Frank Symons, PhD

Associate Dean for Research and Policy, Department of Psychology

Associate Dean for Research and Policy, Department of Psychology

Center for Neurobehavioral Development

Doctoral Degree, 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).



  • Tapp, J., Ticha, R., Kryzer, E., Gustafson, M., Gunnar, M., & Symons, F. J. (2006). INTMAN: An observational software system for time sampling data. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 38, 165-169.
  • Symons, F. J., & Danov, S. E. (2005). A prospective clinical analysis of pain behavior and self-injurious behavior. Pain, 117, 473-477.
  • Symons, F. J. (2005). Self-injury and sequential analysis: Context matters. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 110, 323-326.
  • Roberts, J. E., Symons, F. J., Wulfsberg, A. M., Hatton, D. D., & Boccia, M. L. (2005). Blink rate in boys with fragile X syndrome: Preliminary evidence for altered dopamine function. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 49, 647-656.
  • Symons, F. J., Sperry, L. A., Dropik, P., & Bodfish, J. W. (2005). The early development of stereotypy and self-injury in developmental disabilities: A review of research methods. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 49, 144-158.
  • Symons, F. J., Thompson, A., & Rodriguez, M. R. (2004). Self-injurious behavior and the efficacy of naltrexone treatment: A quantitative review. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 10, 193-200.
  • Symons, F. J., Thompson, A., & Realmuto, G. (2004). Clonidine treatment for self-injurious behavior in an adolescent girl with neurodevelopmental disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43, 1324-1325.
  • Symons, F. J., Sperry, L. A., Holditch-Davis, D., & Miles, M. S. (2004). Early stereotyped and self-injurious behavior in young children both at-risk and medically fragile: A preliminary analysis.Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 45, 844-846.
  • McComas, J. J., Johnson, L. A., & Symons, F. J. (2004). Teacher and peer-responsivity to pro-social behavior of high aggressors in preschool. Educational Psychology, 25, 223-231.



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