Target Behaviors: 15 Examples & Definition (Psychology)

target behavior examples and definition in psychology, explained below

A target behavior is the specific actions of an individual that are selected for modification in behavioral psychology.

Examples of target behaviors include: misbehavior in a classroom, talking over others, unprovoked yelling, and oppositional defiance.

The individual whose behavior is being addressed is often either a student who may have a behavioral issue or an adult seeking help from a licensed therapist.

Target Behavior Definition

The term target behavior is used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) which applies principles of operant and classical conditioning to modify behavior.

The target behavior is the behavior that you want to modify, remove, replace, or change. As Feldman et al. (2022) explain in their description of the target behavior of their patient Janelle:

“The target behavior is the clearly defined behavior of interest that is specific and observable. The target behavior is the behavior that is recorded during the observational assessment. For Janelle, the target behavior is self-injurious hand biting.”

Before implementing an ABA behavior modification intervention, the clinician aims to clearly name the target behavior in what we call an operational definition.

The operational definition describes the behavior in a way that is observable and measurable. This should include a label, definition, examples and non-examples.

Two people that independently observe the behavior should agree on when that behavior is (and is not) occurring.

See Also: Behaviorism Theory in Education

Target Behavior Examples

  • Urge to reach for a device: Many adults suffer from electronic device addiction. For those adults, they may need to target this behavior and try to modify it through applied behavior analysis.
  • Messiness: A student repeatedly refuses to follow the classroom rule of putting toys back where they belong after being played with.
  • Defiance: Laying on the classroom floor for more than 10 seconds in defiance of being given instructions by the teacher.
  • Acting out: Pounding on their desk and yelling when they don’t get their way or are bored.
  • Making disruptive noises: Talking, laughing, or making noises while the teacher is trying to conduct a listen.
  • Talking out of turn: Answering questions out of turn or when the question was directed at another student.
  • Invasion of physical space: Pinching the teacher or another student on any part of their body with enough force to leave a visible mark.
  • Cutting in line: Cutting in line when students are lining up to leave the classroom.
  • Ruining games: Intentionally holding a puzzle upside down so the pieces will fall on the floor.
  • Nail biting: Chewing on fingernails or cuticles, which is often a target behavior for adults who suffer from anxiety.
  • Disrespectful language: Using curse words or derogatory language towards the teacher or classmates.
  • Noncompliance: Refusing to complete assigned work, accept the teacher’s authority, or take part in lessons.
  • Leaving seat without permission: Getting up from your seat in a classroom and walking around the room without asking for permission.
  • Disrupting transitions: Making noise, running, or refusing to move during transitions, such as moving from the classroom to the playground.
  • Inappropriate use of electronic devices: A student using electronic devices, such as phones or tablets, during class without permission, distracting themselves and others from the lesson.

Case Studies and Research Basis

1. Helping Children with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders are sometimes so disruptive in the classroom that they are referred to a day-treatment program.

Rasmussen and O’Neill (2006) applied behavior modification to three children ages 8-12 years old. All three had been identified as having emotional and behavioral disorders and were attending a day-treatment program with other students.

The target behavior was defined as verbal disruptions:

“Verbal disruptions were defined as singing out loud, talking to a peer while the teacher was talking, or talking out without the participant first raising his hand” (p. 454).

The students worked on various academic assignments such as writing, math, or social studies for three to four 10-minute periods every day, five days a week.

The teacher was trained to administer verbal praise or a light pat on the arm every 10 or 20s if the child was engaged in on-task behavior. This noncontingent reinforcement helped to keep them on task.

Results showed the behavior modification worked. All three children displayed a decrease in the target behavior which was “…immediate, substantial, and stable” (p. 455).

The authors concluded: “These procedures were effective in reducing disruptive verbal behavior” (p. 456).

2. Targeting Adaptive Behavior in Norway

Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) for children can target a range of behaviors, from improving intellectual functioning to instilling adaptive functioning.

According to Eldevik et al., (2010),

“Recent narrative and meta-analytic reviews suggest that EIBI may meet criteria as a “well-established” intervention…effect sizes for Intelligence quotient (IQ) and adaptive behavior outcomes are in the medium to large range” (p. 17).

Their study examined the effectiveness of two intervention models on children with intellectual disabilities. 

The target behavior was adaptive behavior as measured by the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale (Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Balla, 2005), which assesses communication, daily living skills, and socialization. Children were also administered one of three standard IQ tests.

Twenty-five children (ages 3-5 years old) received either a behavioral intervention or eclectic intervention for 10-12 hours per week for 12-14 months.

The behavioral intervention group scored significantly higher on the targeted adaptive behavior and IQ scales than the eclectic group.

“These gains were apparent for IQ, adaptive behavior composite scores, and communication standard scores. All of the group effect sizes were, by convention, considered large” (p. 29).

3. Keeping Young Learners On-Task

Applying behavior modification doesn’t always have to involve children with learning disabilities. An ABA intervention can also be used with students that have typical learner profiles. Afterall, all children can find it difficult to stay on-task in the classroom.

Riley et al. (2011) targeted the on-task and off-task behaviors of two elementary school students (both 7 years old) that had difficulties staying focused.

In the first phase, the students’ on-task and off-task behaviors were recorded during a baseline. In the intervention phase, the teacher was instructed to provide praise for on-task behavior (a form of contingent reinforcement) or redirection for off-task behavior.

Results indicated that:

“…attention was effective in increasing the on-task behaviors of both student participants” (p. 159).

The teacher also indicated that she liked the intervention, it was easy to administer, and not a distraction to other students.

4. Replacement Behaviors

Usually, an ABA intervention targets a specific behavior which is disruptive to classroom learning. However, it is also important to help the child develop behaviors on the other end of the continuum. These are constructive behaviors, referred to as replacement behaviors.

As explained in this video by board certified behavior analyst Shayna Gaunt:

“…replacement behaviors are typically a desired behavior that we can teach a student to engage in, instead of engaging in a challenging behavior.”

The first step to teaching a replacement behavior is to find out why the challenging behavior is occurring.

For example, if the child becomes disruptive as soon as the teacher starts to distribute math worksheets, then it may be because they lack confidence in math.

The teacher can help the child replace the negative behavior with:

  • Teaching the child to verbally express that they need to take a break, or that they need the teacher’s help.
  • The child can release their nervous energy by playing with a fidget toy.

These are just two examples of replacement behaviors that can help the child cope with their anxiety in a more constructive manner.


A target behavior is a behavior exhibited by a student that is selected for modification. Usually this is in reference to disruptive behavior that interferes with classroom instruction or puts the child or others at risk of injury.

The first step in ABA is to fully understand the functional value of the behavior. This can be accomplished by conducting an in-depth analysis of the student’s action.

Trained practitioners, teachers, and other stakeholders that have direct experience with the student will examine the situation and formulate an intervention plan.

A Three Pathway Chart can help organize the team’s analysis and facilitate implementation.

Research has shown that behavioral interventions can have meaningful effects on children with standard learner profiles and those with intellectual or behavioral challenges.

Interventions may involve 10-12 hours per week for a year of intensive effort, while other interventions can occur during regular classroom instruction.


Eldevik, S., Jahr, E., Eikeseth, S., Hastings, R. P., & Hughes, C. J. (2010). Cognitive and adaptive behavior outcomes of behavioral intervention for young children with intellectual disability. Behavior Modification, 34(1), 16-34.

Feldman, H. M., Blum, N. J., Elias, E. R., Jimenez, M., & Stancin, T. (Eds.). (2022). Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics E-Book. New York: Elsevier Health Sciences.

McGrath, A.; Bosch, S.; Sullivan, C.; Fuqua, R.W. (2003). Teaching reciprocal social interactions between preschoolers and a child diagnosed with autism. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 5, 47–54.

O’Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Newton, S., & Storey, K. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for challenging behavior: A practical handbook (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brookes/Cole.

Pearson, N. A., Patton, J. R., & Mruzek, D. W. (2016). Adaptive Behavior Diagnostic Scale: Examiner’s Manual. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Rasmussen, K., & O’Neill, R. E. (2006). The effects of fixed-time reinforcement schedules on problem behavior of children with emotional and behavioral disorders in a day-treatment classroom setting. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39, 453-457.

Riley, J. L., McKevitt, B. C., Shriver, M. D., & Allen, K. D. (2011). Increasing on-task behavior using teacher attention delivered on a fixed-time schedule. Journal of Behavioral Education, 20(3), 149-162.

Sparrow, S. S., Cicchetti, D. V., & Balla, D. A. (2005). Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (2nd ed.). Circle Pines Minnesota: AGS Publishing.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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