FBA Part II: Function of Negative Reinforcement

Photo source: www.avivaahwerner.com

Disclaimer: Conducting an FBA is a very individualized process that must consider the setting, the learner's environment, and who will carry out the intervention. The following post contains suggestions to guide the process, and is not intended to be applicable for every learner or every situation. It’s also important to note that the usefulness of an FBA extends beyond individuals with Autism.

For my original post explaining how to conduct a FBA, click here: http://www.iloveaba.com/2012/02/everyday-fba.html

This post is for caregivers (parents, teachers, therapists, etc.) who have conducted a FBA to determine the function of a challenging behavior and it is: Negative Reinforcement, commonly known as Escape or Avoidance.

Most people think the term "Negative Reinforcement" refers to using a harsh or mean type of reinforcement to get someone to do something, such as yelling at a child to get them to clean their room.


That isn't what negative reinforcement means at all. 

Since you read my blog :-) then you already know that reinforcement is anything that makes a behavior go up, and negative means to remove something. So, negative reinforcement means to remove something and cause a behavior to go up. Make sense? Great.
Negative reinforcement is seen in learners who avoid (will not do at all) or escape (may start, but then stop) tasks, in order to get out of the demand. It is the demand being removed, or avoided completely, that reinforces the inappropriate behavior. Children who engage in challenging behaviors that serve a negative reinforcement function can be some super difficult learners to work with.

 If these kids had a motto, it would be “We’ll get along fine, as long as you do everything my way!”

These are the kiddos that frustrate and exhaust their therapists and teachers. Every day is a battle, and these learners will leave you with battle wounds (scratches, bites, bruises, etc).  The parents of these children can spend their days putting out behavioral fires, and trying to avoid complete meltdowns.
From the perspective of the child engaging in escape or avoidance behaviors, they are willing to do whatever they need to do to make the demand disappear. This is why escape or avoidance maintained behaviors can get pretty aggressive or violent, pretty fast.
These children have learned over time how to quickly get an adult to leave them alone. By the time I meet these learners, they are often at the point where they are running the household…or the classroom.

What do escape/avoidance behaviors look like?

Behaviors that serve the function of negative reinforcement are intended to remove or stop an undesired activity, event, or demand. The motivation for the child is to get out of something. It looks something like this:

Present demand ---> Child tantrums
Remove demand ----> Tantrum stops

Common escape/avoidance behaviors include:  biting, throwing objects, noncompliance, verbal defiance (“No!”), kicking, tantrums, falling to the floor, walking away from adults, head butting, arguing, destroying property, pinching, hitting, screaming, crying, negotiating/bargaining, walking away from the activity, and refusing to participate.

Why do children engage in escape/avoidance behaviors?

Behaviors that serve the function of negative reinforcement have a history of learning behind them. The child has learned that if they bite Mom every time she tries to turn the video game off, Mom will back down. Therefore the behavior of biting gets strengthened more and more over time.
And that’s just the beginning…..these learners are also able to exert less and less effort over time. Eventually all they have to do is whine, or lunge at Mom, and she will back down. So the short answer to “Why do children engage in escape/avoidance behaviors” is because these behaviors work and the demand is removed.

When dealing with escape/avoidance behaviors it’s important to distinguish between “Can’t Do” tasks and “Won’t Do” tasks:

1. Can’t Do: The child does not have the skill necessary to complete the task or demand, and instead of asking for help they engage in behaviors.
2. Wont’ Do: The child is fully capable of completing the task or demand, they just don’t want to.

For both a “Can’t Do” and “Won’t Do”, the behavior may look identical. However, the way you would respond to the behavior would differ.

How do I handle escape/avoidance behaviors?

Once you determine the function of a behavior, you need to do 2 things in order to reduce the behavior: stop reinforcing (feeding) the inappropriate behavior, and teach the child what to do instead. For behaviors with a function of negative reinforcement, that is much easier said than done!
 In order to stop reinforcing the behavior, it is imperative that the demand is not removed. No matter what behavior the child throws at you, don't back down. To do so is to reinforce the inappropriate behavior.

If the task is a “Can’t Do”, then you need to teach the child how to do the skill. Break the task down into smaller parts, lower the difficulty level, provide more assistance to the child, or teach them to hand you a “Help” card.

If the task is a “Won’t Do”, then you are dealing with a compliance issue. Stand firm, do not back down from the demand, and use 3 step prompting to gain full compliance. Also look at the reinforcement embedded in the task and ask yourself if the child is properly motivated to comply. If it’s appropriate to do so, provide choices to the child. Instead of barking at them to “Make your bed!” ask the child if they want to make their bed before or after breakfast. Sometimes offering a simple choice can head off aggressive behavior before it even starts.


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