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The Hood Magazine

What is Behavior?

Dec 16, 2021 ● By Jessica Herbert MS BCBA LBA

By: Jessica Herbert MS BCBA LBA 

Let’s talk about the word behavior. When we think of the word behavior, we think of all the things humans (young and old) engage in. We can list example upon example of behavior but what does the word behavior really mean? What does it encompass? How do we know what is “good” behavior and what is “bad” behavior? The answer to determining what is “good” behavior or “bad” behavior isn’t always clear and is very subjective depending on who you ask (especially when it is in reference to your own child).  

Behavior on its own as a word is defined as being “the way in which someone conducts oneself or behaves” (Merriam-Webster, 2021). Let’s be honest, that’s still a vague definition. How do you understand how one conducts or behaves when you’re trying to understand what is “good” or what is “bad” behavior? How do you define that?  

That is one task that a Behavior Analyst will tackle when providing services to a child or teen who is receiving applied behavior analysis services (ABA), but it is not limited to just being applicable to ABA services. Understanding how we define behavior can be an important tool for parents when setting up expectations or rules with their own children.  

Behavior as a term in the ABA world that comes down to being anything that a person can do. Again, that’s broad so let’s break it down a bit. In the field we often talk about the Dead Man’s Test. This “test” is not one that we see as being a paper and pen test or survey; rather it is looking at a specific behavior and asking ourselves, can a dead man or a skeleton engage in this behavior? If the answer is yes, then we would not call that a behavior. For example, a dead man or a skeleton can’t breathe, but a living person can. Another example would be a dead man or skeleton cannot hit you or throw toys at their siblings. Breathing, throwing toys and hitting you are all behaviors (a living person can engage in but a dead man or skeleton cannot) and we can take some sort of measure on those. 

 The measurement piece is important too. For us to consider something a behavior, we also need to be able to measure it in some fashion. This means, we can count how many times someone engages in something or how long they engage in something.  

This is the beginning of how we make sense of what “behavior” is. Now what is “good” behavior versus “bad” behavior is a different story for a different time as that is quite a broad subject too! But when determining what is a behavior versus not a behavior, try to apply the Dead Man’s test, you’ll be surprised to see what you come up with! 


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Behavior. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved November 5, 2021, from