Escape Behaviors

Categories: Data | Interventions

Replacement Behavior

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 inappropriate 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!

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. Remember: escape behaviors aren’t only escape from a work task. The student can be escaping a social situation, specific environment or person, or demand of any kind. 

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. You can use social stories, verbal prompts, visuals, scripts, break cards, and more to teach how to request a break appropriately! 

Access to Breaks

The key to this intervention is you need to ensure that the way you are showing this regular access to breaks is understood by your student. Let’s not forget – individuals with autism struggle with language. I know, I know. Preaching to the choir. But sometimes we forget this. We find ourselves telling our students, “Two more until break time” when that student has such low receptive language all they are hearing is “HnjkhHM.”

The other key to this intervention is knowing how often to provide access to breaks. Please oh please don’t just pick a number out of hat. You took all of that beautiful baseline data. Do something with it. Use the baseline data to identify how often the problem behavior is occurring. Every 5 minutes, every 10 trials, every other command. You want to be providing access to breaks at an interval just less than that. If the problem behavior occurs every 5 minutes, give a break every 4 minutes. Eliminate the urge to engage in the behavior. Yes it might seem like overkill at first and you are getting barely any work done. But that’s okay. You can slowly fade up the work load and work time.

Learn more about this intervention here

Task Adjustment

Escape behaviors are used to get out of something. There are some tricky manuevers you can utilize to tweak the environment and make the work a little less aversive for your students. And viola – maybe it’s no longer worth escaping. You can make the task easier, use shorter work sessions, present tasks more slowly, give choice on the order to do tasks, fade demands, use the easy/easy/easy/hard method, or give breaks and/or less work based on work completion.

Learn more about these strategies related to task adjustment here


Overcorrection is a hugely powerful intervention because it adds on a little extra aversiveness. As a consequence for problem behavior – the student will need to complete an effortful behavior to fix the damage caused by the inappropriate behavior. Overcorrection can also involve extra work. This can be very punishing. Punishment will reduce the future chance of problem behaviors.

Learn more about overcorrection here

Response Blocking and Other Tips

Response block removes access to the reinforcer and the reinforcer here being escape. It prohibits the student from escaping the task or activity. Just like planned ignoring removes access to the reinforcer for attention behaviors, response blocking is effective because it makes the problem behavior ineffective. When the problem behavior doesn’t work, the student won’t engage in it any more.

Yes seems simple, but try using response blocking with a 14 year old who is aggressive to get out of work. Unless you have a set of hockey padding – that’s not going to work. Response block is really only a viable option with younger students.

Learn more about this intervention and other tips for escape behaviors here


  1. Sasha, I love and appreciate all your behavior expertise and advice. However I am greatly struggling with a student. We have completed an FBA and his behaviors are escape and attention seeking. The problem is nothing is motivating enough to this student. We have tried food, computer, music, stickers, drawing time. We have turned his day into a video game in which he earns lives and moves up levels for completing tasks. We have spoken with parents and NOTHING works. We have used visual schedules, First / Then strips, 3 minute of work 3 minutes of a break. He uses a 3 bin work system with tasks that have all been mastered. Without continuous prompting and close proximity he will sit there all day and script to himself as well as touch his private parts. My para-professional has turned into a one-on-one for him which is not appropriate and has been extremely difficult on myself and the rest of the class. Even with her sitting there each moment is different. We can redirect him and he can throw his pencil, flip the chair, walk over and hit another student, stick up his middle finger and yell at the top of his lungs. Other times when he is redirected he still is in his own word and we have to use hand over hand. I am finishing up my masters and everything I have learned I have tried. I am just frustrated and at a complete loss. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much!

  2. So we have contingent breaks and non-contingent breaks built into our day. What we are struggling with is once that break is over and the timer goes off getting the student back to work. In some cases it’s taking the IPad out of the students hands or removing that sensory item. This leads to major behaviors. We try to show them a visual of where they need to be next or their token board if they have one, but we’ve had no luck with 3 students. What’s your strategy for getting kiddos back to work after a break? Thanks!

  3. Hi Nina! I completely understand how challenging a situation like that can be. Sometimes when you are so involved it gets tricky to see other ideas (I have been there!) – can you bring someone else in to observe to get another opinion/set of eyes? Maybe someone from your grad school program? Are you doing regular reinforcer assessments? What do parents do at home? Feel free to email me! Hang in there! 🙂

  4. That can be so tricky! Have you tried exchange the high powered reinforcer (like iPad) for another reinforcer that is less preferred (like a small edible or different sensory toy. Do students get a token immediately for handing it over? What about visual timer or countdown board etc? For students with more language, you can also add in a response cost for not giving the iPad back right away (ie. losing a point). I will do a post on this as well!

  5. Try a blue light filter for the ipad. We did this for a child and without the major feedback from the screen he was willing to turn it off without meltdowns. Also use a small piece of clay or thinking puty as a trade to start working/thinking. Essential oil diffuser with lavender, orange or mint could help with calming and focusing. Food allergie often bring out these behaviors -gluten, dairy, corn, fake dyes and fortified foods are common triggers.

  6. Did you ever find a solution to this issue? I have the same problem!


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