Operational Definition: What?!

Maybe you've seen this term before. Maybe not. Either way, it's important for you to know what the heck it is, especially as a special educator. It's a useful term and helpful to think about whenever we are defining anything.

What is an operational definition?

An operational definition is a way to define a behavior in simple, observable, and measurable terms. You want it specific, like a SMART goal.

When to use it?

An operational definition is used to define a specific target behavior, either one you want to increase or decrease. You'll usually see this in a behavior plan and on the corresponding data sheets.

Why to use them?

A clearly defined behavior is crucial. Operational definitions are important so that the behavior in question can be accurately measured, assessed, and treated by anyone who is working with the individual. The idea is that, no matter who reads the definition, they can understand exactly what the behavior looks like.

How to write one?

When writing an operational definition, you want it to be clear and concise, but encompass the entirety of the behavior in question. Additionally, you should not have vague or non-observable terms (like, anxiety for example). It's also helpful to have examples and non-examples in your definition.

Let's look at the target behavior of  "aggression" for example. Take a minute to think about what "aggression" means.

Now, write down what aggression looks like to you...

Probably depends on the kiddo right?

Often, we think we are being clear when we write down a term like "aggression" or "property destruction" but those terms can be interpreted differently. For example, I had a kid once who had self-injury as one of his target behaviors to decrease, but his self-injury wasn't as "obvious" as say, banging his head against the wall. Instead, he would quietly pick the skin on his wrist so severely that he would often require medical attention. However, if you didn't know what this looked like, or if it wasn't defined in his behavior plan, you may mistake it for say, scratching his wrist.

Now let's take a look at how I often write my operational definitions.
Now sometimes the order changes, depending on the sentence structure, so don't go overboard trying to do it exactly like this. But this can be helpful to give you an understanding of what should be included.

Using the above template, let's take a look at a sample definition for "tantrum"...
Helpful? Not really. The only helpful part of this is that I know whose behavior we are focusing on. Jordan's. But other than that, I'm not sure what to look for. When I think of tantrumming (is this a word?) I think of screaming. I had a kid once who used to spit at people during one of his tantrums. He also used to scratch his legs. So maybe that's what they mean...

So instead of speculating, let's take a look at a more specific and clear definition of tantrumming for Jordan...
Now, if I were in Jordan's classroom, I would likely be able to identify Jordan's tantrums easier than with the first definition. It includes necessary conditions to identify this as a tantrum (after a demand) and includes that in order for it to be considered a tantrum, two or more of the listed behaviors need to be observed. It also identifies that it needs to be at least 10 seconds long for it to count. (That's much more specific than "extended period of time") It also includes how to determine when one tantrum stops and another one starts. (Not at all identified in the first definition)

I understand that this seems wordy, but the idea is that it includes everything you need to know, and nothing you don't.

Also, like I mentioned above, providing examples of what the behavior looks like and examples (or "non-examples") of what the behavior does not look like, is also very helpful.
Writing operational definitions takes some practice. You may think you have a great one, and then when your paraprofessional goes to take data, you realize she's viewing the behavior differently. It takes some trial and error, even with seasoned professionals. What I like to do is train my staff on the behavior in question with me modeling how I'm taking data on a specific behavior and explaining the definition prior to implementing the behavior plan or data sheets. Then, make sure you are checking your staff's competency on the behavior plan and data collection procedures so you don't get a whole month worth of data that are useless!

I hope this post helps you understand a bit more about these super specific definitions! If you are anything like me, you'll spend your free time operationally defining different behaviors you see in your everyday life. No? Just me...?

Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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