Research News

App will help children with disabilities and challenging behavior

Barton (Vanderbilt)
Barton (Vanderbilt)

A Vanderbilt special education researcher has been awarded a $1.5 million grant by The Institute of Education Sciences to develop an app for use by parents who have young children with disabilities who also exhibit challenging behaviors.

Erin Barton, assistant professor of special education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, is principal investigator of the three-year study.

“The rates of challenging behavior are higher for children with developmental disabilities, and often lead to negative social interactions, poor academic outcomes and increased family stress,” Barton said. “When completed, The Family Behavior Support App (FBSApp) will take families through identifying what a challenging behavior looks like, what daily routines trigger the behavior, and what happens right after the behavior.”

When complete, the free software application for mobile devices will generate a list of strategies that families can use to prevent and also reduce the challenging behavior over time. Families will be able to control what information the professional team can access, but it will also allow families to communicate with everyone working with their children.

The content of the FBSApp will be guided by the Pyramid Model, a positive behavior support approach for developing young children’s social-emotional competence.

Major components of FBSApp will include:

  • An interactive video user guide;
  • personalization through entry of family and child information, including specific challenging behaviors and their contexts;
  • comprehensive functional behavior assessment through identification of the antecedents and consequences of the behavior;
  • hypothesis generation to help determine the function the behavior serves;
  • creation of a behavior support plan for parents to address challenging behavior and teach new skills;
  • support for parent implementation of the plan; and
  • a recording system for ongoing progress monitoring.

More about the study

In the first year, the intervention will be developed and refined through expert review, cognitive interviews and focus groups. In the second year, it will be field-tested with parents, children and caregivers. In year three, a randomized controlled trial will be conducted to evaluate the promise of the intervention, including the promise of a supplementary feature for use by the early childhood professionals who support these families.

The research will take place in the homes of families in Tennessee, Illinois and Massachusetts. The target group will be children age 2–5 with identified disabilities and challenging behavior, along with their parents and early childhood practitioners.


Collaborators on the project include Hedda Meadan-Kaplansky and Karrie Karahalios of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; and Angel Fettig of University of Massachusetts Boston.