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What is behavior? Is it just one tiny little act? Or is it a sequence of events we observe? Maybe it’s both - either way, we see it, hear it, and think it every day.
Behaviors are observable, visible actions such as eating, walking, talking, and sitting. Furthermore, behaviors are also actions that are not visible to other people, including emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
Behaviors we can see are overt behaviors. Those we cannot see are covert behaviors.
A way you can remember these terms is by pairing the word “cover” in “covert” with something that covers up or hides something else; we can no longer see it with our own eyes. Like the feeling of boredom or thinking back on a memory, the past does occur; those thoughts are not observable, so they are covert behaviors.
Overt behaviors are usually easier to identify since they are observed and described with actions. Watching someone skip, jump rope, or pull open a door, for example, are all overt behaviors.
Often overt and covert behaviors occur together.
Example #1: Your client becomes visibly agitated and can verbally express that they feel mad or angry. What you see as a practitioner or parent are clenched fists, a furrowed brow, and yelling. These are all overt, observable behaviors. The feelings of being mad and angry are covert behaviors.
Example #2: Your client has achieved the goal you’ve set with them. They are excited and cheerful at this accomplishment! The overt behaviors you observe are clapping hands, smiling, laughing, and their initiation to give you a high-five. Those feelings of excitement and cheer are covert behaviors.
Over time, your client or child has learned these different behaviors across various settings with multiple people. When it comes to ABA, our goal is to teach socially significant behaviors that provide or facilitate meaningful outcomes for the client as an individual and a functioning member of society.
We teach our clients common areas of behavior: communication, self-help, independence, health & safety, academics, recreation, community, and vocational skills (Dickson et al., 2014).
In some instances, if an individual cannot communicate verbally, we must make every effort to provide a means of communication. We may start with a picture exchange communication system (PECS), allowing people with limited or no communication skills to communicate using pictures, whether the visuals are on the cards, assistive technology, or other formats.
“People using PECS are taught to approach another person and give them a picture of a desired item in exchange for that item. By doing so, the person can initiate communication. A child or adult with autism can use PECS to communicate a request, a thought, or anything that can reasonably be displayed or symbolized on a picture card.” (PECS, 2021).
Teaching an individual to use PECS to communicate is just one example of one of the many behaviors we may target for intervention. Communication cards help teach both covert and overt behaviors for different types of wants and needs.
When working with clients, behavior analysts collaborate with the parents, caregivers, and stakeholders in deciding which behaviors are most important to target. Target behaviors are always measurable and defined so that anyone can understand what they are. These behaviors increase prosocial skills while decreasing problematic behavior(s), which limit growth and learning.
Improving our clients’ quality of life is essential in practice across professions. Within ABA, the standard of living begins by choosing specific behaviors that will enhance the health and wellbeing of individuals with disabilities.
Understanding overt and covert behaviors allow us to use best practice to identify which behaviors we can measure and change.
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- Dickson, C. A., MacDonald, R. P., Mansfield, R., Guilhardi, P., Johnson, C., & Ahearn, W. H. (2014). Social validation of the New England Center For Children--Core Skills Assessment. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44(1), 65–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-013-1852-5
- The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). (2021). https://nationalautismresources.com/the-picture-exchange-communication-system-pecs/
learning new math content, the teacher will:
· Instruct the concept.
· Model an example.
· Practice another example with the student.
· Provide feedback in the form of positive praise and consideration.
· Give constructive feedback.
· Provide time between each step for processing.
Essentially, the teacher will complete all steps
in a chained task except for the last:
- Allow the student to complete the
previous step independently or with the least restrictive prompt.
- Continue until the student is
independent with the last step.
- Expand the student’s independence,
starting with the previous two steps and so on, until he can complete all steps
1. Think of forward chaining as the opposite of backward chaining; the teacher allows the student to complete the first step in a chained task independently or with the least restrictive prompt.
2. The teacher will complete or assist in the completion of the rest of the steps.
1. Individuals will observe themselves performing a target behavior successfully on video.
2. The aim is to have the behavior
1: Teacher records the student participating in waiting and ordering food in
the lunch line. The targeted behavior is to join with peers in an educational
Example 2: Teacher records the student interacting with a peer in a special education setting. The targeted behavior is to increase interactions with peers to promote social skills.
All of the antecedent interventions listed above are evidence-based practices that are proven to be effective with the prevention of maladaptive behaviors and skill acquisition for functional replacement behaviors.
As clinicians, we need to anticipate maladaptive behaviors in practice. This anticipation allows us to be steps ahead of our patients, focusing on the expected, desired behaviors needed for beneficial treatment and service outcomes. I hope you can use a tip or two from this series and apply them to your practice.
Thanks for reading,