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What To Do When Escape Is The Behavior Function · Mrs. P’s Specialties

Students will sometimes exhibit escape behaviors from an activity, demand, or task that they find challenging, overwhelming, frustrating, unpreferred, boring, etc. Once you have determined that the function of a student’s behavior is to escape from something, there are some things you can do to help them become successful with the avoided activity or task.

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teach students to ask for a break appropriately

Teach students an appropriate way to take a break so they don’t have to engage in escape behaviors to meet their needs. The break should be in a quiet location and shouldn’t be too reinforcing or it will be difficult to get the student to return to the task. A visual timer is a great tool for presetting & preparing students that the break will be finished soon.

If a student learns that they can ask for a break and that their request will be honored, they are much less likely to engage in escape or task avoidance behaviors.

Once students understand break, shorten the length and start holding the student responsible for making up work missed while in the break area.

prevent escape behavior with schedule tweaks

Another way to prevent escape or task avoidance behaviors is to adjust the schedule to reduce the length of time the student needs to be in the activity. There are several ways to do this:

  • Take a 30 minute lesson and break it up into two 15 min lessons or even three 10 minu lessons depending on how long a student can stay engaged before trying to escape the activity. The goal is to start with the length of time you know the student can be successful with. You need to break the cycle or habit of trying to escape while building success.
  • Another way is to extend the activity and add in more reinforcement within the activity or lesson. For example, if the student is struggling in a 30 minute reading center, then change it to a 45 minute lesson. During the 45 minutes, have the student cash in or engage in a reinforcement activity 2 or 3 times. The student will still still complete the lesson, but with a higher level of reinforcement. When students are engaged and successful, the need to engage in escape behaviors naturaly decreases.
  • Alternatively, you can temporarily reduce the amount of work or activities the student has to complete. For example, if the student is trying to escape the lesson that has 3 different activites, look at the data to see how much s/he is successful with and reduce to that amount. Next, slowly increase the expectations back to the 3 tasks as the student learns better ways to get help or take a break.

avoid escape behaviors with more reinforcement

By adding in more reinforcement, you will help students feel more successful and engaged. This will naturally lead to less task avoidance. We don’t avoid what we feel successful with!

Ways to increase reinforcement:

  • Shorten the amount of work before cash-in time. For example, instead of having to work for 30 minutes before earning a reinforcer, cash-in every 15 minutes.
  • You can also change the type of reinforcers you are using. Consider using more powerful reinforcers.
  • Keep the student’s most powerful reinforcer fo the activity they are trying to escape.

As students become more successful, slowly decrease the frequency that they are earning and expect more and more from the student.

social stories to help breakdown expectations

Social stories are powerful tools that can really help students understand what is expected of them. You can write a social story for any situation!

For example, I once had a student who was trying to avoid music class. We wrote a social story for him explaining that he was expected to walk to the music room, say hello to the music teacher, walk back to the classroom and then earn a reinforcer. We kept editing the story to increase the expectations. So, he went from saying hello to the teacher, to going in and sitting down, to staying for 2 minutes, etc … until he was staying for the whole time and walking back to our room with his peers and then earning his reinforcer.

Be sure that you are very specific about what the student can expect and that you are once again increasing the expectations and demands.

increase support to reduce escape behaviors

Some students just need a little extra help and support to make them feel more comfortable with an overwhelming activity. Assign a para to sit with the student and use the prompt hierarchy so the student is successful. You will want to quickly fade the prompts and support until the student can complete the tasks independently. This will not work for all students who are exhibiting escape behaviors, but it really can be enough for some.

task schedules to reduce task avoidance

Use a visual schedule for the tasks the students need to do during a group or lesson. If there’s a specific task, use the visuals to break down the steps so they can see exactly what to expect.

For example, if a student is trying to avoid direct instruction, make a visual schedule that breaks that activity down into tasks (ex: read sight words, do 5 addition problems, do 1 read and do sheet, earn reinforcer). The student can cross off or remove each task as he/she completes them. Students find comfort in a visual schedule and being able to see things being completed and knowing when they will be done.

give students some control

Sometimes all a student needs to stop trying to escape is to feel in control. Find ways in the lesson to give students control or choices.


  • Allow the student to choose the order of the tasks
  • Have the student choose the materials used in the lesson. For example, the student chooses the manipulatives to use in the math center.
  • Another option is to have the student choose where to do the task. For example, should we read the book at the table, desk or on the floor?

Having some control over the situation is enough to avoid escape behaviors for some students.

Using one or a combination of these strategies to reduce task avoidance should work for students. Be sure to take data to pinpoint what is helpful and if the escape behavior is truly decreasing.

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