On The Phrase “Having a Behavior”


By Clelia Sigaud, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

I have a question for myself and other professionals who use Applied Behavior Analysis in their work. When did it become okay to use the term “behavior” only to refer to unwanted clinical situations? (I suspect that many direct care staff will have no difficulty in recognizing what I am talking about; namely, things we say on a day-to-day basis that imply that behavior is always bad, such as “Johnny’s having a behavior again.”)

As we know in theory, the definition of behavior is actually vastly broader than what individuals receiving services might display in a maladaptive way. Broadly speaking, behavior is, as is often humorously pointed out, anything that a dead man can’t do. That is a lot of observable phenomena! Nevertheless, across settings, it is not uncommon to hear staff members at all levels contextually misusing the term, to the point that many of our schools have “behavior classrooms.” (Question: If we’re not teaching behavior, then what are we teaching? Every classroom is a behavior classroom by definition!)

I think this might be partly our own fault as ABA professionals. ABA services, at least in the child and adolescent settings where I have been fortunate to work in various capacities, tend to place a heavy emphasis on tracking interfering behavior rather than adaptive skills. There are excellent reasons for this, and a good case could be made that it doesn’t necessarily need to change, but that’s a whole other article. The fact remains that when staff members look at a tracking sheet, they could be said to be witnessing evidence that “behavior” and “interfering behavior” are in fact one and the same.

Here’s why I think this needs to be addressed. First, using “behavior” only when we mean “interfering behavior” is simply inaccurate and misleading. Behavioral science, like any science, relies on its practitioners having a common vocabulary in order to be able to discuss, disseminate, and advance the field of knowledge. At a practical level, this means that we should only be stating that an individual has “no behaviors” if that person is deceased.

Second, and I think most importantly, an inaccurate use of language in the context I’ve described can blind us to the skill-building aspect of ABA practice. We tend to see ABA programming correlated with individuals who have interfering behavior that is significantly disruptive to their lives and that of others, and naturally we are motivated to eliminate those behaviors. There is no denying that ABA interventions are a great way to address such situations; however, it would be a shame to stop there! We can use the principles of ABA to teach an unthinkably wide array of adaptive behaviors, from helping supervisors improve employee performance to increasing safe driving behaviors.

So let’s use modifiers to describe the kind of behavior we mean – whether it is risky or cooperative, disruptive or adaptive. We can and should use the power of language to, as accurately as possible, represent the plethora of observable phenomena that is human behavior. It is our right and our obligation to the field and to the broader community.

Have you encountered similar uses of “behavior” in your practice?  Tell us about them in the comments below!  Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Clelia Sigaud, M.S. is a teacher to children with developmental disabilities in urban Maine (to the extent that “urban” and “Maine” can be used in the same sentence). She has several years of experience working with special needs individuals, from preschool through age 20, in a variety of settings. Outside of work, she is earning her doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Southern Maine. Her interests include functional communication training, interventions for sexualized aggression/sexually problematic behavior, treatment of self injury, paraprofessional training, and ethical practice within the field of ABA. In her spare time, she enjoys authoring her own social stories.

10 Comments on "On The Phrase “Having a Behavior”"

  1. Clelia you are one of US! Come over to the movement cycle side of the track. I once had a lovely and memorable conversation with Eric Haughton on this very topic! An individual with a paucity of movement skills, as many of our autistic students. should never be subjected to movement deceleration interventions. Instead we should think about how the relatively few high frequency behaviors possessed by these individuals should be changed to a different stimulus set. For example A dangerous arm raise could be a useful basketball playing movement, a self stimulatory behavior could become a part of using a pencil. A way to think about these teaching situations is to consider every behavior as though it is a plant. In the right place it is a lovely flower, in the wrong place it is a weed.

    Precision Teaching folks are always looking at movement cycles, not “behaviors” with a negative spin. One of my students, who had been a very aggressive and self destructive individual in many previous schools once told me the difference. I asked Melissa why she did NONE of her previous awful behaviors in our little school, where she had been so terrible in her other placements. She said, “well, those were “behavior” schools but here you teach us things. It’s a simple enough distinction apparently to the students.


  2. Hello Clelia,

    Thank you for another outstanding article. Your explanation is clear and powerful, and yes, the focus really needs to be on increasing and expanding productive “behaviors.” such as functional skills and physical abilities.

    Thanks also to Richard McManus for his excellent description of movement cycles and how students with autism should have the chance to learn more, and more varied, movement cycles.

    Great article. Great comment. Thanks to you both.

  3. Just some quick feedback. The title of the article suggests that you’re going to discuss the phrase “Having a behavior”, which is why I opened it. The article didn’t go the direction I thought it would so I’ll mention what I thought you meant.

    I work as a behavior analyst in Tennessee, and frequently, my direct care staff and parents use the phrase “having a behavior” instead of “engaging in target behaviors”. They interchangeably use “behavior” with “tantrum” or “physical aggression”, as in “He just threw a behavior,” “He had a behavior this morning,” or “She did a behavior before bed last night.” That drives me crazy, not only grammatically, but clinically. I find myself saying “Can you be more specific?” at least 5x per day, and it’s not getting any better.

    While the article touched on that briefly by noting the use of “behavior” to mean “interfering behavior”, I thought someone else out there might be sharing the constant battle that I have in speaking behaviorally with my clients.

    • Thanks for the comments Zack! I think your thoughts are in line with what was discussed in the article.

    • I cam certainly identify with what you describe!

    • richard laitinen | October 19, 2015 at 11:38 am | Reply

      What you describe is pervasive throughout the country and especially in a the south. It was unfortunate that academic use of the word “behavior” never took into account the pervasive cultural use of the word. However, I have found that the use of adjectives such as “good,” “positive,” “helpful,” etc. does focus conversations on the acceleration side of the technology.
      In the long run it would most likely be of benefit to the field to drop the word “behavior” form its description and to utilize words such as “performance”. At least that word is pervasively used in reference to something people want to see increase.
      It’s fundamentally a conflict between a technical versus cultural use of a word.

      • That’s an interesting thought! Wouldn’t we end up with the same problem in reverse, so to speak, if we replaced “behavior” with a word that is widely culturally understood to mean a “good” action?

  4. Hi Clelia:
    Going one step further, it would also be better to not use terms such as “having” nor “doing”, as behavior is not possessed nor done. These imply “agency” as the cause of behavior.

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