College of Education and Human Development

Department of Educational Psychology

Frank Symons

  • Emma Birkmaier Education Leadership Professor, Senior Associate Dean for Research and Policy, Distinguished McKnight University Professor

Frank Symons

Areas of interest

  • Development, assessment, and treatment of severe problem behavior among children and adults with neurodevelopmental and emotional/behavioral disorders
  • Bio-behavior analysis of self-injurious behavior
  • Problem of pain among children and adults with significant cognitive impairments and associated developmental disabilities
  • Rett syndrome - refining measurement approaches to improve understanding of the behavioral phenotype

PhD, Vanderbilt University


My research emphasis is on understanding the severe behavior problems of children and adults with special needs, primarily those with developmental disabilities and emotional or behavioral disorders. For these two groups, much of my research has focused on self-injurious behavior and classroom aggression, respectively. The majority of my research has been observationally based, theoretically grounded in behavioral principles, and driven by a commitment to meaningful, functional outcomes.

I have two current specific areas of interest. One is the development, assessment, and treatment of problem behavior among children and adults with a range of neurodevelopmental and emotional/behavioral disorders. The other is the problem of pain among children and adults with significant cognitive impairments and associated developmental disabilities. Related areas of interest include observational research methods.

In terms of problem behavior, areas of specific research interest include (a) characterizing self-injurious behavior in more detail descriptively (form, location, intensity) and experimentally (function); (b) examining the intersection of behavioral and biological mechanisms underlying chronic self-injury by incorporating sensory (e.g., pain sensitivity, peripheral innervation) and autonomic (e.g., sympathetic/parasympathetic, HPA axis) nervous system variables, and (c) translating findings from basic research into treatment applications.

In terms of pain, areas of specific research include (a) the reliable and valid assessment of pain in children and adults with significant cognitive, communicative, and motor impairments associated with intellectual disability; (b) the relation between behavioral and biological variables as markers for altered pain; (c) modifying/adapting quantitative sensory testing for individuals with specialized needs; and (d) the relation between pain and problem behavior, specifically self-injury.

To address these interests and issues, I direct an observational methods lab and I am highly collaborative across a number of research groups (UNC-Chapel Hill, UBC, Dalhousie University), clinical sites (Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare), labs (Kennedy Peripheral Nerve Lab), and centers (Center for Neurobehavioral Development, Minnesota Center for Pain Research).

Teaching interests

  • EPSY 5656 Introduction to Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Special Education
  • EPSY 5616 Applied Behavior Analysis and Classroom Management
  • EPSY 8694 Introduction to Research Design in Special Education
  • EPSY 8706 Single Case Experimental Design and Analysis
  • EPSY 8703 Special Topics: Observational Research Methods

Byiers, B. J., *Roberts, C. L., Burkitt, C. C, *Merbler, A. M., Craig, K.D., & Symons, F. J. (2022). Parental pain catastrophizing, communication ability, and post-surgical pain outcomes following intrathecal baclofen implant surgery for patients with cerebral palsy. Frontiers in Pain Research., 22

Goracke-Postle, C.J., Burkitt, C.C., Panoskaltsis-Mortari, A., Ehrhardt, M., Wilcox G. L., Graupman, P., Partington, M., & Symons, F. J. (2021). Expression of and correlational patterns among neuroinflammatory, neuropeptide, and neuroendocrine molecules from cerebrospinal fluid in cerebral palsy. BMC Neurology 21, 384.

Dimian, A.F., Wolff, J., & Symons, F. J. (2021). Educational outcomes of a cohort of children with autism who received early intensive behavioral intervention. Journal of Special Education.

Raiter, A, *Merbler, A., Lykken, L., Barney, C., & Symons, F J. (2021). Caregiver reported pain management practices for individuals with cerebral palsy. Archives of Rehabilitation Research and Clinical Translation. 3(1): 100105. Published online 2021 Jan 18. doi:10.1016/j.arrct.2021.100105

MacLean, W. E. Jr., Dimian, A., Hoch, J., Tervo, R., Symons, F. J. (2020). Comparative analysis of self-injurious behaviour topographies in young children with and without developmental delay. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities Research. 64(9):673-680. doi: 10.1111/jir.12758.

Barney, C.A., Andersen, R. D., Defrin, R., *Genik, L. M., McGuire, B. E., & Symons, F. J. (2020). Challenges in pain assessment and management among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Pain Reports. 16;5(4):e821. doi: 10.1097/PR9.0000000000000822. PMID: 32656458

Byiers, B. J., *Payen, A., Feyman, T., Panoskaltsis-Mortari, A., Ehrhardt, M.J., & Symons, F.J. (2020). Associations among diurnal salivary cortisol patterns, medication use, and behavioral phenotype features in a community sample of Rett syndrome. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 125(5):353-368. doi: 10.1352/1944-7558-125.5.353.PMID: 32936892

Barney, C.C., *Merbler, A.M., Simone, D.A., Walk, D., & Symons, F.J. (2019). Investigating the feasibility of a modified quantitative sensory testing approach to profile sensory function and predict pain outcomes following intrathecal baclofen implant surgery in cerebral palsy. Pain Medicine. DOI: 10.1093/pm/pnz114.

Symons, F. J., Barney, C., Byiers, B., McAdams, B., Foster, S., Feyma, T., Wendelschafer-Crabb, G., Kennedy, W. R. (2019). A clinical case-control comparison of epidermal innervation density in Rett syndrome. Brain and Behavior. (5):e01285. doi: 10.1002/brb3.1285.

*Quest, K., Byiers, B., Beisang, A., & Symons, F. J. (2019) Special education supports and services for Rett syndrome: Parent perceptions and satisfaction. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 58(1):49-4. doi: 10.1352/1934-9556-58.1.49.