Activity: Systematic Recording of Behavior

Background and Purpose

One very common task is to record the frequency of a particular behavior—a target behavior—exhibited by students. On-task behavior and remaining seated are typical expectations in schools, but some students—as you know—have difficulty meeting the expectations. Instructional plans (e.g., IEPs) for some of these students may (or may not) have goals related to these difficulties. In this activity you will measure one of these behaviors.

The task involved in this activity is to count the instances and duration of either (1) significant off-task behavior OR (2) significant (unauthorized) out-of-seat behavior. This activity shows you the importance of precision and care in organizing data gathering for a rather routine data-gathering effort. The task is something many paraprofessionals are asked to do. Maybe you are already doing something like it. But this version may be a little, or even a lot, different. There may be more detail than you are used to!


  1. Read over the definitions below and review the data collection sheet.
  2. Arrange to conduct a 45-60 minute observation in a classroom. Be sure to wear a watch or bring an electronic device that allows you to time activities in seconds.
  3. For the first 15 minutes, observe all of the students in the class, identifying one who seems to be having difficulty either (a) staying focused or (b) remaining seated. The problem behavior in the first case is off-task behavior and in the second case out-of-seat behavior.
  4. Observe the student for a 20-minute period of time. Record every instance of the relevant behavior (whichever applies: off-task or out-of-seat) on the data collection sheet.
  5. If possible, ask a colleague to observe in the same classroom at the same time. The colleague will simply observe the classroom as you gather information—and then “compare notes” with you in the debriefing phase of the activity.
  6. Debrief the observation experience following the instructions in the section below, called “Debriefing.”


significant off-task behavior: For an interval of at least 5 seconds, students direct their eye gaze away from (1) the teacher, (2) the instructional activity, or (3) the relevant instructional materials.

significant out-of-seat behavior: Without permission from the teacher, students rise from where they are seated and then remain unseated for at least 3 seconds.

Note: (1) The time periods specify what “significant” means.  Only count episodes that are significant based on these definitions; do not count episodes of shorter duration. (2) Where students are looking (“eye gaze”) makes being on-task or off-task observable. You can’t observe what students are thinking, but you can observe what they are doing with their eyes.

Data Recording Sheet

significant off-task behavior: For an interval of at least 5 seconds, students direct their eye gaze away from (1) the instructor, (2) the instructional activity, or (3) the relevant instructional materials.

significant out-of-seat behavior: Without permission from the instructor, students rise from where they are seated and then remain unseated for at least 3 seconds.

Observe for at least 20 minutes.

target behavior (check selection)

☐significant off-task behavior

☐significant out-of-seat behavior

date  ______________________________________

observation start time (hour, minute)   ____________

observation end time (hour, minute)    ____________

first incident

duration (in seconds) ______                notes_______________________________________

second incident

duration (in seconds) ______                notes_______________________________________

third incident

duration (in seconds) ______                notes_______________________________________

fourth incident

duration (in seconds) ______                notes_______________________________________

fifth incident

duration (in seconds) ______                notes_______________________________________

sixth incident

duration (in seconds) ______                notes_______________________________________


The types of measurements you make to record information about students’ behavior can relate more or less directly to academics. For example, the identification of an object on the desk was an academic task. Duration of listening was indirectly related to academics: students need to pay attention in order to learn. The tantrum was less directly related to academics—but it certainly interrupted academic learning.

The table below lists some behaviors and ways to think about observing them (e.g., frequency, duration, or intensity), indicating if they are directly, indirectly, or very indirectly related to academics.

Table: Different Kinds of Behavior as Related to Academics

Behavior Direct Indirect Very Indirect
The frequency with which a student reverses b’s and d’s in a writing assignment X
The frequency with which a student gets an 80% correct or better on daily math assignments X
The length of a students’ oral response to a question posed by the teacher X
The duration of a student’s silent reading X
The proportion of times the student opens a book right-side up X
The intensity of a student’ negative reaction to academic feedback X
The proportion of time the student spends on-task rather than off-task X
The frequency with which a student interrupts class discussions with irrelevant outbursts X
The duration of a student’s head-banging X
The intensity of a student’s tantrum X