SPED 8013 | Chapter 3: Selecting and Defining Target Behaviors

Role of Assessment in Applied Behavior Analysis

  • Identify and define targets for behavior change
  • Identify relevant factors that may inform or influence intervention

Five Phases of Assessment

  1. Screening
  2. Defining problem criteria for achievement
  3. Pinpointing target behaviors
  4. Monitoring progress
  5. Following-up

Pre-assessment Considerations

  • Ethical considerations
    • Authority/Permission, i.e. make sure you have the authority to intervene
    • Resources i.e. make sure you have the resources needed to properly implement an assessment and resulting programs
    • Skills i.e. make sure you have the skill required to conduct the assessment and the ability to seek assistance with unfamiliar situations

Assessment Methods

  • Indirect methods
    • Interviews
    • Checklists/rating scales
  • Direct methods
    • Tests (standardized vs. criterion-referenced)
    • Direct observation

Interviewing the Individual

  • Identify list of potential target behaviors (these can be highly structured to organic and fluid)
    • What and when
    • Avoid “why”
  • Identify primary concerns
  • Verified through further data collection
    • Direct observation
    • Use of questionnaires or self-monitoring

Interviewing Significant Others

  • Develop behavioral descriptions
    • What, when, how
    • Avoid “why”
    • Move from general to specific
  • Determine participation-to what extent can we expect significant others to buy in?

Checklists/Rating Scales

  • Descriptions of specific behaviors and conditions under which each should occur
  • Alone or with interview
  • Typically Likert-scale assessments
  • Ask about antecedents and consequences
    • Motivation Assessment Scale

**Use multi methods to collect information. The more information that we can gather from the more people in the greatest variety of ways the better the outcome. Do not rely on one collection method**

Standardized Tests

  • Consistent administration
  • Limitations
    • Do not specify target behaviors
    • Do not provide direct measure of behavior
    • Licensing requirements

Criterion-Referenced Tests

  • Have the advantage of assessing exactly which skills students need to learn, and which they have mastered
  • Such as the ABLES or the  VB-MAPP

Direct Observation

  • Direct and repeated
  • Natural environment
  • Identifies potential target behaviors
  • Preferred method

Anecdotal Observation (Direct)

  • Features of ABC recording
    • Descriptive
    • Temporarily sequenced
    • Description of behavior patterns
      • Full attention 20-30 min
    • Observations only, no interpretations
    • Repeat over several days

Ecological Assessment (Direct)

  • Extensive!
  • Data on individual and environment
    • Physical features
    • Interactions with others
    • Reinforcement history
  • Evaluate amount of descriptive data required to address current need

Reactivity (Direct)

  • Effects of assessment on behavior being assessed
    • Obtrusive assessment = great impact
    • Self-monitoring most intrusive
  • Reduce reactivity
    • Unobtrusive methods
    • Repeat observations
    • Take effects into account

Assessing Social Significance

  • Consider whose behavior is being assessed and why
    • Unacceptable to change behavior primarily for the benefit of others
  • To what extent will proposed change improve this person’s life?


  • Degree to which a person’s behavior repertoire maximizes short and long term reinforcers and minimizes short and long term punishers
  • Use to assess meaningfulness of behavior change

Determining Habilitation

  • Relevance of behavior after intervention
  • Necessary prerequisite for other skills?
  • Increased access
  • Impact on behavior of others
  • Behavior cusp
    • Behaviors that open person’s world to new contingencies
      • Crawling, reading
    • Competes with inappropriate responses
  • Pivotal behaviors
    • Once learned produces changes in other untrained behaviors
      • Self-initiation, join attention
    • Advantages for both interventionist and client –increased efficiency (generality)
  • Age appropriateness
    • Normalization
    • Philosophy of achieving greatest possible integration of people with disabilities into society
  • Replacement behaviors in repertoire?
    • Cannot eliminate or reduce a behavior without teaching a replacement
  • Actual target goal or indirectly related
    • On task vs. work completion
  • Talk vs. Behavior of Interest
    • Primary importance is actual behavior
  • Focus on behavior, not end product
    • Weight loss or exercise and diet?

Prioritizing Target Behaviors

  1. Threat to health or safety
  2. Frequency
    • Opportunities to use new behavior
    • Occurrence of problem
  3. Longevity – How long has this been an issue?
  4. Potential for higher rates of reinforcement?
  5. Relative Importance for:
    • Skill development
    • Independence
  6. Reduction of negative attention (stigmatization)
  7. Reinforcement for significant others
    • Social validity
    • Exercise caution when considering
  8. Likelihood of success
    • Research
    • Practitioner’s experience
    • Environmental variables
    • Available resources
  9. Cost-benefit
    • Costs include the client’s time and effort

Target Behavior Ranking Matrix

  • Numerical rating of potential target behaviors (in essence the higher the total number the higher the priority the target behavior)
  • Increase client, parent and staff participation
    • Resolve conflict
    • build consensus

Defining Target Behaviors

  • Role and Importance of Definitions to Researchers
    • Definitions required for replication
    • Replication required to determine usefulness of data in other situations

Importance of Definitions to Practitioner

  • Accurate, on-going evaluation requires explicit definition of behavior
  • Operational definition
    • Complete information – consistent application
  • Accurate and believable evaluation of effectiveness

Two Types of Definitions

  • Function-based
    • Designated according to effect on the environment-outcome is most important
    • Often simpler and more concise than topography based
  • Topography-based
    • Identifies the shape or form of the behavior
    • Use when functional outcome is not readily available or is unreliable (e.g. golf swing)

Reasons to Use Function-Based Definitions

  • Includes all members of response class (in addition to being behavior analysts and the function of behavior being the most important aspect; i.e. we want to understand how people interact and relate to the world to their environment)
  • The function of behavior is most important feature
  • Simpler and more concise definitions
    • Easier to measure accurately and reliably

Reasons to Use Topography-based Definitions

  • Behavior analysts does not have direct, reliable or easy access to functional outcomes
  • Cannot rely on function of behavior because each occurrence does not produce relevant outcome
  • When the relevant outcome is sometimes produced by undesirable variations of the response class
    • E.g., A basketball player scores with a sloppy shot from the free throw line
  • Definition should encompass all response forms that could produce relevant outcomes

Writing Target Behavior Definitions

  • Accurate
  • Complete
  • Concise
  • Inclusions
  • Exclusions

Characteristics of Good Definitions

  • Objective
    • Refer only to observable
  • Clear
    • Readable and unambiguous
  • Complete
    • Delineate boundaries of definition

Purpose of Good Definitions

  • Precise and concise description
  • Reliable observation
  • Accurate recording
  • Agreement and replication

Testing a Definition

  • Can you count the number of occurrences?
    • Should answer “Yes”
  • Will  a stranger know what to look for based on definition alone?
    • Should answer “yes”
  • Can you break the target behavior down to smaller, more specific components?
    • Should answer “No”, with some caveats (i.e., tantrum behavior)

Setting Criteria for Behavior Change (For Success!)

  • Selected because of importance to clients
    • Increase, maintain, generalize desirable behaviors
    • Decrease undesirable behaviors
  • Valued and meaningful behaviors have social validity–changes a person’s life in a positive and meaningful way

Set Criteria Before Modifying

  • Setting criteria as important as defining
  • Range of acceptability
  • Must identify optimum range prior to modifying
  • Must know when to terminate treatment
  • Eliminate disagreements on effectiveness

Two Approaches for Setting Criteria

  • Assess performance of highly competent people (for both behaviors to increase and to decrease –age appropriate, etc.)
  • Experimentally manipulate different performance levels to determine optimal results