Saturday, September 9, 2017

What Is Behavior?

The operational definition for an educational context that I’ve always heard for “behavior” is: something you can observe the student doing.
When I googled the definition I got “The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others” or “The way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus.”

Almost anything a student does is observable. It is the social context, as put forth in the first definition, that determines whether it is a behavior (conducting oneself in relation toward others.) 

To put that in a behavior tracking context: We can observe anyone breathing, but for most students there is no reason to track that as a behavior. For a student who is severely respiratory compromised, for whom continued ability to maintain consciousness (and therefore maintain any relationship with others) is a concern, it is a very appropriate behavior to track.

The problem comes, I think, not when we try to define the behavior (defining observable behavior is a skill, but is one that can be mastered with practice.) Where we struggle is in defining the social context. When the norm is typically developing age-peers, almost everything a student with high support needs does will be considered a behavior, because the things they do successfully and independently often look very different from their peers: indistinguishability does not allow for the beauty of neurodiversity. However, when the norm is peers with high support needs, we are often setting ourselves on a slippery slope of low expectations: “this is the best they can hope for so we just have to accept it.”

The justification I so often see for tracking indistinguishability behaviors (stimming, eye contact, etc) is that that kind of behavior will not be accepted “in the real world.” There are certainly neurodiverse individuals out there spending a lot of energy practicing indistinguishability behaviors in order to be successful “in the real world” right now. What would it take so they, and our students, didn’t have to?

In the classroom, we have near-complete control over the social context. And the social context that students learn in school is the one they will bring with them into the adult community and workplace. If we build a classroom community that values neurodiversity over indistinguishability, that is the social context that students will learn. It has worked for successful businesses like Google and Apple. It will work in our classrooms too. And it just might change the world for the better.


  1. Yes:

    breathing patterns can show an alteration in consciousness.

    Like when my Dad would be choking.

    And near-complete control - the power of the classroom and its social context.

    We can change our classrooms so that they are accessible and inclusive. It will need the stimulus control of everybody and everything.

    Use it well - Limits are not included!

    And, yes, you can expect a lot of peers with high support needs. They are able to help each other and make solutions.

  2. I have been defining behavior as a thing someone does with their voluntary muscles.

    This rules in breath holding spells or giving a giant sigh or practicing breathing exercises or panting like a dog
    This rules out regular breathing under brainstem control
    I might argue that loosing the ability to maintain regular breathing under brainstem control (as you seem to be describing) is not actually a behavior, just as a pulse is not a behavior even though they are both things we should monitor in some cases.

    Stay tuned for my rant-in-progress about the misuse of "behavior" for "challenging behavior" by people who should know better.

    1. Reasonable definition. As RealSocialSkills pointed out, we can get into a lot of trouble with the monitoring piece - just because it's voluntary doesn't mean it should be monitored!

      I'm rolling around a piece about why professionals are the ones who need to learn to have "quiet hands".... Sounds like we should compare notes!

    2. I agree with RSS about monitoring. (I agree with RSS about most things.)

      There's also monitoring with value judgements and monitoring without value judgements. If an awake and alert person goes to a staircase, that probably shouldn't even be monitored in most cases. And that's a behavior. If a person sleepwalks to a staircase, that probably should be monitored, but without value judgment. And it's arguably not a behavior. Maybe "noticed" is a better word than "monitored?"

      So how do you suggest we teach professionals to use quiet hands? DTT? Starbucks gift cards for going a week without touching a student except for hygiene, mobility and safety? I have spent the week talking up wait-time and countering "he can talk when he wants to so I make him."