What’s the Function: Escape

We've learned about the importance of determining the function of a learner's behavior, and we learned more about what attention-maintained behavior is. Today, we're looking at escape as a function of behavior.


Escape is often a function that sneaks up on you, in my experience. Sometimes the escape function seems obvious. Other times, it disguises itself as another function, primarily attention. Also, what looks like "escape" (the topography, or what the behavior looks like) such as running away, isn't really escape at all. Which is all the more reason why it's important to assess these functions prior to making hypotheses about them. 


What is Escape-Maintained Behavior?

When a behavior is maintained by escape, it functions to get out of something, such as a situation, a demand, or noxious/unpleasant stimuli. Some common examples of circumstances in which escape may be a function of a problematic behavior include: uncomfortable social settings, loud, overstimulating environment, task demand, or challenging work activity. For example, I engage in a lot of avoidant behaviors when I have a challenging task on my To Do list. Not a very adaptive or helpful behavior when I have a deadline, but an escape-maintained behavior nonetheless.

How Do I Know if a Behavior is Escape-Maintained?

Again, I encourage you to look back to your assessment of these behaviors to see what the learner is getting (not getting in the tangible sense, but what are they accomplishing by engaging in this behavior. In other words, how is this reinforcing the maladaptive behavior?). Let's take the class clown from last week as our example. Let's say when this learner engages in "class clown" behavior (however you choose to operationally define that), the teacher makes them leave the room and sit and do their work in the hall (a common, misguided "punishment" from my youth). Let's say, no matter how many times the teacher uses this consequence, the learner still continues to engage in the behavior, or worse, does it more often! What might be maintaining this behavior? If you're taking data on this behavior using ABC sheets, you may be able to note a pattern. When the teacher consequences the behavior by forcing the learner to be alone in the hall, the data is showing this is actually reinforcing the "class clown" behavior. The learner engages in the behavior to escape the demand of being in the class, not knowing the answer, sitting next to an ex-boyfriend, whatever! Once you know the function of the behavior (in this case, to escape), you can begin to determine the factors at play that are maintaining this. 

The biggest clue is still going to be in your data. If you take a look at your ABC data, where you identify what you or another did after the behavior occurred (the C of ABC), and there is a pattern, you will often find the answer. After the individual engaged in the behavior, what happened? If it involves some type of escape of avoidance of something, it's likely escape-maintained.

ABA at Play: functions of behavior, escape-maintained behavior, reinforcement, behavioral contingencies, data collection

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