Creating Operational Definitions

Defining behavior is essential to effective instruction. Being able to define behavior helps make the learning process more likely to be successful.

Behavior is generally considered what someone does. Behavior includes what the person does that is observable and measurable. It is common to define behavior by identifying what actions the person has displayed or what actions the teacher decides that the individual should begin to display.

Behavior is typically not defined by talking about the reason behind the behavior. Behavior is not defined by identifying a person’s motivation, thoughts, or feelings for doing something.

On a side note, there is some room in a therapeutic or educational setting to address what can be referred to as “private events” which are related to what happens within a person’s body or mind.

However, for the purposes of defining behavior, we want to be careful about how we discuss private events and how we define this part of the human experience, as well.

Importance of Defining Behaviors

According to Bicard, Bicard, and the IRIS Center, defining behavior is important for many reasons including the following:

  • It makes it easier to collect data about the learner either by observing them or asking someone else to report on the learner’s behavior.
  • When and how often a behavior occurs is more accurately documented when the behavior has been defined.
  • By defining behavior, you can optimize the available services and supports.
  • Defining behavior helps the teacher to focus on the interactions between the environment and the learner rather than allowing for blame to be placed on something else such as an opinion or judgment about a potential innate flaw in the learner.
  • When behavior is defined, it is easier to get others to help the learner work toward goals as the other teacher can better understand what is expected.
  • Defining behavior allows for better intervention design.
  • Monitoring progress and identifying true and meaningful change can be accomplished when behavior has been defined.
  • Writing intervention plans, completing functional behavior assessments, and communicating with others are all supported when behavior has been properly defined.

Parts of a Behavioral Definition

To define behavior, an objective and measurable phrase is developed.

When defining behaviors, it is important to make sure that you define the behavior in observable terms. For instance, a parent who is trying to help their child “be more respectful” should not define the target behavior as “My child will be more respectful,” because the term respectful is not observable (until you further define what respectful means).

A better definition would be “My child will say ‘yes mom’ and begin completing the task within 30 seconds of being asked when I ask him to clean up his room.”

An operational definition is improved when measurable terms are used. This refers to identifying how the behavior should be measured. For instance, are you measuring how often a behavior happens in the course of a day?

Measurable terms include the dimension of the behavior to be evaluated. Examples include:

  • frequency – how many times the behavior occurred
  • rate – how many times in a given period the behavior occurred
  • duration – how long the behavior occurred
  • latency – how long between the initial SD (instruction or trigger) and the behavior
  • magnitude – the intensity of the behavior

It is highly recommended that when you identify and define a behavior that you (or another significant individual) would like to see less of in the learner, that you also identify and define a replacement behavior.

A behavior that is appropriately defined should be clear and concise. It should be observable and measurable. Multiple people should be able to observe and measure the same thing.

Try to make your definition as specific as you can. This allows you to help the learner make progress more easily. When goals are too large or too broad, it can be more difficult for you (or someone else) to monitor the behavior and also makes it more challenging for the learner to make consistent progress.

The behavior should also be defined in positive terms. This means that the behavior should be defined by stating what should happen rather than simply stating what should NOT happen.

Example of Defining Behavior

Here is an example of one approach to defining behaviors given by Bicard, Bicard, and the IRIS Center:

  • Target behavior The student does not pay attention in class.
  • Operational definition of the target behavior The student looks around the room, looks at his desk, or looks at another student.
  • Replacement behavior The student will pay attention in class.
  • Operational definition of the replacement behavior The student will sit in his seat and makes eye contact with the teacher while verbally responding to the teachers questions.

More Tips for Defining Behaviors and Creating Operational Definitions

There are a few different approaches to defining behaviors. The above example is just one possible way of defining behaviors.

Another way of defining behaviors could be to identify what the product is of the target behavior. For instance, instead of actually observing the behavior, a permanent product of the behavior refers to what happens as a result of the behavior. An example of this is that “a child will complete one full math worksheet” or “the child will complete the chore of taking care of the clean dishes.”

When you are defining a behavior or creating an operational definition, you should visualize what the behavior looks like. Do not insert your opinion or use subjective words such as “the student is rude” or “the student is being defiant.”

Creating Operational Definitions: Defining Behaviors to Help Learners Succeed

Defining behaviors can be a complex task, but if you take the tips described in this article you can become more familiar with the benefits of defining behaviors as well as how to create operational definitions that will ultimately help the teacher teach and help the learner learn.

Bicard, S. C, Bicard, D. F.,& the IRIS Center. (2012). Defining behavior. Retrieved on [month day, year,] from ICS-015.pdf