An operational definition of behavior is a tool for understanding and managing behaviors in a school setting. It is an explicit definition that makes it possible for two or more disinterested observers to identify the same behavior when observed, even when it occurs in very different settings. Operational definitions of behavior are vital to defining a target behavior for both a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) and a Behavior Intervention Program (BIP).
While operational definitions of behavior can be used to describe personal behaviors, they can also be used to describe academic behaviors. To do this, the teacher defines the academic behavior the child should exhibit.
Why Operational Definitions Are Important
It can be very difficult to describe a behavior without being subjective or personal. Teachers have their own perspectives and expectations which can, even inadvertently, become part of a description. For example, "Johnny should have known how to line up, but instead chose to run around the room," assumes that Johnny had the capacity to learn and generalize the rule and that he made an active choice to "misbehave." While this description may be accurate, it may also be incorrect: Johnny may not have understood what was expected or may have started running without intending to misbehave.
Subjective descriptions of behavior can make it difficult for the teacher to effectively understand and address the behavior. To understand and address the behavior, it's extremely important to understand how the behavior functions. In other words, by defining behavior in terms of what can clearly be seen, we are able to also examine the antecedents and consequences of the behavior. If we know what happens before and after the behavior, we can better understand what instigates and/or reinforces the behavior.
Finally, most student behaviors occur in multiple settings over time. If Jack tends to lose focus in math, he's likely to lose focus in ELA (English Language Arts) as well. If Ellen is acting out in first grade, chances are she'll still be acting out (at least to some degree) in second grade. Operational definitions are so specific and objective that they can describe the same behavior in different settings and at different times, even when different people are observing the behavior.
How to Create Operational Definitions
The operational definition should become part of any data that is collected in order to establish a baseline for measuring behavioral change. This means the data should include metrics (numerical measures). For example, rather than writing "Johnny leaves his desk during class without permission," it's more useful to write "Johnny leaves his desk two to four times per day for ten minutes at a time without permission." The metrics make it possible to determine whether the behavior is improving as a result of interventions. For example, if Johnny is still leaving his desk but now he's only leaving once a day for five minutes at a time, there has been a dramatic improvement.
Operational definitions should also be part of the Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) and the Behavior Intervention Plan (known as the BIP). If you have checked off "behavior" in the special considerations section of the Individual Education Program (IEP) you are required by federal law to create these important behavior documents in order to address them.
Operationalizing the definition (determining why it happens and what it accomplishes) will also help you identify the replacement behavior. When you can operationalize the behavior and identify the function, you can find a behavior that is incompatible with the target behavior, replaces the reinforcement of the target behavior, or can't be done at the same time as the target behavior.
Operational Definition of Behavior
Non-operational (subjective) definition: John blurts out questions in class. Which class? What does he blurt? How often does he blurt? Is he asking questions that relate to the class?
Operational definition, behavior: John blurts out relevant questions without raising his hand three to five times during each ELA class.
Analysis: John is paying attention to the content of the class, as he is asking relevant questions. He is not, however, focusing on the rules of classroom behavior. In addition, if he has quite a few relevant questions, he may be having trouble understanding the ELA content at the level it's being taught. It is likely that John could benefit from a refresher on classroom etiquette and some ELA tutoring to be sure he is working at grade level and is in the right class based on his academic profile.
Non-operational (subjective) definition: Jamie throws temper tantrums during recess.
Operational Definition, behavior: Jamie shouts, cries, or throws objects each time she participates in group activities during recess (three to five times per week).
Analysis: Based on this description, it sounds like Jamie only becomes upset when she is involved with group activities but not when she is playing alone or on playground equipment. This suggests that she may have difficulty in understanding the rules of play or social skills required for group activities, or that someone in the group is intentionally setting her off. A teacher should observe Jamie's experience and develop a plan that helps her to build skills and/or changes the situation on the playground.
Non-operational (subjective) definition: Emily will read at the second-grade level. What does that mean? Can she answer comprehension questions? What kind of comprehension questions? How many words per minute?
Operational Definition, academic: Emily will read a passage of 100 or more words at the 2.2 grade level with 96 percent accuracy. Accuracy in reading is understood as the number of correctly read words divided by the total number of words.
Analysis: This definition is focused on reading fluency, but not on reading comprehension. A separate definition should be developed for Emily's reading comprehension. By separating these metrics, it will be possible to determine whether Emily is a slow reader with good comprehension, or whether she is having trouble with both fluency and comprehension.