A Reformed Functionalist.
Acting in a certain way to get out of something is commonplace for many children and young people. And adults come to that. If you have attended a PBS (positive behaviour support) course or any behaviour training you may have heard the term “functions of behaviour”. Attempts to get away from, out of or reduce demands placed on you are labelled as “escape function behaviour”.
Often behaviour training will talk about the 4 functions of behaviour. Sensory, Escape, Attention, and Tangible. I have used and taught them in PBS training myself. I wrote about functions of behaviour in depth here. Sometimes when I am really stuck trying to work out what drives a behaviour I will complete a functional assessment. Using a QABF form. I used to do this a lot. Now I much prefer to work on looking at what is going on around the child. The environments they are in and the approaches of the adults around them first. It is also helpful to look at their history and possible past trauma or restrictive practices used on them.
All our actions serve a function and many serve many. This is why I think looking at functions of behaviour is of limited use. I have recently published this post on relational approaches to behaviour. Focussing on relationships and adult behaviour has been popularised by the Paul Dix book “When Adults Change”*.
Functions of Behaviour: Escape – A Fear Response?
Escape behaviours can have a negative impact on them and others so do need addressing. First we need to acknowledge there are two ways of looking at “Escape” behaviours. To get away from something, or to escape to safety. Escape behaviours, like many behaviours often occur under specific conditions. Common antecedents include frustration, discomfort, being overwhelmed, or pain. The function of the behaviour is to get whatever is causing it to end. Or get to somewhere or someone who can help the person “escape or avoid” unwanted situations.
Functions of Behaviour and Adult Mindsets
One of the greatest causes of stress and conflict in dealing with challenging behaviour is divergent mindsets. On the one hand we have behaviour management and control based strategies and ethos. On the other a desire to understand the behaviour and support the child to communicate stressors. If the child is attempting to avoid a situation, we must ask two questions:
- “What is this behaviour telling us?”
- “What is causing the child stress?”
With children of any need type, we must not presume they have the skills to deal with situations appropriately. I do throw in the caveat that sometimes this behaviour becomes a habit. Often these have been so effective in the past that the child knows full well what they are doing. This is where we need a familiar adult with good insight into the child. They can often determine the difference between distress and overwhelm rather than controlled “behaviour”.
Both the above situations need different approaches. A well-planned activity should match the child’s current capacity for succeeding at that task. Yes, there should be challenge and opportunities to stretch. These come once basics have been mastered and the child is confident in their environment and surrounded by trusted adults. You also need to be aware of the child’s sensory needs. A busy class may not be conducive to learning. A hot, hungry or tired child will be less tolerant and may not be in a ready-to-learn state.
By being proactive and planning activities for a child who displays escape function behaviours, we can avoid reinforcing that behaviour. If we wait until a chair has been thrown or a person has been hit we are too late and have sent the message that the behaviour works, is effective.
Matching demands to Skill Level.
The proactive approach to supporting a child who needs to escape work tasks should be to build up the level of demand slowly. A good analogy would be the rising tide lifting the boat from the sand. You slowly introduce complexity to the activity. Maybe introduce something in a familiar environment when all is calm. This approach avoids the need for the child to push back as they start from a position of safety.
To continue the analogy compare this to the same boat being hit by a giant wave of demands. Instead of floating it will be swamped and sink. You need to avoid the child becoming swamped and triggering that escape behaviour. Often this can be a fight or flight response. Especially if the child fears failure, punishment or negative feedback.
You can control the tide through your support level. If you see the child becoming anxious, start to panic, become dysregulated or disengage you can increase the support you give them instead of reducing the demand. You can scaffold the task or start with a familiar one then build a small step of progress.
Demand or Work Avoidance
I may be a little biased here, after 14 years working in special schools I hate the phrase “getting out of work”. It may not be the task that is triggering the behaviour but the way adults interact with the child. Remember our aim is to engage the child in learning. We need to foster a rapport first. Is it worth damaging the relationship to get a picture stuck into a book or a matching worksheet? No.
Power dynamics can be very detrimental to many children with SEN. To continue the nautical analogies we should not run our class like the Captain of a ship. A desire for compliance leads to conflict and stress. You are the coxswain. Responsible for making sure everything works smoothly (no distress) so you reach your destination (learning).
Behaviour: Skill Development and Appropriate Communication
Sometimes we need to teach the child appropriate ways to communicate the need to “escape” stressful or negative situations. Link this right back to consent and RSE. It is essential for the child to have an effective method of communicating “I need help”, “Stop,” and “No.”. This could be an exit card, a Makaton sign, a red colour on the desk. Zones of regulation or incredible 5 point scale check ins can also work.
More importantly, you have to honour that when used appropriately. Whatever method is used must be MORE effective than the behaviour. When teaching this it has to be the priority over whatever task you had planned. It isn’t a get-out card. You can use it to acknowledge the communication, show you are listening and respond in a supportive manner. “Thank you for telling me, let’s go somewhere quiet to work/find out the problem.”
This is not likely to be an easy or quick fix. Often behaviours can be embedded and almost habitual. You have to approach this as a learning process where mistakes are opportunities to check in and teach. Whilst the new skill is embedding you will have to remind the child of it and model it yourself. Do not teach whilst the child is overwhelmed but reinforce it if you see the signs they are becoming distressed.
You may have to engineer situations to practice that are safe i.e putting the wrong or non-preferred song on. This is a low-risk way of facilitating communication. You can see how identifying functions of behaviour lead to a way to develop appropriate skills.
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