What constitutes a behavior? – Part 1

We’ve all been there: That uncomfortable setting in which a child is having a meltdown. In Walmart, at the movies, in restaurants, on a plane, we have all seen a child throwing a fit and the uncomfortable atmosphere that accompanies it. Perhaps you’ve been a bystander for one of these episodes or, worse yet, the person in the middle of it.

Now, let’s be honest. What was your “gut” reaction to this situation. This is a question I typically ask to parent groups, teachers, and my students. The responses I receive typically range from, “I’m thinking, ‘get that kid out of here,’” or “what is wrong with that child?” or “that parent needs to get it together,” and anything and everything in between. Many of us would likely label this as a very unpleasant situation regardless of our personal role in the event.

When we move past our gut reaction, we come to a more important question: “Why is this behavior happening?” We cannot, however, get to the why without first talking about the what. For example, what exactly is “behavior”?

In today’s blog, I want to tackle this issue from ground zero. You’ll notice the word “behavior.” Isn’t this a popular word when talking about children? We all know what this means, right?

Most of us may answer this question by referring to the definition of behavior. Here is how the Oxford dictionary defines the word “behavior:”


the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others

This seems to fit the above-mentioned scenario very well. But does it point us in a direction that helps solve such unfortunate circumstances?

If you pick up any general psychology textbook, you will likely see the psychology defined as “the study of behavior and mental processes.” What are “mental processes” and how are they different from behavior.”

“Oh my gosh Dr. Jim, you are being ridiculous!” If you’re thinking this, you are not the first, and you will not be the last. But, go ahead. Write down what a “mental process” is. Where would I go to observe a mental process? If each reader of this blog wrote down a definition, would we all come up with the same thing? Could a “mental process” simply be a behavior that is not observable to other people? Whew, let’s get back to behavior for a moment.

Perhaps the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which claims behavior as it’s fundament unit of study can shed some light. The problem with this approach is the definition depends on who you ask. My graduate students, for example, purchase many ABA textbooks during their course of study, and each book contains its own unique definition that varies ever so slightly from other definitions.

Imagine if medicine disagreed on fundamental definitions. What if your brain surgeon said to you, “most people believe your frontal lobe is in the front portion of your brain, but I define it as the back region.” Would you allow this person to crack your head open and fiddle around with your brain?

If you’re like me, you believe that addressing behavior in homes and schools could be the key to not only helping one child improve his or her life, but society as a whole. For example, research has suggested that some of the most serious behaviors that plague our society, such as murder, assault, robbery, etc., start with children who show very low compliance with adult commands. These children are more likely to develop coercive relationships with their parents and then teachers, and also develop bonds with other children with similar problems. Closely tied to compliance issues are also academic problems. Children who show difficulty with their reading, for example are at risk for a host of later problems, including delinquency, bullying (both as perpetrators and victims), and other problems that may involve interactions with law enforcement. So it seems that the study of behavior could be a major activity to help solve many of society’s ills.

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