behavior kid

As we continue our Thursday conversation, a simple question:

What is a behavior?

I have asked this question in trainings around the country and I don’t think I have ever gotten the same answer twice. Usually answers are along the lines of an experience or a personal recollection of dealing with a troubled student. It makes me wonder how we hope to change something that we haven’t truly and fully defined for ourselves. Let’s start with a basic, simple definition for a behavior:

A behavior is an action or reaction towards or an interaction with an external stimuli.


Doesn’t really help, does it? Let’s break it down into simple terms.

For the purpose of the breakdown let’s use this example:

Two boys are walking down a hallway in opposite directions.

John has his head down looking at a text message while Randy is walking towards him on his side of the hallway.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

  • When something happens that elicits a response and that response is based upon past experiences then this is you acting in relations to the external stimuli. This means that something in your past is either the same or very similar to what is occurring now and that the way you dealt with it in the past produced results that will now lead you to act in a certain way. What is interesting is that actions based on experiences do not always mean the actions will be appropriate. Sometimes an inappropriate past response created a result that now leads to an inappropriate response to this similar situation. In the example above let’s look at how past experiences can produce a good and a bad action to the current stimulus.

action 1 redo

John and Randy continue down the hallway and bump into each other. Randy is used to being bumped into because people always have their eyes glued to their phone. Even though it annoys him he shrugs it off because he know he will be bumped into in the hallways at school. He shrugs it off and keeps walking. John barely breaks stride.


action 2 redo

John and Randy continue down the hallway and bump into each other. Randy is fed up with people not paying attention to where they are going. A couple of days ago Randy had his phone knocked out of his hand when someone was running down the hall and not paying attention. This time Randy yells at John to watch where he is going. Now both boys are mad.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

  • A reaction occurs when something provokes a response but your response is not based on a past similar event. The difference between action and reaction is experience. When you do not have a similar experience to pull information from is easy to simply react. Reacting means that you aren’t thinking about what you are doing you are simply doing what feels appropriate in that moment. The problem with “in the moment” reacting is that it usually lacks the perspective of consequence.

For clarities sake, reactions can sometimes be a good thing as well. For example, have you ever blinked just as you felt something hit your eye? You probably never saw the object that was coming to your eye but your brain processed and reacted before you realized what was about to happen. That is a good thing. But, reactions can also be very bad. When prompted to a fight or flight response and a reaction occurs before you calm down enough to think through the consequences of the reaction bad things can happen. That quick, guttural reaction that is not tempered by the problem solving and decision making process will get you in trouble. Here’s an example for the John and Randy:


reaction 1

John bumps into Randy and before Randy can say anything John blurts out “sorry dude”. Before he even realized he was apologizing, John did apologize because he instinctively knew he wasn’t paying attention. Even though Randy was annoyed with being bumped into he quickly calmed down when he heard the apology.

Reaction 2John bumps into Randy and just keeps walking. Randy is immediately annoyed so he shoves John and John immediately shoves Randy back. Before John even knows who he is fighting he is in the middle of a shoving match in the hallway.

When you react to something then you are really leaving a lot to chance. Hopefully your reaction won’t get you in trouble but if you find yourself in a situation where your fight or flight response kicks in and you go into full reaction mode then you probably won’t make the best decisions in the heat of the moment.


♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦


  • Interaction : Randy clearly sees that John isn’t looking where he is going and this is something he has gotten used to at school. Everyone always walks with their eyes stuck on their phone. Even though it irritates him a little Randy makes a noise clearing his throat. When John hears the noise he looks up and changes his course.

When interacting with the stimulus event, John walking towards him, Randy decided making a noise was the best option because it would alert John to his presence. He made this decision because he could see John wasn’t paying attention and wasn’t trying to run into him.


The interaction is based on information gathering and then a choice is made based upon the information gathered. You must realize that students are people and people still make bad choices even with good information. This is when our discipline system should be used and can be effective. However, when the behavior is not based on interaction and is instead a learned behavior (action) or a preserving behavior (reaction), simply punishing the student won’t change his or her behaviors because you have not taught a replacement for the function the action or reaction served….but that’s for a future conversation.