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In this lesson, we will discuss target behaviors. Learn more about target behaviors, how they are used in the field of applied behavioral analysis, and criteria.

What is a Target Behavior?

Leo is a twelve-year-old who has been having difficulty in school. Leo’s teacher reported to his mother that Leo is often angry and disruptive in class. Leo calls other children bad names, refuses to sit in his seat for longer than five minutes, and refuses to follow classroom rules when trying to get the teacher’s attention.

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Leo’s mother is concerned about his behavior and decides that Leo would benefit from applied behavior analysis, which is a discipline in which systematic interventions are used to create positive and meaningful behavioral changes. One of the first steps in behavioral analysis is to identify the target behaviors. So then, what exactly are target behaviors?


A target behavior is any behavior that has been chosen or ‘targeted’ for change. A target behavior should be positive.

That means that the target behavior should focus on what you would like the child to do as opposed to what you do not want the child to do. For example, instead of saying ‘Leo will not get out of his seat,’ an appropriate target behavior would be ‘Leo will remain in his seat for at least thirty minutes.’Target behaviors must be defined in such a manner that the behavior can be observed and measured. We can easily observe if Leo is out of his seat. Likewise, thirty minutes is a fixed amount of time that we can easily measure. A well-defined target behavior is clear, concise, and objective. If these three criteria are met, then any individual should be able to read the target behavior and know what they are looking for.

Likewise, any individual should be able to accurately distinguish between what qualifies as the target behavior and what does not. Suppose the target behavior is ‘Leo will be less disruptive.’ What is meant by ‘disruptive’ is unclear. Does this mean that Leo is screaming profanities, hitting his peers, walking out of class, etc.? If we change the target behavior to ‘Leo will obtain his teacher’s permission prior to exiting the classroom,’ it makes it clear exactly what the target behavior is.

This makes collecting data on the target behavior and monitoring Leo’s progress efficient.Target behaviors must be socially significant, which means that the person engaging in the target behavior must receive instant and long-lasting benefits from doing so. Some of the ways in which a target behavior can be socially significant is if it is appropriate for a person’s age, if it is relevant, or if it improves a person’s ability to access his or her environment.In cases in which there is more than one target behavior, it is important to prioritize. It is important to begin with the behaviors that will result in the greatest benefit to the child. So how can you prioritize target behaviors? You can prioritize based on:

  • The relative danger of the behavior
  • How often it occurs
  • How long the behavior has been going on
  • Whether the target behavior allows for reinforcement
  • Whether the target behavior can reduce negative attention
  • How successful the target behavior is likely to be
  • The cost involved in addressing the target behavior

Additional Examples

There are several target behaviors that Leo can work on while receiving applied behavioral analysis.

They are as follows:

  • Leo will call his classmates by their names.
  • Leo will raise his hand when he needs to ask the teacher a question.
  • Leo will meet with a tutor for two hours a day every Tuesday and Thursday to get help with his homework.

Lesson Summary

Let’ review. A target behavior is any behavior that has been chosen or targeted for change.

We’ve learned all about target behaviors and how they are used in applied behavioral analysis. Target behaviors should be written using positive language and should possess social significance. Target behaviors should also be observable, measurable, clear, concise, and objective. In cases in which there are many target behaviors, it is important to prioritize them based on which would result in the most value for the person. An example of a target behavior is ‘Jane will sit in her seat for sixty minutes.’


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