Defining Challenging Behaviors

Big Picture

Operational Definition: The challenging behavior is defined in clearly observable terms so the behavior can be observed and monitored by multiple people (who may have varying levels of familiarity with the student) and measured (to determine if the student is or is not making progress).

Baseline Data: The Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) must include data on how frequently the challenging behavior is occurring, with what intensity, and/or for how long (duration). Having data for as many dimensions of behavior as possible will allow for the challenging behavior to be monitored sufficiently. It is important that the most appropriate dimensions are selected.


  • Without an accurate operational definition, the challenging behavior may not be understood by others, or recorded/documented differently due to the behavior not being clearly defined.
  • Without accurate baseline information, those monitoring the BIP will be unable to determine if level of challenging behavior is changing (increasing, decreasing, or maintaining).
    • It is best practice to also have baseline data on level of desired behavior, as this will be included in the increase in positive behavior goal, as well as being monitored to ensure that there is an increase in desired behavior as well as a decrease in challenging behavior.

Key Concepts

  • Multiple dimensions of behavior (frequency, intensity, and/or duration) should be considered when evaluating baseline data to ensure that the challenging behavior is decreasing across all applicable dimensions. For example, if only frequency data is collected, it may be determined that the student is engaging in the behavior less frequently, even if the intensity of when they do engage has increased.
    • While it can be challenging to identify all dimensions for every behavior, it is best practice to list the frequency, intensity, and/or duration for each target behavior.
      • For example, if a student hits with an average frequency of 5 hits in a short duration (e.g., average of 30 seconds), it will be most important to decrease the frequency of hits, as this would likely decrease the duration. However, to that data is collected on both duration and frequency, the duration should be included in the baseline information as well.
  • If more than one distinctly occurring challenging behavior is addressed within a BIP, it is best practice to number behaviors and corresponding interventions to support clarity in the plan.
    • Example:
      1. Aggressive behavior (hitting adults with a closed fist)
      2. Self-Injurious behavior (banging head on hard surfaces, e.g., floor, desks, and walls)
    • Numbering the challenging behaviors is not necessary if the student engages in the behaviors within a behavior chain, with the challenging behaviors building one on top of another
      • Example: Student yells profanity statements, flips desk over, and hits adults/peers.
  • The Type of Behavior Plan Flowchart provides a visual display of how to identify the type of behavior plan you are working on.


During the Functional Behavioral Assessment process, information about the challenging behavior should be gained through multiple forms, including:

  1. Direct observation
  2. Interview
  3. Records review

Data should be collected in the appropriate areas to support accurate measurement and monitoring of decrease in challenging behavior and increase in positive behavior.

Examples and Non-Examples

Example of Operational Definition

Non-Example of Operational Definition

Student engages in a different behavior than requested by adult (e.g., when asked to take out book, puts head down on the table. When directed to begin reading, student pulls hood down over her eyes and puts headphones in ears). Non-Compliance (non-example)
When asked to being working, student yells, slams books down on the table, and will occasionally leave the classroom (leaving is always preceded by the other behaviors). Refusal (non-example)
Student slaps adults and peers with an open hand. Aggression (non-example)

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