Operational Definition of Behavior

Observing and describing target behavior. Websterlearning

An operational definition is critical for success in writing IEP goals, especially behavioral goals. An operational definition describes the behavior as to its topology and its function. It is an explicit definition that makes it possible for two or more disinterested observers to identify the same behavior when observed. Academic goals should also be operationally defined: you define the academic behavior the child should exhibit.

An operational definition is also vital to define a target behavior for both a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) and a Behavior Intervention Program (BIP).

An operational definition is essential in order to avoid a subjective description or definition of a behavior.  Because teachers tend to be typical, we tend to superimpose our value system on top of how we see behavior.  How often is "But they ought to know!" heard as part of a teachers' lounge conversation?  Often imposing a teacher's middle class respectability on a child with significant disabilities prevents the teacher from effectively understanding and addressing the behavior.  Critical to that is understanding how the behavior functions.  In other words, by defining a behavior in terms of what can clearly be seen, we are able to also examine the antecedents and consequences of the behavior in order to help us also see what reinforces the behavior.

The operational definition should become not only part of any data that is collected in order to establish a baseline, it should also be part of the documents to address the behavior challenges, the Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) and the Behavior Intervention Plan (or Improvement Program, or some combination of the same, 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 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:  i.e. doing puzzles to prevent hand flapping--both involve sensory inputs, but the puzzle is far more functional and appropriate a skill than hand flapping. 


  • Operational Definition, behavior: John leaves his assigned seat during instruction without permission.
  • Non-operational (subjective) definition: John wanders around.
  • Operational Definition, academic: Emily will read a passage of 100 or more words at the 2.2 grade level with 96% accuracy. (Accuracy in reading is understood as number of correctly read words divided by total number of words.)
  • Non-operational (subjective) definition: Emily will read at the second grade level. (Whoa! What does that mean? Can answer comprehension questions? What kind of comprehension questions?  At what rate--how many words per minute?)
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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Operational Definition of Behavior." ThoughtCo, Apr. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/operational-definition-of-behavior-3110867. Webster, Jerry. (2017, April 27). Operational Definition of Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/operational-definition-of-behavior-3110867 Webster, Jerry. "Operational Definition of Behavior." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/operational-definition-of-behavior-3110867 (accessed January 23, 2018).