• Colin Maynard

The Functions of Behavior: Escape

Understanding Functions of Behavior is important to ensure progress.


As we move further into ABA therapy, whether as a parent or professional, an important aspect to understand is the function of behavior. Every behavior that a person exhibits has a function, or a reason behind it. When a behavior elicits a response from others that the individual wants , we say that behavior has been “reinforced” and that reinforcement is “maintaining” the behavior. The First function we will address is escape, or negative reinforcement. Behavior can ensue when a child intends to escape or get away from a task/demand, un-preferred activity, peer, teacher, etc. Escape can be reinforced by any delay of a demand even if the individual is still required to complete the task. While reading a definition can make a function seem very easy to understand it can often be a bit murkier, even counter-intuitive. A behavior might appear to serve a very obvious function, but it could be something less clear maintaining the behavior. A child might scream “he hit me, he hit me”, until the teacher moves the child’s peer. At first glance it seems clear the child wanted to escape the unwanted peer, whether they were hitting them or not. Instead, it could be a situation in which the child did not want to work on the task at hand and by causing a disruption in the classroom, that task was delayed or removed. Perhaps the teacher also comforted the child after removing the peer resulting in attention being the possible function.

The function of escape entails prior learning history. That means the child has learned one way or another that certain behaviors get them the result that they want. Think of a child hitting his dad every time he takes his coloring book away until he gets the book back. Throughout time this behavior will be strengthened if the father continues to back down, this could also increase the intensity of the behavior and lead to other aggressive behaviors.

Considering various functions and how they might be reinforced makes it very clear that behavior will not decrease unless the real function is discovered and the reinforcement for that function removed.


Examples of Escape Behaviors

Charlie’s lunch rules

Each day after lunch, Charlie must brush his teeth before he can enjoy his break. Today, after putting away his lunch bag Charlie returns to his desk. Charlie’s teacher leaves the room and requests another teacher to watch him. When Charlie’s teacher returns, he tells her that he brushed his teeth while she was gone and is now ready for his break. His behavior of lying was to escape brushing his teeth.


What we could do

When our goal is to reduce a behavior, we intend to remove the reinforcement for the behavior. In the case of Charlie, the teachers should communicate between themselves and Charlie so expectations are clear and Charlie cannot escape brushing his teeth by lying. His lying is not maintained because he did not escape the non-preferred task.


Sarah’s Math

When Sarah is asked to do Math problems, she get’s very frustrated and has a lot of trouble with them. Every time Sarah is told to do her Math work, she asks to go to the bathroom. Sarah requests unneeded bathroom breaks to delay or temporarily escape her Math.


What we could do

While it is important we teach Sarah to use her language and coping skills, we don’t want her to escape from doing her work. An alternative would be to instruct her beforehand she must do 2 math problems per bathroom break and encourage her to use her words when she is having trouble.

Sarah’s behavior of requesting excessive breaks is not maintained because she is not escaping her math.


Connor’s Desk

Connor does not like to leave his desk and do other activities at school. When Connor is asked to walk in the hall with his teacher he screams and hits the table with his hands. Connor’s teachers will block his hands and stay at the desk with him until he calms down. Connor’s behavior of screaming and engaging in Self-Injurious Behavior is to escape the non-preferred action of having to leave his desk.

What we could do

Communication is an integral part of ABA Therapy. Connor might benefit from being given transition warning (Ex. Timer) prior to being asked to leave his desk. It might also be necessary to find a stronger reinforcer for Connor and remind him that after he leaves his desk and completes the necessary activities, he can request to return to his desk. Connor is reinforced for following instructions or using appropriate communication instead of his escape behaviors. These few examples serve to illustrate how diverse functions can be. Escape is a very common function. Every person on the planet has things they’d rather not have to do. While applying ABA therapy, especially while working with Autism, we want to teach both, dealing with unwanted tasks/situations and the appropriate means to request to escape those tasks/situations.

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