When defining a specific behavior, we should follow three simple rules:
- The definition should allow us to count or measure it.
- The definition should be specific to one thing and not involve other behaviors
- A stranger should be able to read our definition, see the behavior, and then say “yes” or “no” that the behavior is occurring.
If we cannot measure behavior, then when we try to assess the effectiveness of our attempts to improve behavior, we are left to our own opinion. Do I really need to outline the problems with that? I never trust my own opinion without data to back it up. Opinions are only as valid as the data used to defend them.
What about specificity? The problem with the “go clean your room” scenario is that this purported behavior – room cleaning – really involves a large number of other behaviors, each of which needs its own definition. Trust me, after a while, our children will learn what we mean by “go clean your room,” but if we want to maximize our ability to solve problems, we cannot lump behaviors together. By doing this, we assume that all of the smaller behaviors that go into this larger class of behavior, such as cleaning your room, are all equivalent. For example, when my children were small, we could include putting clothes on hangers as part of their “room cleaning,” but not hanging the clothes in the closet. Why? They were not yet tall enough to reach the clothes rack. By the way, we sometimes call this approach of breaking behaviors down as a task analysis: what other, smaller behaviors contribute to this overall outcomes, like a clean room?
One of the major problems for parents and teachers in effectively improving child behavior is a lack of objectivity. “Dr. Jim isn’t talking about me.” Yes I am. I’m talking about me, as well. When you build an emotional bond with a child, you must fight to stay objective. Trust me, I know this first hand with my own children. Comparing my effectiveness with other children to my own would be like comparing Drew Brees throwing a football to my dog Russell throwing one. When we are less objective, we are more likely to give the child slack, also known as inconsistent consequences, but also become irritated due to unreasonable expectations. By defining a behavior in such a way that a stranger would agree if it’s happening helps us increase our objectivity, thus making it more likely that we will be effective in helping improve the situation.
WHEW. Wasn’t that so exciting? Well, perhaps not, but we cannot talk about some of the behaviors that trouble our kids without first setting the foundation about what behavior actual is.
Quite simply, behavior is anything a person does. This is not limited to only obvious body actions, but also includes subtle actions, like talking, internal body actions, like your stomach secreting acid, and even private events, such as silent reading and thinking. From here, however, we move to the more important question: WHY does behavior occur. In our next blog, we will compare different opinions on why behaviors occur, and then also start discussing how these opinions may lead to vastly different approaches to improving behavior.