What is behavior? Is it just one tiny little act? Or is it a sequence of events we observe? Maybe it’s both - either way, we see it, hear it, and think it every day.
Behaviors are observable, visible actions such as eating, walking, talking, and sitting. Furthermore, behaviors are also actions that are not visible to other people, including emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
Behaviors we can see are overt behaviors. Those we cannot see are covert behaviors.
A way you can remember these terms is by pairing the word “cover” in “covert” with something that covers up or hides something else; we can no longer see it with our own eyes. Like the feeling of boredom or thinking back on a memory, the past does occur; those thoughts are not observable, so they are covert behaviors.
Overt behaviors are usually easier to identify since they are observed and described with actions. Watching someone skip, jump rope, or pull open a door, for example, are all overt behaviors.
Often overt and covert behaviors occur together.
Example #1: Your client becomes visibly agitated and can verbally express that they feel mad or angry. What you see as a practitioner or parent are clenched fists, a furrowed brow, and yelling. These are all overt, observable behaviors. The feelings of being mad and angry are covert behaviors.
Example #2: Your client has achieved the goal you’ve set with them. They are excited and cheerful at this accomplishment! The overt behaviors you observe are clapping hands, smiling, laughing, and their initiation to give you a high-five. Those feelings of excitement and cheer are covert behaviors.
Over time, your client or child has learned these different behaviors across various settings with multiple people. When it comes to ABA, our goal is to teach socially significant behaviors that provide or facilitate meaningful outcomes for the client as an individual and a functioning member of society.
We teach our clients common areas of behavior: communication, self-help, independence, health & safety, academics, recreation, community, and vocational skills (Dickson et al., 2014).
In some instances, if an individual cannot communicate verbally, we must make every effort to provide a means of communication. We may start with a picture exchange communication system (PECS), allowing people with limited or no communication skills to communicate using pictures, whether the visuals are on the cards, assistive technology, or other formats.
“People using PECS are taught to approach another person and give them a picture of a desired item in exchange for that item. By doing so, the person can initiate communication. A child or adult with autism can use PECS to communicate a request, a thought, or anything that can reasonably be displayed or symbolized on a picture card.” (PECS, 2021).
Teaching an individual to use PECS to communicate is just one example of one of the many behaviors we may target for intervention. Communication cards help teach both covert and overt behaviors for different types of wants and needs.
When working with clients, behavior analysts collaborate with the parents, caregivers, and stakeholders in deciding which behaviors are most important to target. Target behaviors are always measurable and defined so that anyone can understand what they are. These behaviors increase prosocial skills while decreasing problematic behavior(s), which limit growth and learning.
Improving our clients’ quality of life is essential in practice across professions. Within ABA, the standard of living begins by choosing specific behaviors that will enhance the health and wellbeing of individuals with disabilities.
Understanding overt and covert behaviors allow us to use best practice to identify which behaviors we can measure and change.
Dickson, C. A., MacDonald, R. P., Mansfield, R., Guilhardi, P., Johnson, C., & Ahearn, W. H. (2014). Social validation of the New England Center For Children--Core Skills Assessment. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44(1), 65–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-013-1852-5
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). (2021). https://nationalautismresources.com/the-picture-exchange-communication-system-pecs/
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