target behavior

Inside: What is target behavior? What's an operational definition? What are some books, workbooks and resources for behavior interventions?
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I'd told administration that my student was hitting, pinching and scratching others a lot, they heard me, but didn't do much. So I decided to write down how many times the target behaviors happened.

161. This student hit, hit at, scratched or pinched an adult or another student 161 times in just two hours.

After it was written down, administration took my concerns seriously.

What is Target Behavior?

When it comes to special education, one of the biggest challenges that teachers face is being on the same page when talking about behaviors. Teams need to determine a consensus on identifying or defining a certain behavior. Teams need to determine how to go about observing it. Teams need to know are we breaking out the scotch tape for tracking occurrences, the clip board or the golf counters?

But of course, there isn’t a rule book that exists for every case-by-case basis.

However, when making your own observations and assessments, there are several things you can pay attention to that will help facilitate communication and create a better experience for all people involved. Maximize your behavior interventions with this the seven-step process.

1. Identify Detailed Target Behaviors

Before you start to think about the function of a behavior, you’ll have to identify the behavior in the first place. However, it isn’t enough to merely give vague descriptors of a certain behavior you disapprove of. Instead, you’ll have to be extremely specific about what you observe. Whether you are looking at a behavior for autism support classes, special education classess or general education classes, clarity is needed. Let’s take a look at a few examples of descriptors that are poor or excellent:

Examples of target behavior descriptions that are vague and not useful

  • Aggressive
  • Has outburst
  • Runs away all the time
  • Screams at adults
  • Grabs food all the time
  • Off-task

Examples of target behavior descriptions that are specific and useful

  • Hits other students and adults when asked to do work tasks
  • Screams, cries, kicks, and throws items when upset
  • Leaves the group activity, moving more than 2 feet away from the group
  • Uses a loud voice, elevated above a speaking voice, to adults, when corrected
  • Takes food from the plates of others during lunch 
  • Plays with fingers by rubbing on the other hand forcefully for over 3 seconds

2. Be Objective and Fair

In the world of special education, it’s incredibly important that you don’t let your own interpretations of what is going on conflict with the need to be objective. Think about what you see. When creating your descriptors, be sure to describe the only the action and do not attach any direct emotions to the student. In most situations, you’ll want to leave out terms like happy, upset, out of control, aggressive, fearful, or angry, and simply describe what happened.

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3. Create an Operational Definition of the Behavior

Now that you have a general idea of what the behavior looks like in an objective sense, you’re now ready to create an operational definition that can be used by any of the educators you work with. If done correctly, everyone can be on the same page.  Operational definitions allow a Special Education Professional to clearly deliver what a specific behavior in the home or classroom looks like. This is known as topography. Operational definitions are also utilized to figure out what function the behavior serves while providing adequate detail. Learning to write operational definitions often feels intimidating to professionals that are new to the field. With a few easy steps and reminders, writing an operational definition can feel less intimidating and a little more natural.

4. Answer the Question: What’s an Operational Definition ?

As you’re composing this description, remember that an operational definition in psychology is one that can be clearly observed and measured. If you’re unsure that your current definition can be used directly in the classroom and agree upon by everyone, then you’ll need to add more clarifying details. Operational definitions allow for consistency in data. An operational definition allows Special Education professionals to describe, in a very specific way, what they clearly mean when they use a specific term. Using an operational definition will help anyone who enters your classroom understand what behavior they should be observing. There should be no confusion because the definition is so clear.

Writing a great operational definition is not exactly quick and easy, but it doesn’t have to be long and hard. There are a few key elements or characteristics to include when you’re writing your operation definition.

  • Clarity  
  • Reliability and Validity 
  • Observability and Measurability

Clarity- You should always CLEARLY state the behavior you are observing. Your behavior definition should be clear and concise.  Let's use aggression as an example of a target behavior.  Aggression is a common target behavior, but also can be hard to define objectively. Many children engage in different types of aggressive behaviors. These behaviors can include kicking, pinching, hitting, biting, and more. Being able to define aggression clearly may take a lot of thought and consideration. When you hear the word “aggression,” you can quickly come up with your own definition for the word. However, your definition will be different from mine and mine will be different from someone else's. We can’t rely on our own definitions for behaviors when it comes to operational definitions. The data will unfortunately never be accurate or consistent if we do. Here is a way you might clearly define Aggression, to add more clarity in your operation definition: Any circumstance of Sally making physical contact with another student or adult using her body or an object with enough power to produce a sound and/or leave a mark on the skin.

Reliability and Validity- A well-written operational definition should be reliable and valid. Reliability is when an action/behavior can be repeated.  Validity speaks to the definition actually measuring what exact behavior you want it to measure.

Observability and Measurability- The behavior in your operational definition should be able to be observed and measured. Anyone who walks into your classroom should be able to measure the behavior you are targeting. The definition should be so clear and concise that anyone in the building could take data. The reason we want the definition to be so clear that anyone could do it and do it consistently. Maybe you are tracking data for one day, or maybe you’re tracking data for a week. If you are absent one day, and a substitute teacher is put in for you, they should be able to observe and easily, correctly collect data on that behavior.

If you need some guidance with this, sign up to download our free Operational Definition Cheat Sheet.

operational definition in psychology

5. Begin Observing Target Behaviors

Ok, you have got your operational definition in hand, you now have a way to clearly look out for target behaviors in your student. With a solid operational definition behavior will either be observed or not observed. There won’t be room for confusion. As you go about teaching in the classroom, focus your attention on one or two target behaviors at a time. Too many behaviors may overwhelm you, so it’s best to start on a few.  And, as you help your team with observing the behaviors, it may be good to also spell out what you are NOT looking for. Take a look at the chart below of non-examples.

operational definition psychology example


 How to Include Target Behavior Examples and Non-Examples

Aggressive Behavior
Definition: Any instance where ____ makes physical contact with another student or staff member using a body part or object with enough force to leave a mark or make an audible sound.


  • Hitting an adult or students’ arm with an open hand or punching with a closed fist  with enough power to make an audible sound.
  • Kicking another student or staff member on any part of their body with enough  power to leave a visible mark on the skin of the student or staff member.
  • Biting a student or staff member with enough power to leave a visible mark on the skin.
  • Pinching an adult or student on any part of their body with enough power to leave a visible mark.

Non-examples include:

  • Making contact with a student or staff member that has left no visible mark and the sound was not audible.
  • Falling onto a student or staff member resulting in a red spot on the student or adult's skin.

Avoidance Behaviors
Definition: Any instance in which ____ reacts to a verbal demand by physically removing themselves from the situation for more than 10 seconds.

Examples include:

  • Dropping to the floor and staying there for longer than 10 seconds when given a verbal demand.
  • Eloping moving more than 3 feet away from a supervising staff member when given a verbal demand.

Non-examples include:

  • Verbally protesting after demand is placed.
  • Dropping to the ground and standing up within 10 seconds after the demand is placed.

Definition: Any instance in which _____ is laying on the floor, crying, yelling, throwing items and or pounding hands and fists on the desk. A tantrum will be viable if it is more than 15 seconds long.

Examples include:

  • Laying on the floor for 15 seconds or more.
  • Sitting at their respective desk and pounding on the desk without yelling.
  • Throwing a pencil and yelling no, unable to be redirected after 15 seconds.
  • Crying and yelling loudly.

Non-examples include:

  • Sitting in a chair, not working, but not making any vocalizations.
  • Crying after getting hurt.

Academic Engagement
Definition: Any instance in which _____ is looking at the teacher or the board, working on the assignment, quiet when independent work is given.

Examples include:

  • Working quietly at their desk during independent time.
  • Finishes work and quietly selects another activity.
  • Begins work once instruction is given with no vocalizations.
  • Pay attention to the teacher or person speaking.

Non-examples include:

  • Talking to a student after instructed to do so by the teacher.
  • Looking at something out the window.
  • Beginning an assignment before the teacher says it’s time to begin.

Talking Out of Turn
Definition: Any instance in which _____ makes a vocalization that is not initiated by a teacher or staff member is considered talking out of term. ____ will also not bring up unrelated topics during a lesson. Hand raising is counted when ____ is sitting still in their chair, their hand is up in the air for more than 5 seconds and ____ does not make any vocalizations while waiting to be called on.

Examples include:

  • Answering questions that are meant for another student.
  • Talking, laughing or making noises while instructions are being given.
  • Talking to a friend when it is time to work.
  • Making sounds or vocalizations while a student is speaking or answering a question.
  • Hand is not raised to speak.

Non-examples include:

  • Answering when a question is directed to the whole group.
  • Asking a question about work after instructions are given.
  • Coughing or clearing throat.
  • Talking to a peer when it is free time.


6. Determine the Type Of Data Sheet You Need

Once you observe a target behavior play out, you’ll need to record it in the form of data collection. Keeping good data records isn’t only useful for you, but also to your other colleagues. That means it’s critical that you know what type of data you’ll need. There are many different methods for measuring behavior. For example, if we are measuring a student's aggression we can collect data like this: how many times does the student hit, kick, pinch, bite, etc. each day, how long will the episodes last, how long does it take for the aggression to start after a trigger is presented, percentage of time the student spends using aggression each day, how intense is the magnitude of the aggression?

Should you focus on duration, frequency, intensity, or any other factors? The decision is up to you — think about which will accurately reflect the behavior you need to capture, and ultimately change. To help train your inner data collectivist, let’s take a look at a few examples.

  • Hits other students and adults when asked to do work tasks
    This target behavior could be recorded in terms of frequency. You should record how many instances a day this behavior occurs and include the time and work task as well. Good data collection isn’t merely a phrase that says, “hits all day,” but rather uses numbers to record each and every hit.

  • Screams, cries, kicks, and throws items when upset
    This target behavior could be recorded in terms of intensity or duration. Because you can’t count every single cry or kick, you may want to record how long the episode lasts or how intense it was. Did they just cry for 30 minutes or cry, kick, and throw items for 30 minutes? Specificity is always important, as well as including the associated activity and time in your records.

  • Leaves the group activity, moving more than 2 feet away, multiple times a day
    Data collection for leaving the group could focus on frequency, or how many times a day this behavior occurs. In terms of setting up your records, you could benefit from a data chart with a daily activity schedule included. For every instance a student leaves that activity, place a tally mark to show it.

  • Uses a loud voice, elevated above a speaking voice, towards with adults when corrected
    It is possible you may want to focus on finding out why the student is “yelling” in the first place. To do this in an objective way, you can take advantage of the Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence (ABC) chart. It’ll require you to record what you’ve observed right before the behavior (ex. What are the exact words the teacher said when correcting the student’s work), the behavior itself, and the resulting consequence (ex. Does the adult leave the student alone, does the adult reply, or does the adult ignore the yelling).

  • Takes food from the plates of other students during lunch 
    A behavior of taking food (and attempts to take food) could also benefit from data collection in the form of frequency. Rather than just focusing on how many times this occurs, you could also record the type of food the child is taking and sprinkle in some ABC chart-work. Why?—Well, what if you notice it only happens on chicken nugget and pizza days? Both of these factors and data methods will help you better understand the function of the behavior.

  • Plays with fingers by rubbing on the other hand forcefully for over 3 seconds
    Two types might work collected in the form of duration recording or latency recording. You might want to record how long the student plays with their fingers before the student starts focusing and also record the latency of how long the child waits after the direction is given to begin working.

7. Create a Dedicated Data Sheet to Track the Behavior Occurrences

Now that you’re familiar with the data collection process, you’re ready to create your own organized data sheet to track the behaviors you observe. Grab the pencil, get you behavior monitoring radar ready and track those behaviors.  Or, checkout our free download of behavior data collection sheets below!
behavior data collection sheets

What's Next in Your Functional Behavior Assessment FBA Journey?

Congratulations! You’ve just walked through the seven-step process of target behavior identification. Working with challenging behaviors certainly isn’t the easiest job on the planet, but it can be made easier with helpful resources along the way. If you are interested in learning just what is a functional behavior assessment then check out some of the links below.

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More About This Topic from Autism Classroom  

Functional Behavior Assessments 

Ways to Help Identify the Function of a Behavior

Strategies to Respond to Each Function Behavior Intervention Ideas

Writing a Behavior Plan

Ideas for Decreasing Elopement Within the Classroom -Resource Packet (See the video below)
behavior plan pack elopement

Positive Behavior Supports and Preventative Supports

Examples of Target Behaviors Links and Articles

Case Study Unit  unit on the topic. The case studies included, prepare you for a wide range of scenarios, as well as helpfully defining a student’s behavior in order to measure it. If you want some real practice in defining the target behavior, this article is the perfect one.

Examples and Non-Examples of a target behavior. The article is particularly helpful in identifying some target behavior examples for different students. From identifying a target behavior, to learning about the four functions of behavior itself, these lessons provide a valuable overview of all aspects of the process.

More on defining behaviors can be found here. If you are still asking what is target behavior, this might help. The article helps to recall important information about behavior and how to correctly define it.

Making Things Measurable

Making a behavior measurable is important. If you are looking to examine the whole process, from selecting the target behavior to overseeing progress, push that click button on your computer mouse and see these tips here. Suggestions on this page are a great asset for anyone seeking to create a measurable behavior.

Un-observable and observable behaviors can be difficult to distinguish. Clear definitions are in this post to help with that. It also analyzes how the absence of an action can also qualify as a behavior, making this article a very helpful resource in studying behavior in all forms.

Video on ways to figure out the target behavior. The video easily defines target behaviors and how to outline them. If you are concerned about figuring out a target behavior, a great resource is waiting for you in video form.

Data Collection Supports 

You can’t talk about target behaviors without the discussion of data collection!  This offers some data related points to think about the importance of measuring data. Get out your counters, clipboards and's time to learn as much about data collection as you can.

What Types of Data are needed? The link helpfully defines the three primary forms of data that you will be dealing with, as well as the differences between them.

Data methods everyone should know are here.  Use the ideas to familiarize yourself with the various methods, become more experienced at data collection and improve your overall performance!

behavior support autism

Help with Replacement Behaviors

This article gives tips on replacing behaviors with something else. Through the model they provide, essential information is given about identifying the challenging behavior and selecting a replacement skill. The article also includes considerations teachers and caregivers must make in this process.

Replace behaviors with something new. Pictures and ideas are in this excellent resource offering suggestions for how to select a proper replacement behavior.

Practical Ways to Teach Replacement Behaviors. Keep the practical in mind when seeking to implement a replacement behavior. Explore the reasonable ways in which you can introduce replacement behaviors through this link.

How Do You Teach the Replacement? Check out some ideas here. As the article mentions, you ask yourself why the target behavior is happening, in addition to seeking a replacement behavior.

target behavior
Books About Behavior Interventions

A Survival Guide for New Special Educators 1st Edition. This book is extremely helpful because it covers such a wide range of topics. It discusses everything you should know in order to not only survive being a special educator… but thrive! It relies on the latest research and progress in the field to give useful advice.

Behavior Intervention Manual: Goals, Objectives, and Intervention Strategies. Precisely defining behavior and how to approach it is at the core of this book. It outlines how to develop specific goals and measurable progress, and implementation in the classroom. Absolutely a tool that IEP teams can use to get ideas for inteventions. You might use it to look up a behavior situation and there would be about 10 or more (usually a lot more) strategies to try.

Autistic Disorder Intervention Manual. 2 Words: Game Changer. Similar to the book listed above, this gives lists and lists of strategies to use for inteventions. Goals for addressing a particular challenge, objectives for the issue or concern at hand and a list of interventions are there for each topic. 

Just Give Him the Whale. Written by renowned experts on autism, this book has major practical application potential. It focuses on the connection between autistic individuals and the things they love and how to use this connection in education. The book gives tips and strategies for balancing a student’s unique interests with their educational needs.

Functional Behavior Assessment for People with Autism: Making Sense of Seemingly Senseless Behavior, Second Edition (Topics in Autism). This book reveals all that parents, caretakers, and educators of those with autism should know about conducting a functional behavior assessment. It stays up to date with research, case studies, and anecdotes from experts to balance the clinical with the personal.

FBA & BIP (Functional Behavioral Assessment & Behavior Intervention Plan). Behavioral support is essential, and these tips and tricks make providing it seem just a little bit easier. The six-page laminated reading has ideas an educator needs to properly run a classroom while taking into account the functional behavioral assessment and target behaviors of their students. 

Pedro's Whale This picture book is based on a true story and the famous inspiration for autism experts Paula Kluth and Patrick Schwarz’s study of combining a student's interest and education. It tells the story of Pedro, a young boy who loves whales, and the efforts of his teacher to include this interest in the curriculum.


Books and Workbooks: Resources from Autism Classroom 

Social Skills Printables Workbook: For Students with Autism and Similar Special Needs

Behavior Skills Printables Workbook: For Students with Autism and Similar Special Needs  

Executive Functioning Skills Printables Workbook: For Students Learning Life Skills  

behavior interventions for autism    
social skills printbables workbook autism    executive functioning worksheets

Toilet Training Skills Printables Workbook: For Students with Autism and Similar Special Needs  

How to Set Up a Classroom for Students with Autism Manual for Setting Up the Classroom 

The Morning Work Workbook: For K, 1st & 2nd Grade Students Learning Life Skills 

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Click here for help with Types of data (coming soon).
Click here for help Identifying the Function of a Behavior.