Consequence Strategies for Escape Behavior

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

There are several different types of escape behavior including running away and withdrawal. For each type of escape, there are a couple of consequence options that can discourage future behaviors, regardless of the age of the student.

What Is Escape Behavior?

Think about your most hated chore. Maybe it's scooping the cat litter, vacuuming, or cleaning the bathtub. Now, think about what you do when it's time to get the chore done. Do you tackle it head on or avoid doing it by completing other chores first?

As adults, many of us have learned that disliked tasks don't simply go away when we don't do them. Thus, we understand we need to just get it over with instead of procrastinating but this skill is usually still being developed in our students. Just as we might skip scrubbing the tub till next week, some of our students may try to avoid academic work they find unpleasant or particularly difficult. This behavior of avoiding disliked tasks is known as escape behavior.

There are many different versions of escape behavior in the classroom. Younger students tend to run away or physically try to hide from a task they dislike. In older students, it might manifest as repeated requests to go to the bathroom or to the nurse. Still other students might disengage with the work, putting their head down or burying themselves in their phones. All of these behaviors serve the function of avoiding a task that feels unpleasant or stressful.

So what are we to do as teachers? We will now look at consequence strategies for these type of behaviors as well as examples of how to implement them in the classroom.

Consequence Strategies

Consequent strategies are techniques that can be used after the behavior occurs to decrease the reinforcement and provide the student with alternative behavior.


Ms. Carmine has been struggling with a challenging student, Jose. Jose appears to be focused during direct instruction but when its time for independent practice, he puts his head down and refuses to acknowledge Ms. Carmine. Many times, this results in a power struggle that ends with Jose being sent to the office.

Inadvertently, Ms. Carmine is actually providing reinforcement for the negative behavior. Jose has learned that if he puts his head down he gets to escape the task and gets to go to the office. To Ms. Carmine, going to the office seems like a punishment but it actually rewards Jose's behavior by allowing him to avoid the task.

One consequence strategy that works here is extinction. During extinction, the reinforcement of the negative behavior is diminished and thus the behavior decreases over time. Instead of sending Jose to the office, Ms. Carmine might have him check in with a counselor for a short time and then return to his work. When Jose realizes that being sent to the office will not result in avoidance of the task, the behavior should decrease.

Reinforcement Strategies

Reinforcement strategies involve rewarding positive behavior or rewarding the absence of negative behavior. Farah struggles with reading and writing. In her 4th grade classroom, she attempts to run away into the hallway when it's time for independent reading. Her teacher, Ms. Gomes is not sure what to do. She can't ignore the problem as it's unsafe to let Farah run away.

She decides to present Farah with a reinforcement schedule. For every five minutes Farah can sustain reading independently, she gets a small token. The tokens can be traded in at the end of the day for a larger prize of Farah's choice, such as extended play time, a favorite snack, or stickers. Reinforcement schedules need to be tailored to individual student needs. Some students may need reinforcement more often or prefer different rewards.

Tickets or tokens can be given to students to reinforce positive behavior

Non-contingent Escape

Although ideally, we want our students to engage in no escape behavior, to do this immediately is unrealistic. Non-contingent escape offers students breaks from the non-preferred task at regular intervals. Over time, the breaks are thinned down and eventually discontinued.

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