear beginning and end but there is more than one target behavior displayed (such as aggressive or self-injurious behaviors). Duration is good data to keep to record progress on maladaptive behaviors that have been worked on to extinguish and would like to show progress, where a single occurrence no matter how long a window (a day, a week, or a month) is still not appropriate, but we would like to show a decrease in the amount of time it may take for a child to recover.

Duration data can be helpful for interventions to increase positive behaviors as well. Duration might be targeted to increase the amount of time a child is engaged in positive alternative behaviors. For example, one might record the amount of time that a child is able to attend to a story, or sit during a social skills group, or focus on a writing assignment. So if working with a child who has a goal like sitting quietly during circle time, one would record how long the child is able to sit until a target behavior is displayed.

How might this be used?

  • The recording of duration data can be used for behaviors that you are trying to either increase or decrease the amount of time spent engaging in the behavior, depending on the situation.
  • Data on the duration of a behavior can also be used for behaviors that one is hoping to decrease or eliminate. For example: Mason will use a menu of strategies to calm himself when someone is getting one on one attention from a adult that he prefers, reducing the average length of his tantrums from five minutes to 30 seconds. Using a stopwatch I would time how long he tantrums before he uses one of those strategies. If a particular tantrum is shorter than his previous tantrum, I will give him some reinforcement. Otherwise, if he is less successful, I will implement some error correction procedure (increased prompting for example).
  • For behaviors you are trying to increase, record how long it takes until the child needs a prompt or displays target behavior. For example: Toby will increase the time he is able to sit quietly on the carpet without a prompt from 15 seconds to three minutes, I would use a stop watch and record how long Toby is able to sit until either I need to provide a prompt or until he yells out unprompted.

Latency — The period of time between the signal (also known as the discriminative stimulus) and the response. In some behavioral circles this is also known as fluency. Think of it this way, it is the time it takes from when the teacher gives a direction and the student correctly responds.

Keep in mind that latency should be considered when the behavior is a performance deficit and not for the acquisition of skills. If a child is uniformly slow to respond be sure the delay is not the result biological processing, for which, behavioral intervention may not be the best course of action. However, there are benefits to reducing latency. It increases the number of possible opportunities for learning over a certain time, allowing for more practice and quicker acquisition of skills. Typically this kind of data is taken when I am intentionally teaching the fluency of a behavioral response and therefore it is often times useful to implement programs designed to specifically reduce latency, or increase fluency.

How might this be used?

  • Reducing latency is important especially when safety is a primary concern. If I am working with a child does not quickly respond in a crisis situation I might develop a goal such as: When Julie is given a direction to go to a safe location, she will reduce the amount of time it takes to respond correctly from 30 seconds to 5 seconds.
  • Sometimes we discover that behaviors interfere with the performance of other skills, such as missing out on instruction. We might therefore develop a goal such as this: When Thomas is given a signal to transition to his next class he will reduce the amount of time it takes to independently transition to the next class from 7 minutes to 2 minutes. I might have an agenda of items for Thomas to go through as he transitions between classes and record how long it takes for him to complete the transition once the class bell rings. If the transition is shorter than the previous one, then I will give him some form of reinforcement.
  • Additionally, latency may be a measure one wishes to track, even when a program isn’t specifically designed to address noted delays in responding. Over-practice of a skill until it is an extremely rapid response may be beneficial in building fluency and ease of application of the behavior.

Inter-response time – Inter-response time is the period of time between behaviors. Typically our focus is on behaviors themselves and not the amount of time between occurrences. However, there are a few purposes for tracking this information. For example if a child asks to use the restroom frequently, you might want to track how much time passes between requests. This data is useful for schedule building. If I know he needs to use the restroom approximately every hour, then I might make some schedule changes to accommodate for restroom breaks.

How might this be used?

  • This form of data is very effective in determining reinforcement schedules. If a student displays a target behavior an average every 15 minutes, then I know that the child should receive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors in approximately 15 minute intervals with the goal being to increase the interval over time. A goal might look like this: Michael will increase the amount of time between verbal outburst from 5 minutes to 20 minutes.
  • Sean will increase the amount of time between requests for restroom breaks from 15 minutes to 30 minutes.

Intensity — To what degree was the behavior present?

Because intensity data is often times very subjective, it is less often used. However, there are practical applications for its use. There are times when behaviors are not easily measurable or observable, you are attempting to describe a progression of behaviors, or trying to prioritize behaviors. Create a simple behavior scale where a child’s behavior can be recorded on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the least severe and 5 being the most severe. On this scale each level provides criteria information on what each of those scores represents. This helps to establish some degree of objectivity and specificity for a particular behavior and thus making the tracking of the intensity of that behavior more worthwhile.

How might this be used?

  • Rating scales are often used for describing the intensity of a behavior. For a child who has frequent aggressive outbursts when asked to work, an example might appear like this:
  • 1: Jack initially refuses, but begins work within 10 seconds.
    2: Jack argues, and does not begin work after 10 seconds.
    3: Jack attempts to leave the work area.
    4: Jack knocks over furniture or throws objects and materials.
    5: Jack aggresses using physical contact toward his teacher or a peer.

For each episode, you would record only the most severe behavior, even if more than one occurred.

Foundation III: Keep it simple

The third foundation is finding a style of data collection and analysis that is simple, comfortable, and effective for you. Time is precious and we don’t want to spend more time with our data than with our kids. The style in which you collect and analyze data will be as individual as each person working with a child and with the activity or behavior being documented. Here are a few tips and ideas on collecting and making use of data. See how you can modify these to work for you.

  • Keep an index card or small notebook in your pocket. This can be very handy for any documentation you want to keep throughout the day from tallies, to times, to basic behavior notes. Anecdotal data is the worst data you can use, if you have something tangible to look at to refresh your memory it is much better than trying to recall events on your own.
  • For behaviors that are frequent and countable, one great way to track the number of occurrences is to use small counters. Start the day with a handful of small objects such as poker chips, or plastic counters (there are so many possibilities that I won’t list them) in your right pocket. Each time you see the target behavior during the day, move a chip from the right pocket to the left. At the end of the day, total up the chips in your left pocket and record.
  • Tally counters are very useful for tallying behaviors that occur frequently, quickly, and in a variety of settings where carrying a clipboard or legal pad around might not be feasible. A counter can be used to count the number of times a student calls out an answer, answers correctly, or gets out of his seat. I once counted the number of times a student flashed his middle finger at his peers (it happened that often) using a counter. This list of behaviors you can count with a counter is infinite. I just kept the counter in my left hand and tallied as I taught. Counters are available at many office supplies stores and online.
  • Place a large address label onto your thigh or sleeve for an easy, portable tally or note sheet. It looks silly, but it works, and no bulky clipboards to carry around.
  • A stopwatch can be very useful for recording duration, latency, inter-response times. When I was in the classroom I often times kept a stopwatch or timer clipped to my belt.
  • Pre-made activities such as file folder games are great for data collection. Once the child completes the activity it can be checked for proportion accuracy.
  • Lastly and most importantly, make time for your data! Data is supposed to help you shape the child’s program, therefore it is only useful if you review it and use it.
    • Daily: Take a few minutes at the end of each day to quickly review your data. Some guiding questions to ask are: Did the child have any performance problems or improvements today that you might want to rethink for tomorrow (such as additional/reduced prompting, more/less visual supports, a decreased/increased demand)? Did anything go particularly well that we can build on for tomorrow?
    • Weekly: Take a few minutes at the end of the week to plot your new data points onto graphs (graphs make for good helpful visuals that are easy to interpret). Are there emerging trends which may drive the next week?
    • Monthly: Take a few minutes at the end of each month Are there any patterns telling you how the program has gone and where it might be headed?

Do you have you any tips on making data collection and analysis easier in the classroom? Do you have any data sheets that you have found particularly easy to use? Please feel free to let me know!

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3 thoughts on “Foundations of Data Collection in the Classroom

  1. Best post ever explaining data collection. I teach in a large regular ed classroom, but I will use your explanation in my class with some of my kids and also share it with colleagues. Awesome.

  2. Can I simply say what a aid to seek out somebody who actually is aware of what theyre speaking about on the internet. You positively know find out how to deliver a problem to gentle and make it important. Extra people must learn this and understand this side of the story. I cant imagine youre not more in style since you undoubtedly have the gift.

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