Did you know that behavior analysts are one of the few professions trained to assess and treat unwanted patterns of avoidant behavior? Children use their behavior for a variety of reasons:
1- To gain something such as toys, treats, attention, access to information, privileges, relationships, etc.
2- To delay, avoid, control, get out of, or escape something s/he would rather not do.
When parents tell us they have tried everything to resolve a pattern of unwanted behavior, our assessment consistently reveals that the child has learned that using this unwanted behavior is a great way to delay, avoid, or get out of tasks. Our mission is to educate parents, caregivers, and teachers of subtle avoidant behavior looks when it starts! After years of resolving more severe patterns of avoidant behavior such as aggression, school concerns, picking eating, severe constipation due to refusal to use the toilet for bowel movements, and sleep disruptions, we consistently address the more subtle, passive forms of resistance or avoidance a child displays as a prerequisite to successful resolve of the more severe and overt unwanted behaviors.
Repeating instructions can (inadvertently) create avoidance!
For example: Most days when you say, “Clean up”, your child says, “Just one more piece?” One more piece becomes two and three more pieces. So you repeat, “Okay, you need to clean up now.” Your child puts a handful of items away and then quietly builds another few pieces while you are doing something else. This continues until nearly 5 minutes have passed before you walk over and say, “Remember, you can watch a show if you clean up.” You then begin to clean up and then your child FINALLY follows through! Your child has learned to avoid and delay clean up while gaining longer play time AND getting you to present a bribe! (A bribe happens when the child displays unwanted behavior and then something better/more reinforcing is offered.)
Allowing your child to suggest alternatives when you present a choice can (inadvertently) create avoidance!
For example: You give a choice of food. Your child closes his eyes and scrunches his face. It’s so cute that you begin to giggle and snuggle him. You try the choice again, but your child does the same thing. You say, “Okay, you need to choose.” Your child continues to scrunch his face and you repeat again. Your child then does another new silly scrunchy face, and you can’t help yourself but giggle. You finally choose for the child and then your child protests and requests the other item by pointing to it. Your child has learned he can delay eating because he doesn’t like either choice of foods presented. Even if you don’t let him get out of eating that food, he has practiced avoidance by delaying the choice, and ultimately the eating part too!
Timing of conversations and interactions can (inadvertently) create avoidance!
Most days when you try to talk ask about the school day during dinner, your 3rd grader eats and says, “I don’t know. You then say to her after dinner, “Time to clean up the table.” She starts talking about her day at school and you are so grateful that you engage in the conversation while you start to clean up. Meanwhile, your child is now standing by the table telling you all about her day but not cleaning up a thing. You ask questions and she continues to engage in meaningful conversations about her school day, even bringing up new topics. She has successfully learned she can wait to talk to you until clean up time and avoid clean up. Double behavioral whammy! She gets your attention AND she gets out of the potentially non-preferred tasks of eating and cleaning up. Simply ignoring this isn’t going to work to resolve it!
What starts as cute and “normal” behaviors, may become avoidance.
If you see patterns of unwanted behaviors at certain times during your day, this could be developing into avoidance! You may be inadvertently helping your child create those patterns by unknowingly engaging in it, or simply by not recognizing it! Now that you know, don’t let your child continue to practice patterns of avoidant behaviors. Instead, create a new plan!
Alicia Janni, BS, BCaBA