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Breaking Down & Defining Behavior

Behavior intervention, behavior challenges—anything regarding the subject of behavior—can be incredibly daunting. And with good reason! We try our best as parents to ensure our children are happy, so when challenging behaviors arise, it can be disheartening and leave us feeling helpless. Alas, have no fear! I am here to shed new light on how to break down and define behavior so that you can find solutions that work.

Move Away from Abstract Terms

One of the reasons behavior can be so complicated is because we forget to break it down and look at what is happening. Often without thinking about it, we talk about behavior in abstract terms. For example, when we talk about challenging classroom behaviors, we may say or hear terms like: “off-task, disruptive, distracting, distracted, or doesn’t follow directions.” While these words can describe behavior, they don’t pinpoint what is happening when the challenging behavior occurs.

Define the Behavior Objectively

The very first step to addressing behavior is to define it objectively. This will help us stay focused and solution-oriented to find an effective resolution. When we break down behavior into objective terms, we can see the specific problem that needs adjustment.

Here is an example of how we can get objective with our definitions: When describing a student’s behavior, rather than using an abstract classroom descriptor like “distracting,” we can say, “the student got out of their chair and walked around the room during a lesson.” “Distracting” can mean so many different things that if we don’t define it objectively, we will have a harder time helping that student. On the other hand, “the student got out of their chair and walked around,” is something we can work with! Defining the behavior objectively and breaking it down into manageable pieces is crucial in the behavior change process.

Look Closely & Get Specific

For some reason, it seems to be our natural inclination to solve behavior concerns from the outside. When challenging behaviors occur, we immediately and often unconsciously begin scrolling through our Rolodex of solutions and/or responses in our parent/teacher repertoire. Instead, we should ask, “what does the behavior look like?” As I discussed above, we need to focus on defining the actions objectively. Here’s why this is important: Let’s say we go to the doctor and say we feel “sick.” It is highly unlikely that the doctor will go ahead and prescribe us antibiotics unless we can get specific about our symptoms. Similarly, we shouldn’t consider our solutions until we’ve determined the specific behavior.

Defining behavior in specific, objective terms means describing what we see and observe rather than feeling or thinking. If our child is having a meltdown after we tell them, “you can’t have dessert,” our natural reaction may be to say, “I know he’s upset, but I think he’s stressed out after a long day of school.” Unfortunately, when we relay this message to therapists or teachers or consider the behavior later, this description won’t help us to effectively find a solution. When we use a description such as “he yelled and stomped his feet, and he told me didn’t want to talk to me,” we can use that information to figure out our solution. Just as a doctor would learn our symptoms before describing antibiotics, we need to describe and understand the behaviors we see before finding a solution.

I’m not going to lie—all this takes a lot of practice. However, I know that when teachers and parents steer clear of abstract descriptions, define behavior in terms of “what it looks like,” and stay objective and specific, they are likely to find an effective solution.


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