Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Recent Innovations in Small-N Designs for Research and Practice in Professional School Counseling

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Recent Innovations in Small-N Designs for Research and Practice in Professional School Counseling

Article excerpt

This article illustrates an innovative small-N research design that researchers and practitioners can use to investigate questions of interest in professional school counseling. The distributed criterion (DC) design integrates elements of three classic small-N research designs--the changing criterion, reversal, and multiple baseline. The DC design is well suited to situations in which students or school counselors must allocate, prioritize, and adjust time or effort to complete multiple tasks in response to changing situational demands. The article includes practical examples of how the DC design can be used by practitioners.


Professional school counselors, teachers, and students often address multiple social, psychological, and academic concerns. These issues can overlap and vary in intensity across a wide range of contexts. For example, a school counselor intervening with a disruptive and inattentive student might aim to reduce the frequency of aggressive, antisocial behavior toward peers in a specific context, such as the school cafeteria. Concurrently, the counselor and teacher might focus on increasing that student's on-task behavior in the classroom, ostensibly leading to enhanced academic performance. In such cases, professionals must prioritize and manage their intervention efforts and time. What, for example, are the primary and secondary foci of intervention for an individual student? After establishing these foci, school counselors must allocate resources accordingly to ensure intervention consistency or fidelity. Professionals also must monitor and evaluate intervention effectiveness with an eye toward determining when and how to shift intervention from one emphasis to other foci.


For nearly 50 years, researchers in counseling and related disciplines have used small-N (also known as single-subject) research designs to evaluate the efficacy of interventions designed to promote change over time in individuals. Small-N designs have proven useful for evaluating intervention effects in studies that (a) include one or a few students; (b) require ongoing, repeated measures of individual students' progress across time; and (c) apply interventions that seek to improve short-term and longterm outcomes. In fact, small-N designs offer viable alternatives for demonstrating empirically the impact of interventions in studies that do not lend themselves to large-N, true- and quasi-experimental group research designs (Cowan, Hennessey, Vierstra, & Rumrill, 2004). However, with notable exceptions, such as the multiple baseline, small-N designs usually target a single behavior or dependent variable. Consequently, researchers would benefit from designs, and practitioners would benefit from approaches, that accommodate how students change across time when faced with shifting conditions and multiple tasks.

The scientific status of research on individual change emerged in the 1960s when investigators developed numerous small-N designs, particularly the reversal, multiple baseline, and changing criterion (CC). Concurrently, applied behavior analysis emerged as a behavior change technology, and as a methodology to evaluate experimental control of interventions that promote change in individuals over time (see, e.g., Baer, Wolf, & Risley's 1968 seminal article in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis). As Hartman and Hall (1976) noted, "The development of experimental designs to demonstrate control in individual case studies has been a crucial factor in bringing about scientific status to the study of individuals" (p. 527).

Although some individuals have utilized small-N designs, Foster, Watson, Meeks, and Young (2002) advised practitioners and researchers in professional school counseling to adopt and increase their use of these designs and cited sound rationales for doing so. …

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