What is behavior: building blocks of bahavior

What is behavior, really?

When most of us think of the word ‘behavior’, we think of good behavior.

“Behave!” we command an unruly child. Or, we comment ruefully, “Don’t they know how to behave?” when we witness poor actions. 

But behavior is not just being good or bad. Behavior, at least for the purposes of the science of applied behavior, can be broken down into three parts.


  1. is anything a person says or does
  2. involves movement and has an impact on the environment
  3. can be observed, measured, counted, and recorded

Because behavior can be observed in the environment, it can also be influenced by the environment. This is important, especially if you are starting to feel desperate that you will never be able to have an impact on the behavior that is under the control of the child in your life.

The environment comprises of the events that happen around behavior, and can be controlled and changed to make an impact on your child’s behavior. People who study behavior see the world as elements in the environment that can be managed, so that the child can be successful in increasing or decreasing behaviors. 

As a parent, you are the most important part of your child’s environment. Everything that you do when you are with your child or in your home can be used as building blocks for increasing the behavior you want and decreasing the behavior you don’t want.

The 3×2 rule: Breaking behavior into basics

There are three very basic concepts that need to be understood about behavior and each of these concepts has two components. These are the very basic building blocks for understanding how behavior can be changed in the environment.

It is important to understand these concepts as components of behavior.  Let’s break it down:

  1. We can’t change the past. We can only let the past inform the future. When we talk about behavior change, we are talking about behavior in the future. Future behavior can either increase or decrease. Those are the two options for behavior change.
  2. All behavior has a purpose. Broadly speaking, behaviors either get a person something they want or get them out of something they don’t want.
  3. Changing behavior involves either strengthening the behavior, which we call reinforcement, or weakening the behavior, which we call punishment. Don’t get too hung up on those words right now, but rather think about how the things that we do in the environment will either strengthen or weaken the behavior.

That’s it. No magic formula or magic bullet, unfortunately, because wouldn’t it be great if you could change behavior without really working at it? Instead, we can only start with this: behavior happens because someone wants to get something or wants to get out of something. Changes in the environment will either strengthen or weaken this behavior creating an increase or a decrease in the behavior.

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