When a child is engaging in unwanted behavior, a common suggestion from well-meaning friends, family members, teachers, doctors, nurses, passers-by, and even social media friends is to ignore the unwanted behavior. This is risky business if there first hasn’t been a thorough assessment of the underlying function, or reason, for the child’s unwanted behavior. Sure, attention is a common reason for unwanted behavior in early childhood…children engage in unwanted behavior because it effectively gets them attention from others; attention from peers, parents, siblings, nannies, teachers, and grandparents are all desirable for children. Suggestions made without a thorough assessment of the underlying function are also risky when in fact the unwanted behavior actually serves that child to avoid, delay, or escape tasks s/he would rather not do (at this moment). If we ignore unwanted behavior that a child is using to escape, what have we effectively done?
WE HAVE EFFECTIVELY REINFORCED OR STRENGTHENED THE ESCAPE-MOTIVATED OR AVOIDANCE UNWANTED BEHAVIOR.
Escape/avoidance is one of the common reasons underlying unwanted patterns of behavior. As behavior analysts, we are trained to assess this, as well as many other reasons that your child continues to engage in unwanted behavior, despite your attempts to resolve it. In other words, your child’s unwanted behavior serves to delay, postpone, avoid, or get out of something s/he would rather not do (at this moment). If your child’s behavior is avoidant, dangling rewards in front of them for more appropriate behavior is likely not going to be effective. Parents tell us, “We’ve tried reinforcement and it didn’t work.” By very definition, when used correctly, and with a proper assessment of the function of the behavior, reinforcement WILL work. When families find Behave Your Best and feel like they’ve “tried everything” to resolve a pattern of unwanted behavior, avoidance is consistently a missing piece of the resolve puzzle.
To an untrained eye, avoidant patterns of behavior are difficult to spot. Children perfect their skill of avoiding when they engage in subtle, avoidant behaviors throughout the day. Here are 5 common misconceptions or subtle behaviors that identify if your child is avoidant:
- Escape doesn’t mean your child is running away! – Escape/avoidance behaviors are those which effectively and efficiently delay or prevent something they don’t like or don’t want to happen from happening, whether you say it or not. That could be not saying “hi” to another adult when you tell them to, not answering questions, and possibly hiding behind a parent’s leg or running away when people arrive at the house.
- Escape can also look like ignoring you or appearing distracted. – You may find yourself saying, “They were too busy/focus/tired, I’ll just let that go” when you try to get your child’s attention. Although this may not seem like a big deal, these are typically the times children are learning, for example, “If mom or dad calls my name, and I don’t respond, I get to keep playing with this toy for longer.”
- Just because your child can talk, doesn’t mean they will follow the instructions you say! – Often times parents assume, “Now that my child can talk, I can just tell them to do what I need them to do.” As a child’s language develops and expands, s/he also learns how different words, sentences and phrases, as well as tones, work in what ways! As a Consultant, some of my first clues that a child uses unwanted behavior to escape a situation is if the child is delaying following an instruction, answering a question, and/or responding to his or her name.
- Your repetition of the same instruction means you are teaching your child it is acceptable to delay his/her response to your instructions. – If you find yourself repeating instructions or calling your child’s name multiple times, this inadvertently teaches your child, “If I (child) ignore, it buys me time.”
- Negotiating = delay to expected task and access to your attention. – Is your child a “master negotiator?” This is often a child who is very efficient with his or her escape behavior. Rather than whining, arguing, or ignoring you, they’ve learned the easiest way to keep doing what they want, at least when the first instruction is placed, is to identify the terms you are willing to negotiate AND the right way to say it (i.e., in a calm and rational tone). They are also efficiently distracting your attention from the expected task.
- Children do NOT grow out of avoidant behavior. – They continue to get better and better at it and/or it transfers to another area of their lives. While conducting our assessments, we consistently find the untreated avoidant behavior of 3-10 year olds has been present in a child’s repertoire since s/he was 2 years old. Unfortunately, parents aren’t looking for us until avoidant behavior has gotten “bad enough” such that the child is refusing to use the toilet and is constipated or the child is refusing to go to bed for 3 hours each night. Or maybe your child’s weight has dropped because his diet is so limited in variety and nutrition. Teachers concerned your child is unfocused and distracted? Could that be ADHD? Possibly. It could also just be learned behavior. We like to take a least invasive, skill-building approach to treating the distractability, lack of focus, and other symptoms of ADHD that can also just be learned behavior. While we are equipped to help anytime a family finds us, we are most cost-effective the earlier we can intervene. The longer the behavior has worked for your child, but longer it will take to resolve.
BONUS TIP: There may be times when a negotiation is permitted and times when it is not. Determine a cue that you’ll provide to your child when a situation is non-negotiable. Your child needs to clearly know when negotiation is and is not available. We have our adult reasons why we are expecting our children to do things, but they don’t always have that same information, and if they do, they often do not care about our adult reasons of safety, health, schedules, timeliness, etc. After you’ve decided on a cue to signal the availability of negotiation, you’ll need to stick with it. We know some pretty great behavioral consultants that will help you consistently use this tool. We offer a complimentary, 30-minute phone consultation to discuss how our services can benefit your family.
Anna Milligan, MS