A critical piece to every behavior plan or behavior intervention is the “target behavior”. In the majority of cases, this is the behavior of concern that the intervention is meant to decrease and it will often be paired with a functionally equivalent replacement behavior. For example, a target behavior labeled “Hits” may be defined as “forcefully swings an open or closed fist in the direction of her head or chin, swings objects in the direction of her head/chin, or swings her head in the direction of a wall or desk with or without making contact” (pulled from an actual behavior support plan referenced in the 2013 article by Smith, Lambert, & Moore). In contrast to this, a replacement behavior labeled “Places” may be defined as “gently places open palms on head or chin, places open palms on objects, or gently lowers and places head against object”.
In both examples, the target behavior and the replacement behavior are described such that a member of the team of interveners (staff, family, etc.) would be likely to identify the behavior as it is occurring such that it can be counted for data collection and responded to with a consequence procedure. With this in mind, we can generally state that we define behaviors so that interveners can count them and use them as a cue for when to implement a behavior change procedure.
Now that we’ve agreed on a general “why”, let’s revisit the target behavior labeled “Hits” used above. It reads, “forcefully swings an open or closed fist in the direction of her head or chin, swings objects in the direction of her head/chin, or swings her head in the direction of a wall or desk with or without making contact”. Take a moment and envision this behavior. Maybe even forcefully swing your arm a time or two being careful not to strike a person or object in your vicinity. Now take another moment and imagine someone is watching you as you swing your arm. Does that person also believe the speed of the arm was “forceful”? Does the arc of the arm fall within the definition of a “swing” or is it more of a “whirl”? Was the swing in the “direction” of the head or more towards the shoulder?
Here we see how a behavioral definition, which was pretty clear just a moment ago, can be rife with uncertainty. This is troublesome even when there is just one intervener who is unsure if a behavior “counts”. However, we often instill teams of interveners to measure behavior and intervene. If each person conceptualizes the target behavior differently, then how can we be sure it is counted reliably and accurately? Are there strategies to increase the likelihood that each subjective experience of the target behavior aligns with the actual event? If so, how can these increase agreement, decrease confusion, and ultimately improve treatment fidelity?
While no source has established the “best” way to define target behaviors for intervention, there are several factors deemed valuable to the process. Several of these are reviewed below.
|Teacher asks question||Student raises hand||Student earns sticker||FR3 - Every third-hand raise = sticker|
|Teacher asks question||Student shouts answer||Staff reviews raising hand||FR1 - Every shout = Staff review|
- FR3 refers to a Fixed-Ratio schedule with delivery on the third response.
- FR1 refers to a Continuous schedule with delivery on every response.
Again, it should be repeated that no “best” way to define a behavior has been established. In fact, if such a best way existed, the field as a whole would be in a very different place. The suggestions and discussion above offer one starting point to a larger discussion on defining behaviors. Hopefully, they are also useful in some way to you, the reader, regarding the creation of behavioral definitions, treatment planning, and intervention.
Until we meet again, happy definition writing!
Please note that the strategies and items discussed here do not constitute clinical advice and should not be used in place of treatment interventions developed by clinical professionals and multidisciplinary teams in your place of work. While some of the suggestions here may be incorporated into a well-designed treatment package, every treatment should be individualized to address the needs of the individual served.
Smith, G. D., Lambert, J. V., Moore, Z. (2013). Behavior description affects accuracy and reliability. The Journal of General Psychology, 140(4), 269-281.