Escape Behaviors {Replacement Behaviors}

Although I sometimes truly wish my school day could be filled with angry birds and dorito breaks – and that’s sadly what a good percentage of people think my days is filled with (sigh…) – we come to school to work. No fancy way of saying it and no if, ands, or buts. School equals work. And that’s nails on a chalkboard for many of our kiddos. They will try literally every behavior in the book to resist doing work. This cracks me up sometimes. Don’t they get it? It’s be so much dang easier if they just did the stupid worksheet.

Many children (with and without autism) have misbehaviors that are used to get out of work. These bad behaviors can continue for a long time because guess what? They work! When a child acts out in class and gets time out, gets a lecture from the teacher, gets taken to the principal, gets given a break etc. – they aren’t doing class work! They got exactly what they wanted – escape from the task! So you better believe they will keep those bad behaviors up! So here’s the conundrum – school equals work so we have to figure out a way to get rid of these behaviors and get some work done!

Behaviors can be used to escape a range of situations:

  • work – it could be certain types of work tasks, too difficult work, or some kiddos just avoid any type of demand
  • social situations – for kids with autism socializing can be SUCH a struggle and something to avoid!
  • sensory experience/environment – some activities or settings might be too overwhelming for some kids with autism; environments with extremely loud noises, flickering flourescent lights, or too much activity could be quite aversive for some kids with autism

Think about your own behaviors. You throw on big sunglasses and duck you head when you see a former high school classmate you definitely don’t feel like running into. You click ignore on your cell phone when your mom calls. You whine about how much work you have because it gets you out of actually doing the work. We all do it. 

So firsts things first, before you can start ANY interventions you need to teach an appropriate behavior. This might seem weird to you because why should we teach a student to get out of work. Because my dear friend, you’d much rather get handed an “I need a break” card that get punched the face. The disruptive behavior will continue. So let’s replace it with a appropriate behavior. We’ll get to the work part later.

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So let’s teach an appropriate behavior. There could be two things going on. Either the student does not know an appropriate behavior or that appropriate behavior is not effective or working for them. It’s likely that inappropriate behavior is more powerful. If the choice is between kicking someone and 100% of the time, immediately getting out of work and asking someone in the leg and 25% of the time maybe getting out of work – what do you think that brilliant kiddo is choosing? Better get your leg out of the way.

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Ways to teach the appropriate way ask for escape:

  • Social Story: Social stories are a great way to teach students how to ask for a break. Use your students’ rigidity to your benefit. Social stories provide the scripted response. You can read the story on a regular basis, as needed, or prior to a work task. Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 3.25.16 PM
  • Verbal Prompts: Sometimes you just need a good, old fashioned verbal prompt. Remind your student of what they can see to request a break from work. Identify the precursor behaviors – the behaviors that tend to occur before the disruptive behavior. “You can say – I want a break please – if you need a break.” Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
  • Script: Create a typed out quote of how to ask for a break. Leave it on the desk nearby the work area. Don’t mistakenly assume that because a student is verbal that they know when and how to ask for a break. Sometimes the written words can provide a simple cue.
  • Break Card: For students who are nonverbal you can use a break card. A simple card that they can hand over to get a break. If the student hasn’t mastered the full PECS “I want” sentence strip – then don’t require that know. We are thinking easy. Accessible. Easy. Easy. Did I say easy? This response needs to be easier than the or so super easy problem behavior.


How to shape the appropriate way to ask for escape: 

When you start this intervention, give them the break every time they request it! I know – crazy talk! You need to build and shape this skill at first. Then and only then you can working on limiting it. You need to get their buy in. You need to sell them on this new replacement behavior. Let them know that it works. It works every time. Right away. With consistency. No need to for that ridiculous problem behavior. You don’t have to bite, scratch, or swear to escape work. You can just pass over a break card or ask for a break.

Once you get some buy in and the student starts utilizing the appropriate behavior, then you can start fading and/or limiting the opportunities for breaks. For example you can use a visual to show how many breaks you have. Once you ask for all of them you are done. These interventions along with some of the amazing preventative interventions I will share with you this week are sure to get the job done!


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This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!

The Autism Helper - Summer Series



  1. Do you give the student a timer so that they can go on a break for a certain amount of time and then come back? Do you allow them access to reinforcers when they go on a break, or do you just have them walk away from their work for a few minutes?

    Thank you!

  2. Great questions! I think a timer would be great to show how long the break is for. I would limit access to reinforcers contingent on finishing the work. Then it might be hard to identify if the behavior is to escape work or access the reinforcer.

  3. We use this method for my 5 year old son w/ autism and his ABA therapist. We will be rolling it over to the classroom soon. He announces he needs a break or earns a break using a token economy and we decide how long it is. 5 min, 2 min, 1 min. its also helped him understanding time frames as well. He does not currently use it in class, he may use another strategy for escaping work such as hitting or kicking or spitting. Thats why we have an IEP today…. Yay for FBA’s.

  4. Good luck on transitioning that to the classroom! And congrats on the success at home 🙂

  5. Do you have examples for students who want to escape social demands at recess? (playing with another student, sharing, waiting in line instead of being first)

  6. Hi! Great interventions! I have a child who whines a lot when it’s time to work or when he’s being denied access to certain reinforcers. Would using a token board help him understand that if he asks nicely or uses his words he earns tokens for bigger reinforcement? But if he whines then he will be told that he can’t have a token because he’s not using his words. What would you suggest? I’d love to hear your opinion!


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