Operational Definitions in the Classroom

So we all know what an operational definition is, right? Well, if not, here's a quick review: 

Operational Definition: A way to define a behavior in simple, observable, and measurable terms. You want it to be specific, like a SMART goal.

So, now that we've jogged our memory on what they are, why are they so important? Here's another quick review:

Writing an operational definition is crucial, as it defines the behavior so specifically, that it can be accurately measured, assessed, and treated by any person working with the individual. The point is that, no matter who reads the definition, they know exactly what the behavior looks like.

Okay great. But now how do you use them in the classroom? Keep reading for 6 different ways to use operational definitions in your classroom.

1. To train your staff

I understand some of you may have extra staff members, ad some of you don't. If you are one of the lucky ones who has an extra set of hands, train y our staff on your operational definitions of behavior. This way, you aren't the only person who needs to take data or implement treatment for target behaviors. The more people who can identify the behavior in question and respond accordingly, the easier your life will be. Oh, and even if you don't have extra staff, depending on your students, you can have them be in charge of monitoring their own behaviors based on specific targets.

2. To write a behavior plan

If you are in the position of writing a behavior plan, behavior contract, or simple guidelines for your student, this will come in handy. This is primarily where I use operational definitions, because it's simple to pick up and read what behaviors we are targeting and act accordingly (which should also be outlined in the behavior plan)

3. To make changes to an existing definition

The end game for writing operational definitions and employing treatment strategies to help change those behaviors, is to decrease (or increase) the defined behavior. For example, if you are targeting "aggression" (to be operationally defined, like I did here), then likely, your goal is to decrease those levels of aggression (which you'll be able to track with your awesome data collection system, right?) using the strategies you identified for treatment (based on the function of that student's aggression, right?). So, if you've noticed the decrease in behavior as you initially defined it, it may make sense to make changes to your definition. For example, if your original definition for aggression included "after given a request by an adult or the removal of preferred item" and the student no longer aggresses after given a demand, remove it from your definition. It helps to keep things simple for yourself and staff implementing treatment with the student. Additionally, sometimes the topography or what the behavior looks like changes. For example, one student may be aggressive by punching, kicking, and hair-pulling. As time goes on, maybe they've learned some new "skills" such as head butting. Adding this (or removing ones that no longer occur) will help tremendously.

4. To identify differences across different settings

Maybe you have a student who kicks ad punches adults, and you label it "aggression" (with an operational definition of course). So you write a behavior plan, and/or data sheets to collect data and monitor this behavior in after-school as well. What if this student spits or scratches at after-school instead of punching and kicking? You may not have that in your definition, and staff may not consider spitting "aggression."  And wouldn't it be great to know the scope of what aggression could include, especially if there are any changes (as in #3 above)? Having clear definitions (and maybe a space for notes on any data sheets so staff can include other behaviors, not in the definition) will help you to see differences across settings or staff.

5. To help with IEP writing

It's probably not a surprise that having clearly defined targets will help with your IEP writing and data collection for your IEP goals. The more clear, specific your goals are, the more accurate your data will be.

6. To define your expectations for your students

Operational definitions don't have to just be for behavior plans and IEPs. They can (and should) also be used for classroom expectations (as much as possible). Giving your students very clear and specific behavior expectations will not only provide them with exactly what you are looking for, but will help with any of those "loop-hole kids" (that's what I call kids who find the loop-holes in everything). Ever had a student who is eating near the reading nook, when the rules "clearly" state no eating at the reading nook? However when you confront this student, they aren't "technically" eating at the reading nook, because they aren't sitting on the rug, and the rule states "no eating on the rug." Yeah. These definitions are for them...

There you have it! Six ways to utilize your awesome operational definitions in the classroom setting! What other ways do you use these specific behavior definitions?

For a more in depth look at what they are and how to write them, I highly recommend checking out my post, Operational Definitions. It provides very specific examples and how-tos that will enhance your definition writing!

Do you write your definitions this way? Do you find it helpful?

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Thanks for the comments! I look forward to reading them :)

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