Perhaps the most important part of addressing behavior, regardless of whether the attempt is to decrease a behavior (e.g., taking toys) or increase a behavior (e.g., completing assignments), is appropriately defining the target behavior. Unfortunately, this important step is often overlooked. Definitions can often be unclear, or can place too much emphasis on the emotions or feelings the behavior evokes in others rather than on the actual behavior.
For example, when discussing a child who is “disruptive” in the classroom or home, the word “disruptive” conveys more about the person concerned with the behavior than about the actual behavior. To accurately define behavior, one should: 1) describe the behavior based on what it looks like. For example: Tommy runs around the room, throws things in the floor and/or screams loudly.
Ultimately, the definition of any behavior should be so precise that anyone reading the definition, regardless of their familiarity with the child or with observing behaviors, can fully understand it.
A well-written definition should also include wording that describes the context of the behavior; that is, describes the time, place, and setting of the behavior.
For example, a description of someone standing in isolation and waving their arms back and forth might evoke an image of a person engaging in self-stimulatory behavior. In a classroom setting, during a test, this behavior might be “disruptive.” What if the same person were engaging in this same behavior while also standing on a busy street? In this example, we understand that the person is attempting to hail a cab. So, without the proper information, any behavior may seem out of place.
Here are some additional examples of well-written and not-so-well-written behavior definitions:
- Mary screams and hits.
- Joe calls other children names.
- Mark calls out without raising his hand.
- Polly completes 25% of work assigned.
- Shane will look around the room and not comply with teacher directives to begin work.
- Al screams, hits others, and pushes furniture.
- Mary is “angry.”
- Joe is acting “ugly.”
- Mark is so “disruptive.”
- Polly is just plain “lazy.”
- Shane just “doesn’t care about school.”
- Al has “temper tantrums.”
After you have defined the challenging behavior, it will be easier to identify what is triggering the behavior. Another word for a "behavior trigger" is "antecedent." These terms will be used interchangeably throughtout these modules.
A behavior trigger is something that happens immediately prior to a specific behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur . When we identify the triggers, we learn more about how to prevent a challenging behavior from occuring.
For the purpose of determining a behavior trigger, it is important to consider the location and the time the behavior occurred. It is also important to identify others present in the environment and their actions immediately prior to the behavior. It is also important to note anything that is different or a change from the norm. Triggers might also include changes in activities, changes in people, changes in temperature, or changes in the weather.
Ideally, you learn what is triggering the behavior by observing the child or student and tracking his or her behavior over time. If you are unable to collect several days worth of data, you may ask yourself or others who know the child some of the questions in the table below to learn more about the triggers.
Table 2. Things to consider regarding triggers
|People||Who was present when the behavior occurred?
How many people were present?
What did the person/people do?
Was anyone interacting with the person before the behavior occurred?
Had anyone just entered or left the location?
Was anyone missing who would typically have been present?
|Activity||What activity was taking place?
Was the person participating in the activity?
Was the activity new?
Was the person successful when participating in the activity?
Did the person enjoy the activity?
Was the activity a routine activity?
|Location||Where was the person when the behavior occurred?
Was the person inside or outside?
Was the person in a new location?
Was there a lot of noise in the location?
|Time of Day||When did the behavior occur?
What routinely occurs at this time?
|Medical History||Does this person have a known medical history that would contribute to the behavior?
Does this person take medication?
If so, has the person taken their medication?
If so, is the behavior a possible side effect of the medication?
Does the person have any known allergies?
|Physical Illness or Injury||Was the person injured or sick?
Could the person communicate to someone if they were ill or injured?
|Sleep Habits||Did the person appear to be sleepy (e.g., head on desk, yawning, lying down)?
Does the person have a regular sleep routine?
|Eating Habits||Did the behavior involve food?
Was food present?
Does the person have a restricted diet?
Has the person accessed food that is not part of their diet?
Does the person have any food allergies?
|Daily Schedule/Routine||What was taking place when the behavior occurred?
What the person participating in activities that are typical of that person’s daily routine?
Was there a change to the person’s predictable schedule?
|Sensory||Was the noise level exceptionally loud or quite?
What was the temperature in the location?
Were there any apparent smells that were not customary?
Was the person dealing with any materials/items of varying textures or weights prior to the behavior?
 Reid, D. H., & Parson, M. B. (2007). Positive behavior support training curriculum.Washington, DC: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
 O’Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole.
It is also important to consider how we respond to the problem behavior right after it occurs.
- How do we react?
- How do the other students react?
- How do other family members react?
Our responses are referred to as “consequences.” We usually think of consequences in terms of punishment, but really they are anything that happens after a behavior, and they determine whether or not the behavior is likely to happen again.
Examples of Common Responses (Consequences) at School
- Someone talks through behavior with student
- Student removed from class
- Peers laugh or complain
- Student prompted to complete assignment
- Teacher gives a verbal warning
- Student ignored
- Student directed to quiet area
- Student loses points, privilege, or access
- Student is given a break
- Student is paired with another student
- Student gets an additional snack
Examples of Common Responses (Consequences) at Home
- The family member has a discuss about the behavior with the child
- The child is told to stop the behavior
- The child is sent to his or her room
- The child is ignored
- The child's siblings laugh
- The child is given TV
- The child is given a snack
When trying to find out the purpose for a behavior, it is important to ask, “What is this person communicating by engaging in this behavior?” There are four research-supported functions or purposes for behavior: attention, escape, tangible, and sensory.
A student or child may be behaving a certain way because he or she is seeking attention or a specific item. He or she may behave in another way to escape an interaction or an activity.
Look at the table below for some examples of behaviors and their possible functions or purposes:
|Baby cries||Parent picks up baby||Baby stops crying||Child is seeking attention|
|Child given assignment||Child raises hand||Teacher responds to child||Child is seeking attention|
|Coin on the ground||Pick up the coin||Put coin in pocket||Person is seeking money (tangible)|
|Driving in traffic||Traffic light turns red||Stop at traffic light||Person is avoiding car accident (escape)|
|Phone rings||Answer the phone||Speak to person on the phone||Person is avoiding the loud ringing of the phone (escape)
Person is seeking interaction with the other person (attention).
|Child given assignment||Child protest/refuses||Child doesn’t complete task||Child is avoiding completing the task (escape).|
Once enough data have been collected so that clear patterns of triggers-behavior-responses relationships exist, then a behavior intervention plan can be developed.