Still writing “I can…” behaviour targets?
- I can keep my hands and feet to myself
- I can use take turns during conversation
- I can speak respectfully to adults
According to the science, it may be time to re-think your approach.
(Don’t feel bad – we wrote them that way too until recently!)
The latest research shows how we phrase behaviour targets is hugely important…
…and how making one small tweak could make them significantly more effective.
Want to harness this effect in your behaviour plans?
Here’s how to do it.
The established way
There’s an accepted way of writing behaviour targets in schools.
To see what’s good (and bad) about that practice, let’s work through an example.
Callum keeps getting into fights with another boy (Marcus) at break. The situation gets so bad, one week he gets into a scuffle with Marcus every single day.
His teacher wants to set him a target to work towards on his behaviour plan.
She comes up with this:
- to behaviour better on the playground.
Straight away, we can see this is a poor target. But why – specifically?
Well, for a start, it’s not a SMART target.
SMART stands for:
- Specific – is it clear exactly what the student is supposed to do?
- Measurable – is there a way of measuring whether the student is improving (or not)?
- Achievable – does the student have a realistic shot at achieving this target?
- Relevant – is the target relevant to the student?
- Timed – is the target time bound? Does it have an end point?
It fails almost every test:
- It’s not specific – it isn’t clear about the exact thing the pupil should be doing differently
- It’s not measurable – how will we know if the pupil made progress? How will we measure ‘better’?
- It’s not achievable – no clear finishing line has been set. What, exactly, does ‘better’ look like?
- It’s not timed – we haven’t said when we’re going to judge Callum’s success.
So, our teacher goes back to the drawing board. She comes up with:
- I can keep my hands and feet to myself
This is better.
This time, the target includes a subject (‘I…’) and states what he should do (keep his hands and feet to himself).
However, it’s still not measurable or timed.
So she makes a third (and final) revision of the target:
- I can keep my hands and feet to myself (no more than 2 incidents per week, to be reviewed in 6 weeks time).
This covers nearly all the SMART target bases – and is as far as most behaviour plans will go.
(In fact, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this written on an IEP.)
But science suggests we can do better.
Implementation intentions (stay with me…)
In recent studies, researchers have discovered the power of implementation intentions.
They’re actually very simple and can be summed up by the phrase:
“When I encounter Situation X, then I will perform Behaviour Y.”
Here’s an example.
Researchers worked with epilepsy sufferers who didn’t take their medication consistently. Obviously, this could lead to significant complications in their condition.
A traditional target setting approach (“to take my medication every day”) had failed with these subjects.
So they asked them to write a when / then plan.
“When I’ve finished brushing my teeth, then I’ll take my medication.”
The result? A 24% improvement in adherence over standard target setting.
In fact, the research across the board was unequivocal. 94 independent tests showed using when/then plans was more effective than traditional goal setting.
Why was this working?
The when/then plan puts the subject on alert to notice the trigger (the ‘when’ part) and then act automatically on the ‘then’ part of the plan.
And as a bonus, the when/then plan is ultra specific: it tells us exactly what to do in that situation.
How to write when/then behaviour targets
Let’s return to Callum. Callum keeps fighting with one specific friend (Marcus).
Marcus is the trigger.
So our plan will begin, “When I see Marcus on the playground…”
Now we define a concrete action to complete the plan. Something specific for Callum to do when he sees Marcus.
“When I see Marcus on the playground, then I’ll go play football on the field.”
The plan tells him what to look out for and how to respond.
Making the plan measurable and timed
Now let’s add another layer to our plan that will make it even more likely to succeed.
We’ll make it ultra-measurable and clearly time-bound.
To do this, we need to say:
- Where Callum is now (a numeric baseline for his current behaviour)
- Where we want him to get to (also as a number)
- When the plan will end (a specific date)
We do this using the simple phrase, “From [baseline] to [target] by [date].”
For example: “From no days a week, to 4 days a week, by 12th April.”
This phrase encapsulates all of the information we need simply and succinctly.
(If you need to support students who can’t cope if they don’t meet their target, or work with children who struggle with resilience in general, check our article ‘3 proven ways to help students who can’t cope with failure‘).
The final target
So the final target becomes:
“When I see Marcus on the playground, then I’ll go play football on the field.
From no days a week, to 4 days a week, by 12th April”
This works because:
- The when/then plan will help Callum scan for triggers during lunch break and tells him exactly what to do. It gives him clear, concrete action to take.
- And the From/To/By phrasing gives a clear yardstick by which to measure his progress.
The result? A target that more than meets the brief of being a SMART target…
…and, according to the science, is much more likely to succeed than the classic, “I can keep my hands and feet to myself.”