Topography of Behavior - An Objective Description

Disruptive behavior is descibed by topography.=. Getty


Topography is a term used to describe geography, land masses and the visible appearance of "things."

Topography is a technical term used in Applied Behavior Analysis to describe behavior, specifically what behavior looks like. A description of the "topography" of a behavior needs to describe that behavior in an "operational" way, a definition free of the coloration of values or expectation.


By describing the topography, you can avoid many of the problematic terms that find their way into definitions of behaviors.  "Disrespect" is more often a reflection of the teacher's reaction that the student's intent.  "Refusing to comply with a direction" is a more topographical description of the same behavior.

Clearly defining the "topography" of behavior is especially important for creating appropriate interventions for children whose disability is in part defined by behavior, such as Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. Teachers and administrators without extensive experience or training in dealing with behavioral disabilities often over-react and create more problems, by focusing on the the social constructs surrounding misbehavior without focusing on the actual behavior.

In order to define the "topography," a teacher or other educational practitioner, needs to describe what actually occurs.

It is not enough to say "the child tantrummed." A topographical definition would say "The child threw him/herself on the floor, and kicked and screamed in a high pitched voice. The child did not make physical contact with other individuals, furniture or other items in the environment." That topographical description would be significantly different than "The child swung his/her arms and struck other children and the teachers, while screaming in a high pitched voice." Each could be described as a "tantrum" but the first had no elements of aggression, whereas the the second did.

It is not possible to imply whether a child "intends" to injure others through a topographical description, but paired with antecedent, behavior and consequence observation, we may be able to define the function of the behavior. Determining the "function" of the behavior is critical in choosing a replacement behavior and creating an intervention, known as a Behavior Intervention Plan.

It is often helpful to have several professional observe the same behaviors, using an ABC record form.  By observing the antecedent (what happens immediately before the behavior occurs) as well as describing the topography of the behavior, and the consequence--what the student gets or achieves through the behavior, you have additional insights into the behavior that you are observing.  

Guidelines for "Topography" of a Behavior

  • Avoid value laden descriptions:  good, best, nice, etc.
  • Describe as much of the behavior as you can in as objective a manner as possible.
  • Ask another professional to observe the behavior and review the topographical description.
  • Set aside time to observe the behavior more than once. 

Also Known As: Operational definition of behavior