Positive Approaches to Challenging Behavior

Defining the Challenging Behavior

A clear definition is important for the FBA since it provides a way for everyone to be sure they are talking about the same behavior. The operational definition is written so that everyone is collecting the same information when they observe someone. It is important to avoid vague definitions of a challenging behavior. Saying someone is aggressive, difficult, or moody does not provide a clear definition for someone who has never the behavior. An operational definition is based on what can be observed, what the behavior looks like (i.e., what you can see and hear), and it’s intensity (i.e., how strong the behavior is), how you know when it begins and ends (i.e., the duration of the behavior).

Example: Alan’s Operational Definition

Alan was a middle-aged man working in a supportive employment setting in a local furniture store. Some complaints had come up recently and Alan and his PBS team were asked to help start an FBA. When interviewed, Alan's supervisor stated that the behavior of concern was that, "Alan is disruptive at work." Alan's PBS Facilitator used active listening strategies to interview Alan's work supervisor and learn more about these challenges. The PBS Facilitator explained to Alan's supervisor that an operational definition of disruption was needed to move forward. She indicated that:

To create an operational definition with Alan, you need to explain what the behavior looks like so that an outside observer will also recognize when to collect information. For example, "Alan shouts a series of loud curse words in short bursts that often continue for three to five minutes, making it hard to continue conversations when you are in the same room with him. The cursing is so loud that it can be heard clearly by customers in the furniture section of the building even when the doors to the warehouse are closed. A new event or episode of screaming begins after five minutes of silence has occurred."

Elements of an Operational Definition

  • A brief description of the behavior
  • The topography (what the behavior looks like and sounds like)
  • Frequency (how often the behavior occurs)
  • Length or duration of the behavior (when it starts and stops)
  • Description of the behavior's intensity (e.g., how loud, hard, and what impact the behavior has as it occurs)

Understanding the Escalating Sequence of Challenging Behavior

It is important to use the FBA process to look for other types of behavior that people tend to ignore because these behaviors are not considered challenging. If the behavior occurs for the same reason and precede challenging behavior, then these behavior can be helpful in the PBS plan. There are often a number of behaviors that occur before the challenging behavior that represent an escalating pattern of behaviors and occur for the same reason. Knowing more about these preceding behaviors can help us to intervene before behaviors escalate.

A broken keyboard laying on the floor.

Miranda has been struggling to finish her homework after school. The program she is using is slow and often her work is lost if she accidently hits the wrong key on the keyboard. As she is sitting at her desk, Miranda’s mother hears the following escalating sequence of behaviors right before Miranda stands up, throws the keyboard across the room, and stomps out of her bedroom crying.

Escalating Behaviors:

  1. Heavy sighs and mumbling
  2. Slaps hand on the table loudly
  3. Says in a raised voice: “not again!”
  4. Shouts out curse words at the computer
  5. Picks up the keyboard and throws it again the wall while stomping out of the office crying

The best time to help Miranda is during the first step when you hear heavy sighs coming from her bedroom. However, someone could intervene at any other step in the list above before the keyboard is broken and Miranda has given up completing her homework assignment.

The FBA gathers important information that is used to design a support plan to prevent challenging behavior from occurring by intervening early and understanding escalating patterns of behavior.