Experimental Analysis of Childhood Psychopathology: A Laboratory Matching Analysis of the Behavior of Children Diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

By Kollins, Scott H.; Lane, Scott D. et al. | The Psychological Record, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Experimental Analysis of Childhood Psychopathology: A Laboratory Matching Analysis of the Behavior of Children Diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder


Kollins, Scott H., Lane, Scott D., Shapiro, Steven K., The Psychological Record


Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most commonly diagnosed behavior disorders among preadolescent children in the United States (Barkley, 1991). Accordingly, much effort has been devoted to understanding the etiology and subsequent course of this disorder. Traditionally, ADHD has been characterized by a number of behavioral constructs, the most general of which are developmentally inappropriate levels of hyperactivity, attentional deficits, and impulsivity (American Psychiatric Association, 1987, 1994). It is often suggested that these behavioral patterns observed in children diagnosed with ADHD are the result of differential sensitivity to the consequences of their behavior as compared to normal, undiagnosed children (e.g., Barkley, 1988; Haenlein & Caul, 1987, Quay, 1987).

Quay (1987) suggests that the behavior of children diagnosed with ADHD does not decrease in rate or probability in the expected manner following exposure to either punishment or extinction. Such behavior, according to Quay, is demonstrated by higher rates of responding under fixed-interval (FI), fixed-ratio (FR), and differential reinforcement for low rates of responding (DRL) schedules of reinforcement as compared to their normal peers.

In a similar manner, Haenlein and Caul (1987) have proposed that children diagnosed with ADHD are less sensitive to reinforcement than typical children. Haenlein and Caul propose that a greater level of reinforcement is needed to control the same level of behavior in children with ADHD than in normal children. Both of these models share the notion that the behavioral differences between children diagnosed with ADHD and normal children are the result of differential sensitivity to the consequences of their behavior. Additionally, Barkley (1989, 1990) has outlined a theory of ADHD that explains the behavior of such children in terms of a lack of proper stimulus control and a deficit' in rule-governed behavior.

Two major approaches have been utilized to examine empirically the idea that ADHD children differ from normal children in their behavioral sensitivity to reinforcement and punishment. One group of studies has examined the behavior of ADHD and typical children under DRL schedules of reinforcement (Gordon, 1979; McClure & Gordon, 1984; Solanto, 1990). Collectively, these studies suggest that although ADHD children may receive the same overall amount of reinforcement, they generally make more responses to do so. Conclusions from these studies characterize the behavior of ADHD children as less efficient than the behavior of normal children in terms of response allocation per reinforcer. These conclusions support the idea that the behavioral sensitivity of ADHD children differs from normal children under conditions which reinforce low rates of behavior.

Another series of studies has investigated how continuous versus intermittent reinforcement differentially affects the behavior of ADHD children. In this paradigm, children perform some task and are rewarded either after every correct response (continuous reinforcement, CRF) or after some predetermined number of correct responses (intermittent or partial reinforcement, PRF). Several of these studies reported no differences in the performance of ADHD versus normal children under both conditions of CRF and PRF on tasks of general cognitive skill (Cunningham & Knights, 1978; Pelham, Milich, & Walker, 1986). Other studies have shown that ADHD children performed with less accuracy than normal children under both CRF and PRF conditions (Douglas & Parry, 1983; Parry & Douglas, 1983) and yet another study has shown that ADHD children perform worse than normal children under conditions of PRF but not under CRF conditions (Barber & Milich, 1989). All these studies compared the behavior of ADHD and normal children under different conditions of reinforcement but yielded different results. Because these studies employed a wide range of methods, differential outcomes are difficult to interpret. …

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