The Topography of Behavior

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Topography is a term used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) to describe behavior—specifically what behavior looks like. Topography defines behavior in an "operational" way, free of the coloration of values or expectation. By describing the topography of behavior, you avoid many of the problematic terms that find their way into definitions of behaviors. Disrespect, for example, is more often a reflection of the teacher's reaction than the student's intent. By contrast, the phrase "refusing to comply with a direction" would be a topographical description of the same behavior.

The Importance of Topography

Clearly defining the topography of behavior is especially important for creating appropriate interventions for children whose disabilities are 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 overreact and create more problems by focusing on the social constructs surrounding misbehavior without observing the actual behavior.

When they do so, these educators are focusing on the function of a behavior rather than its topography. The function of a behavior describes why the behavior occurs, or the purpose of the behavior; whereas, the topography of the behavior describes its form. Describing the topography of the behavior is much more objective—you are simply stating objectively what happened. The function of the behavior tends to be much more subjective—you are trying to explain why a student exhibited a certain behavior.

Topography Versus Function

Topography and function represent two very different ways of describing a behavior. For example, if a child throws a tantrum, to explain the topography of the behavior, it would not be enough for a teacher to simply say "the child threw a tantrum." A topographical definition might state: "The child threw 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."

The functional description, by contrast, would be open to interpretation: "Lisa became angry, swung her arms and tried to strike other children and the teacher while screaming in that high-pitched voice she often uses." Each description could be defined as a "tantrum," but the former contains only what the observer saw, whereas the latter includes interpretation. It is not possible to know, for example, that a child "intended" to injure others through a topographical description, but paired with an antecedent, behavior, consequence (ABC) observation, you may be able to determine the function of the behavior.

It is often helpful to have several professionals observe the same behaviors and then provide both functional and topographical descriptions. By observing the antecedent—what happens immediately before the behavior occurred—and determining the function of the behavior as well as describing its topography, you gain additional insights into the behavior that you are observing. By combining these two methods—decribing the topography of a behavior and determining its function—educators and behavior specialists can help chose a replacement behavior and create an intervention, known as a behavior intervention plan.

Loaded Descriptions Versus Topography

To truly understand how topography might describe a behavior, it can be helpful to look at loaded (emotionally tinged) descriptions of a given behavior versus topographical descriptions (objective observations). Behavioral Learning Solutions offers this method of comparing the two:

Loaded Description


Sally got angry and started throwing items during circle time trying to hit others with the items.

The student threw items or released items from her hand.

Marcus is making progress and, when prompted, can say “buh” for bubbles.

The student can make the vocal sound “buh”

Karen, happy as always, waved goodbye to her teacher.

The student waved or moved her hand from side to side.

When asked by an assistant to put away the blocks, Joey got mad again and threw the blocks at the assistant trying to hit her.

The student threw blocks on the floor.

Guidelines for Topography of a Behavior

When describing the topography of a behavior:

  • Avoid value-laden descriptions, such as good, best, and bad.
  • 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. 

The topography of a behavior may also be referred to as the operational definition of behavior.

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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "The Topography of Behavior." ThoughtCo, May. 4, 2022, Webster, Jerry. (2022, May 4). The Topography of Behavior. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "The Topography of Behavior." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2022).