College of Education and Human Development

Department of Educational Psychology

Research lab: Frank Symons


  • 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

Research emphasis

The research emphasis in the Symons Lab/Research Group 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).


  • Sensory Mechanisms and Self-Injury (PI)
  • Intrathecal Baclofen and Pain Outcomes in Cerebral Palsy (PI)
  • Developing Center for Adaptive Models in Child Prevention Research (Co-I)
  • Investigating the psychometric properties of repeatedly assessed bio-behavioral markers for pain in nonverbal patients (PI)
  • National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention (Co-I)

Recent publications

Symons, F. J., Tervo, R. T., Gilles, E., Wendelschafer-Crabb, G., & Kennedy, W. (2014). Skin and self-injury: A possible link between peripheral innervation and immune function? Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology. doi: 10.1111/dmcn.12580.

Symons, F. J., & Roberts, J. E. (2014). Biomarkers, behavior, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Guest Editors: Special Issue. American Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Nov;118(6):413-5. doi: 10.1352/1944-7558-118.6.413.

Symons, F. J., Devine, D. P., & Oliver, C. (2012, May). Self-injurious behavior in people with intellectual disability (p.421-426). Guest Editors. Special Issue. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56, 421 – 565.

Symons F.J., ElGhazi I, *Reilly BG, *Barney CC, Hanson L, Panoskaltsis-Mortari A, Armitage IM, Wilcox GL. (2014). Can Biomarkers Differentiate Pain and No Pain Subgroups of Nonverbal Children with Cerebral Palsy? A Preliminary Investigation Based on Noninvasive Saliva Sampling. Pain Medicine. doi: 10.1111/pme.12545.

Quest, K., Byiers, B. J., Payen, A., & Symons, F. J. (2014). Rett syndrome: A preliminary analysis of stereotypy, stress, and negative affect. Research in Developmental Disabilities. 35(5):1191-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2014.01.011.

Johnson, L.D., Wehby, J.H., Symons, F.J., Moore, T.C., Maggin, D.M., & Sutherland, K.S. (2014). An analysis of preference relative to teacher implementation of intervention. Journal of Special Education. Vol. 48(3) 214–224, DOI: 10.1177/0022466913475872.

Hoch, J., Sng, S., & Symons, F. J. (2013). Sequential analysis of autonomic arousal and self-injurious behavior. American Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Nov;118,:435-46. doi: 10.1352/1944.7558-118.6.435.