Strategies for Task Avoidance Behaviors in the Classroom

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson we'll learn how to approach the challenging behavior of task avoidance. Here, you'll learn how to get to the root cause of task avoidance and practical strategies to try in your classroom.

What Is Task Avoidance?

Jaymae is repeating 9th grade and is in your algebra class. Although this year Jaymae is on time for school, every day, when it's time to start the independent work, she conveniently needs to go to the bathroom, see the nurse, or asks to go to guidance. Although this behavior is subtle, it's still a type of task avoidance behavior.

Task avoidance behaviors are strategies students use to try to avoid doing classwork. They might be discrete like Jaymae, asking politely to go somewhere else, but task avoidance behaviors can also take a disruptive form, like creating confrontations with the teacher or classmates, talking out of turn, phone use, or putting their head down. It might seem like a student is being argumentative or disruptive, but really the purpose of the behavior might be task avoidance.

Often the reason for poor behavior is task avoidance
head down

In either case, task avoidance behavior is problematic for students and teachers. It negatively impacts student learning and can place students at risk for being held back. So, as teachers what can we do about this behavior?

Identifying the Cause

We know that many students want to learn and want to do well. Deep down, most children have a love of learning. When they don't act that way in class, such as during task avoidance, something else is getting in the way of that desire to learn. The task avoidance behavior is just a symptom of a larger issue. So, the first step in managing task behavior is to identify the cause.

To do this it can be beneficial to engage in a functional behavior assessment (FBA) for your student. This type of assessment requires the teacher or counselor to monitor the student throughout the day and track the situations in which they engage in the behavior. Does Jaymae only avoid math-based tasks? Does she only avoid tasks at certain times of the day? Or, does she only try to avoid work around certain peers?

After this data is gathered the next step is to identify the cognitive or socioemotional causes of the behavior. Although there are many unique situations and causes for task avoidance, the most common is a fear of failure.

Particularly with students behind grade level or who have experienced repeated failures, it is emotionally easier to avoid the task and take a zero than to try and fail. So, although our students might seem stubborn or disruptive most times they are simply afraid of failing, a feeling we can all relate to.


So now that we understand our students better, how can we help them? There's one sure antidote to the fear of failure: success. Although your student might not be able to walk in and jump into an essay if they haven't done well in English in the past, you can give them ways to build their confidence to the point they can tackle larger assignments. Let's look at a few examples.

Small Wins

Darmell is a 10th-grade student that has never passed the state exam in math, despite years of trying. He's learned that he isn't good at math and he will never pass. When it's time to start his practice packets, he sits on his phone and refuses to do work. Although the traditional approach might be to get a dean or give Darmell detention, there's a better way to get what we all want.

Try by chunking the material, where a large set of work is broken down into smaller steps. Ask Darmell to try just one problem. Work with him so he can solve it by giving him concrete steps to follow. Then give him a second problem just like the first.

Chances are he will solve this one by himself, boosting his confidence. Giving Darmell this type of small win over time can help him see he can be good at math. But, don't be mistaken, chunking will not solve your problems overnight. It will take a long time of this type of work to change patterns that have existed for most likely, most of Darmell's years in school. But with patience and persistence, you can help Darmell feel successful.

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