October 10, 2023

ABA Frequency Measurement: Recording, Graphing, and Automating

April Torres, M.Ed., BCBA
ABA Frequency Measurement

A behavior’s frequency plays a key role in analysis and treatment. Explore the importance of frequency data in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and get advice from BCBAs on collecting, graphing, and analyzing it to improve patient outcomes.

Inside this article:

ABA Frequency Measurement: Recording, Graphing, and Automatinig

What is Frequency in ABA Data Collection?

In ABA data collection, “frequency” measures how often a behavior happens. It describes how many times the behavior occurs. Technically, frequency is a count and doesn’t include time, but many BCBAs convert frequency to rate data.

Katherine Jester, MS, BCBA, LBA
Katherine Jester, MS, BCBA, LBA
“Duration data is one of the most common types of data in ABA,” says Katherine Jester, MS, BCBA, LBA. “Measuring the duration of behavior is incredibly valuable in diagnosing problem behaviors and monitoring behavior intervention plans. It's critical at all stages of behavior management — from the initial stages when you're trying to see if the behavior is a problem or not, up to the intervention stage."

Frequency data is a fundamental metric in ABA. This straightforward metric gives a BCBA the foundational information they need to understand how the behavior fits into the child’s life.

The simplicity of frequency measurement makes it an essential tool for behavior analysts and caregivers alike. By understanding the frequency of behaviors, professionals can develop tailored behavior intervention strategies that lead to more positive outcomes for individuals with behavioral challenges.

Along with other key data, like duration and latency, frequency data is critical to ABA and can serve as the basis for ABA behavior intervention plans.

Key Takeaways:

  • Frequency data is a fundamental metric in ABA that captures how often a child engages in a specific behavior.
  • Ongoing disagreement exists within the ABA community concerning the terms "count," "frequency," and "rate."
  • While frequency is technically a count, most BCBAs and ABA professionals use it like a rate.
  • We measure frequency during routine periods with a fixed duration, like an ABA session or class time.
  • Frequency data is simple to graph and collect, but measuring accurate data requires much time and attention.
  • Electronic ABA data collection improves data collection, monitoring, and analysis.

What is the Difference Between Frequency, Rate, and Count?

Count is a tally of observations, and rate considers the count over time. While textbooks define frequency as a count, behavior analysts almost always use it as a rate. Ongoing discussions continue among ABA experts on this terminology.

There is conflicting information within the ABA community about the term "frequency."  Specifically, the textbook definition of the term conflicts with how BCBAs and ABA professionals use the words to describe their work.

To start, here are the technical textbook definitions of “count,” “rate,” and “frequency.”

  • Count: A tally of the number of behavior observations. For example: “John hit another student 10 times” is a count.
  • Rate: Count data over a specific time interval. For example, “John hit another student 10 times in a two-hour period” is an example of rate data.
  • Frequency: Technically synonymous with “count,” frequency measures the number of times someone engages in a specific behavior without considering a time interval.

Many BCBAs view frequency data as a default rate, which contradicts its definition as a count without a specific time interval. This confusion arises because BCBAs often use the term "frequency" when they only record the number of behavior observations during a session of fixed duration. So, in practice, technicians count observations without considering time. But, because they know the session length, they calculate the rate later.

As a result, frequency data is always continuous because the data collector takes data during the entire session. Interval recording, on the other hand, would divide the session into smaller observation periods.

Jester explains how the definition of frequency and its usage can be confusing.

"When we talk about frequency in behavior analysis, we're essentially referring to a simple count of a behavior,” says Jester. “However, it's important to note that in practice, we often utilize frequency data in sessions that have a consistent duration. This allows us to treat frequency as a rate in real-world applications. For example, if we observe Dan's behavior during a three-hour session, we can take the count (frequency) and effortlessly convert it into a rate by considering the three-hour session duration. Therefore, in this context, frequency serves as a rate by default.”

In this sense, frequency is a “rate by default” metric. Collecting frequency data in this way gives BCBAs and technicians the best of both worlds: It eliminates the need to track the observation time period and includes a time interval, making the data more meaningful.

For instance, if we know that John hit a student 10 times, understanding whether he did this within a 30-minute session or over a week significantly influences how we approach interventions and decisions. On the other hand, the simple count “John hit a student 10 times” is far less informative.

The ABA research community has acknowledged this issue, and various researchers have attempted to clarify the distinctions between “frequency,” “count,” and “rate." In the 2016 paper titled "On Terms: Frequency and Rate in Applied Behavior Analysis," the researchers explain that the definitions of these terms contradict how ABA professionals use them in real life. In the article published in The Behavior Analyst, the researchers note that even texts defining frequency as a simple count advise BCBAs to avoid using frequency data without a time.

However, other researchers prefer to adhere to the original textbook definitions. In the 2018 paper titled "On the Use of the Term 'Frequency' in Applied Behavior Analysis," published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, the authors discuss the issues that arise when ABA technicians use "frequency" as a synonym for both "rate" and "count." They encourage behavior analysts to use frequency as a count, remaining faithful to textbook definitions.

Overall, the issue of defining frequency persists. This article uses the term “frequency” to describe how BCBA analysts collect and analyze frequency data. Specifically, frequency data counts behavior occurrences during a routine session with a fixed duration.‍

When we use the term “rate,” we refer to collecting frequency data when the technician must also record the observation length, because it’s not a standard session.

When to use Frequency Measurement in ABA?

Utilize frequency measurements in ABA to track how often a child engages in a specific behavior. BCBAs collect them during routine ABA sessions that always are the same length of time. This helps understand behavior patterns over time and evaluate interventions.

Here are the types of behavior and settings that work best for frequency data.

  • During routine sessions or observation periods that last the same amount of time

    “We only use frequency for relatively consistent sessions, like a school day or a regular therapy session,” Jester says. “If a child has sessions that are highly variable in duration, ‘rate’ would be more appropriate.”

  • For discrete behaviors with specific definitions

    “Frequency data is most useful for discrete behaviors – those with a distinct beginning and end,” Jester notes.

    “For example, a technician might use frequency to record how often problem behaviors like swearing, leaving the room and hitting occur,” continues Jester. “Frequency also works to measure skill acquisition, or whether a student is engaging in a positive behavior more often. For example, you might use frequency to measure if a student is making appropriate comments more often.”

Examples of Frequency in ABA

Examples of frequency data in ABA include any time you count how often a specific behavior occurs. Frequency data helps measure both positive and negative behavior. For example, you can monitor the frequency of tantrums or polite hand-raising.

BCBAs use frequency to measure behavior across the four categories of behavior function. These include sensory behavior, escape-based behavior, attention-based behavior, and tangible-based behavior.

Here are examples of frequency data for each of the four functions of behavior, along with examples of data that people may mistake as frequency data.

  • Sensory behavior:

    • Frequency data: Recording: Counting how many times a child repeats a specific hand-flapping motion for self-stimulation.
      Data: Madeline exhibited hand-flapping 10 times in today’s session.

      Mistaken as frequency data: Recording: Measuring the total time the child spends engaged in hand-flapping without considering the number of occurrences. This data would be duration data because it measures how long the behavior occurs.
      Data: Madeline spent three minutes engaged in one instance of hand-flapping.
  • Escape-based behavior:

    • Frequency data: Recording: Tracking the number of times a student refuses to do a task by leaving the area.
      Data: Alex displayed task refusal behavior four times during the session.

      Mistaken as frequency data: Recording: Only noting the duration of a single instance of task refusal without considering how often it occurs. This data would be duration data because it measures the length of each episode.
      Data: Alex refused a task by leaving the room for two minutes.
  • Attention-based behavior:

    • Example of frequency data: Recording: Counting how many times a child raises their hand to gain the teacher’s attention.
      Data: Emily raised her had eight times during the lesson.

      Mistaken as frequency data: Recording: Tracking the time it takes for Emily to raise her hand from the beginning of the lesson. This data is latency data because it measures the time it takes for Emily to engage in behavior.
      Data: Emily exhibited a latency of three minutes before raising her hand for attention.
  • Tangible-based behavior:

    • Example of frequency data: Recording: Keeping track of the times a student verbally requests access to a preferred item, such as a toy or a snack.
      Data: Liam asked for a toy three times during playtime.

      Mistaken as frequency data Recording: Measuring the time it takes from the beginning of playtime for Liam to first request a toy. This example describes latency data because it measures how long Liam took to ask for a toy.
      Data: Liam requested a toy 10 minutes into playtime.

How to Record Frequency in ABA

Recording frequency data in ABA is straightforward. Some BCBAs tally the number of occurrences on a specific datasheet. Most BCBAs use electronic data recording where they push a button in the software to record the behavior.

Here are step-by-step instructions for how to record frequency data in ABA.

  1. Define the behavior

    “Before you begin collecting any type of data, you will need detailed ‘operational definitions’ for each of the behaviors,” Jester says.

    Operational definitions in ABA give specific, clear meanings to behaviors. These definitions help behaviors stand out, making them easier to observe and count.

    For example, if you want to track how often a student raises their hand, an operational definition could be "raising the hand above the head during class discussions."

  2. Prepare a datasheet or electronic program

    Decide whether you’re going to use a traditional paper datasheet or software. Alternatively, you could create a digital datasheet on a standard word processing program like Word and mark the observation directly onto the document.

  3. Tally the behavior whenever it happens during your observation period

    When you see the behavior, mark it on your sheet or press the appropriate button in your software.

  4. Include important observation details

    Include key details like the patient's name, the observer's name, the date, and the duration of the observation period. Remember, BCBAs often use frequency as a rate, so it’s worth noting the observation duration, even if it’s just a routine session that always lasts the same length. This note will help future BCBAs or technicians analyze the data.

ABA Frequency Data Sheet Templates

Start collecting frequency data with our free ABA frequency data sheet. It includes sections for all the important data and makes recording frequency easy. Explore this free, printable template to get a feel for recording frequency data.

How to Graph ABA Frequency

To graph frequency data, plot the frequency on the vertical (y) axis and the session dates on the x-axis. The graph shows how often the child engaged in the behavior over the dates you graphed.

Here are the basic steps to graphing ABA frequency by hand or with a standard program.
Alternatively, you can invest in electronic data collection software, which will automatically create graphs based on your data.

  1. Create vertical and horizontal axes:
    Create a graph with the vertical (y) axis showing frequency counts and the horizontal (x) axis indicating the session or observation date. Label your axes and add a clear title to the graph.
  2. Data entry:
    Enter the frequency data you collected for each session.
  3. Connect the data:
    If you want to use a line graph, you can collect the points you graph to gain a visual representation of behavior frequency changes.
  4. Highlight interventions or changes:
    If implementing interventions during the data collection period, use the graph to note these changes. For example, manually write in when you applied an intervention, like discrete trial training, or add it with your practice management software. This practice will help you assess the intervention’s impact on behavior frequency and identify any positive changes. You can highlight other changes in the child’s program that might affect behavior, like medication changes.
Artemis ABA duration data graph
Artemis ABA duration data graph

Why We Graph ABA Frequency

We graph ABA frequency for visual insight into behavior changes. Graphs display the pace of change and the impact of external factors. They also illustrate progress to the child, caregivers, and funders.

Visual analysis helps us analyze and communicate the meaning of frequency data. Here are the major reasons we graph ABA frequency:

  • Visual insights into the trend of a behavior
    “Graphs help us determine the trend and variability of the data,” says Jester. "Our goal is to assess if a child exhibits the behavior as intended and if behavior change occurs at an appropriate rate."
  • Track the effect of a phase change or another intervention
    "We also employ graphs to track the impact of external factors, such as medication adjustments, staff transitions, and other events," Jester says. "For instance, noting a shift in intervention phase on a graph helps us assess its influence on behavior frequency. This information is crucial for refining and optimizing the plan to achieve the intended outcome."
  • Communicate progress to stakeholders
    Graphs are more impactful and intuitive than numbers on a sheet. BCBAs and technicians use graphs to illustrate behavior changes to parents and children visually. Also, a good chart can show funders that an intervention is effective and worth investing in.

What are the Advantages of Frequency Recording?

Frequency recording has numerous benefits. It's versatile, easy to use in various settings, and yields clear, objective behavior data. Plus, you can easily graph frequency data and detect changes in behavior quickly.

Here's a summary of the advantages of recording frequency data:

  • Straightforward to measure
    If you define the behavior well, it’s typically easy to collect frequency data. Make a tally whenever you observe the behavior on a dedicated datasheet or software program.
  • Easy to analyze
    Frequency data isn’t difficult to analyze. It provides a straightforward count of behavior occurrences.
  • Useful for various settings
    Understanding how often the behavior occurs is useful across diverse behaviors and is one of the key metrics that inform how BCBAs design, monitor, and adjust behavior intervention plans.
  • Simple to graph
    Graphing frequency data isn’t complicated, and the graph provides a clear visual representation of behavior patterns that helps ABA professionals analyze the data and communicate with stakeholders.

What are the Limitations of Frequency Recording?

Frequency recording has some drawbacks. It doesn’t capture the context of why a behavior occurs or provide information on how long the child engaged in the behavior. Also, frequency data only works for behaviors with a discrete beginning and end.

Here's a summary of the major limitations of frequency data.

  • Data collector must be singularly focused on the behavior

    “Frequency data can be time-consuming to capture,” notes Jester. “We want to capture every instance of behavior, which can be challenging when the data collector also must manage a roomful of other students. For that reason, it’s best to collect in a one-on-one or small group setting.”

  • Difficult to measure discrete behaviors

    Discrete behaviors have clear start and end points. For example, clapping hands or raising a hand is a discrete behavior that BCBAs or technicians can easily observe and measure.

    On the other hand, indiscrete behaviors lack distinct boundaries. These continuous behaviors, such as "engagement with a task," create challenges for frequency-based measurement since counting separate instances becomes impractical.

    You can create precise operational definitions to tackle this issue, although defining these behaviors may not always be straightforward.

  • Provides limited context

    Frequency data tells us how often a child engages in a specific behavior. While this data is incredibly useful, it is limited. For example, it doesn’t give us any aba duration information or how long the behavior occurs. Plus, there’s no information on the context of the behavior or why it happened.

    “Adding in duration data will give additional context to the behavior,” advises Jester. “More data will help guide the treatment team and determine what types of interventions will be most effective.”

  • Doesn’t measure the behavior's intensity

    Frequency data does not account for variations in the intensity or severity of a behavior. Two instances of a behavior may have different levels of impact or significance, which frequency data alone might not capture. For example, two instances of aggressive behavior might have different levels of harm, but frequency data treats them equally.

    You can overcome many of the frequency data limitations by collecting information about duration, latency, and severity. Together, these data points will provide a clearer picture of behavior patterns.

    Of course, the right measurement to use depends on the behavior you’re monitoring.

ABA Frequency Recording Best Practices

Follow the established best practices to get the most out of frequency data. For example, clearly define the behavior and consistently use the same observation period. Also, consider collecting data electronically to reduce human error.

Frequency data is a centerpiece of ABA data collection. Ensure you’re getting the most out of this data by following these general best practices for data collection.

  • Clearly define your behavior
    Jester stresses the significance of well-defined behavior descriptions for accurate frequency data. For example, different children may have specific types of behavior within a generalized category (e.g., kicking, screaming, tantrums). A precise definition for each child will make you confident in the integrity of your data.
  • Ensure the data collector can focus
    Ensuring focused attention is essential for precise frequency data. The data collector mustn’t multitask; otherwise, they might inaccurately record the data.
  • Maintain the same observation period
    In ABA, we collect frequency data in routine sessions with a set duration. Ensure you collect your data within sessions of the same duration. Otherwise, you won’t be able to compare the data across time intervals.
  • Consider recording the behavior on video to collect data later
    Record the session if you can’t give enough attention to the behavior. Later, you can watch the recording with an eye only for the behavior. Also, video records will help you identify intricate or infrequent behaviors and can be a great way to check your data.
  • Use electronic data collection
    Electronic data collection simplifies recording, tracking, and analyzing frequency data. Electronic platforms enable automated data collection, minimize errors, and enhance efficiency by providing instant data storage and analysis.

Using Electronic ABA Data Collection for Frequency Data

Electronic ABA data collection is the best way to collect and analyze frequency data. You can collect data with a simple button push. Then, most systems immediately store, save and graph the data instantly for easy analysis.

Traditionally, behavior analysts relied on manual methods to record the frequency of target behaviors, a process that could be time-consuming and error-prone. Today, most ABA practices have adopted practice management software to digitize all aspects of their ABA practices, including data collection.

When it comes to recording frequency data, electronic data collection holds significant advantages over pen-and-paper methods.

Here's how you can use electronic data collection to improve the frequency of data collection, tracking, and analysis:

  • Simplified data collection

    Jester describes firsthand how electronic data collection works for frequency data.

    “In electronic data collection, frequency is usually the easiest response type – there is just a ‘+’ button and any time the behavior occurs, you press the button, and the system records the instance of behavior. It’s as if you were simply ‘tallying’ the behavior on a piece of paper and is an easy way to collect your data.”

  • Reduce human error

    Manual data collection methods can introduce errors from illegible handwriting, transcription mistakes, or miscounts. Electronic data collection significantly mitigates these errors.

  • Instantly graph frequency data

    Your data collection software will instantly graph your frequency data for quick visual analysis. Most programs also highlight key trends and allow you to input when you implement key interventions.

  • Customizable behavior categories

    Most electronic data collection systems can track multiple behavior categories and data in the same platform. That way, you can measure duration with built-in time-tracking and easily extrapolate frequency data from your duration measurements.

  • Software automatically integrates the data into the practice management system

    The best ABA practice management software also includes electronic data collection. With everything in one place, BCBAs can focus on holistic behavior management instead of searching for and integrating scattered data.

Comprehensive, Integrated ABA Data Collection

Effortlessly monitor client progress using Artemis ABA software. Our integrated practice management solution is designed to adapt to your diverse needs. Crafted by ABA experts for experts, Artemis has you covered in comprehensive data collection.

Behavior patterns are complex, and understanding and evaluating behavior data requires a tool that’s up for the job. Artemis ABA software offers comprehensive ABA data collection where you can conveniently record and analyze duration, latency, and frequency in a single platform. This software allows ABA therapists to effectively utilize the collected data to monitor client development and make well-informed treatment decisions.

Our practice management solution is adaptable and can be tailored to suit the specific requirements of your ABA practice, unlike other ABA software. Artemis ABA is a one-stop shop, with every aspect of practice management integrated under one centralized location. This streamlined approach facilitates easy access, analysis, and visualization of your data, ensuring a seamless experience for users.

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April Torres, M.Ed., BCBA