Solving avoidance behaviors can be a big challenge in the special education classroom. Avoidance behavior can look like running out of class, hiding under a table, or simply refusal to do work. Avoidance behavior can be loud and boisterous or quiet and passive. But the function remains the same, to avoid doing something unwanted. You can read more about behavior functions here. 

All behavior is communication. When a student is engaging in avoidance behaviors, they are telling you loud and clear, “I don’t want to,” or sometimes, “I can’t.” It’s important that we listen to this message before we consider how we proceed with teaching.

Secret #1

Avoidance might be OK.

Before going into a big behavior intervention plan, consider the activity that the student is trying so hard to avoid. Is it a necessary thing for them to do? Will it be important for their future health, success, and happiness? Sometimes, we can get too focused on compliance, and miss that we can make everybody calmer and happier by changing the demand in the first place.

Example #1

Kacey hides under the table when it’s time to go to the computer lab. Kacey uses the computer in the classroom without a problem. Is Kacey going to the computer lab important for her future health, success, and happiness? Maybe not right now because she develops computer skills in a different setting. The special education teacher should work to determine why Kacey avoids the computer lab. Are their disruptive sounds, smells, or lighting in the room? Is it overcrowded or uncomfortable? Is there a history of a problem that occurred in that room? Put on your detective hat to figure out what is causing Kacey to tell you, “I don’t want to,” or “I can’t.” In the meantime, work out the schedule so that Kacey can be comfortable in her environment and still gain her technology skills. Keep Kacey’s LRE in mind.

Secret #2

Avoidance might be sensory. 

If every time you had to write your lesson plans, you were forced to listen to (insert your least favorite kind of music here), you might start to avoid doing your lesson plans. Soon, a task you might not particularly enjoy becomes associated with something you can’t stand, making it so much worse. Sometimes, changing the sensory component of an activity can help a student no longer want to avoid a task. Solving an avoidance behavior can be as simple as changing out materials or tools.

Example #2

Martin is a high school student working on job skills. He is being tasked with learning to shred confidential papers for the office. Soon, he starts refusing to go to the office for his job study period. The special education teacher investigates by talking to the people who are also in the office. The shredder makes an awful, high pitched squeal when it is being used. They noted that the sound seemed to bother Martin.

Again, we need to ask, is this task essential for Martin’s future health, success, and happiness? Being able to do office skills is important for his ability to have a job later on. But we have different ways we can intervene to make this better. Here are some options.

  1. Repair the machine so it doesn’t make noise. The beauty of this solution is it is inclusive. It helps everybody in the office be less annoyed by the machine, not just Martin.
  2. Get a new machine that is quieter. This has the same benefit. Sometimes, it’s just time for an update.
  3. Allow Martin to use noise canceling headphones. This won’t help others in the office, but it will help Martin not be bothered by the sound.
  4. Allow Martin to focus on different skills. If shredding isn’t a productive activity for Martin, what else can he do? Can he file, make copies, or other essential office tasks?

Secret #3

Avoidance might be anxiety/fear based.

I have an anxiety disorder, so I particularly relate to this one. I avoided going on an airplane for years because flying makes me very anxious. I’ve started to fly again, but I still don’t like it. I use a variety of strategies to avoid panicking on a flight and even then, I clutch the armrests for dear life when landing. Panic is a horrible feeling. For me, it makes my heart feel like it’s going to come out of my chest, I get dizzy, and I think I’m going to pass out. People experience anxiety, fear, and panic in different ways. It’s a very normal feeling to want to avoid.

Example #3

Neveah is a PPCD student who is 4 years old. She is able to use the toilet independently, but never flushes behind her. If she is in the bathroom when an adult flushes the toilet, she screams and runs away without washing her hands.

Is flushing essential for Naveah’s future health and success? Yes! Flushing is part of maintaining a clean restroom environment. We need to help Neveah conquer this fear.

When a behavior is fear based, we can use principles from psychology to help. Phobias are easy to develop, but they are also treatable. In this case, we could help Neveah by pairing recorded and quieter sounds of a flushing toilet with music she likes. We could reward Neveah consistently for when she flushes the toilet with praise or other reinforcer that makes Neveah happy. We can utilize social stories to help Neveah learn that the toilet sound is loud but not dangerous. Over time, we can help Neveah aclimate to the sound enough that it won’t provoke an anxiety response. It might not ever be her favorite sound, but it it will become tolerable.

Solving Avoidance Behaviors

Solving avoidance behaviors has to go beyond looking for compliance. When a student is avoiding something, we need to respect their feelings and communication. We might not always be able to eliminate the demand, but we should do our best to make our students feel safe and secure. When a student is avoiding something, find out why and make the activity more pleasant. Comply or else is going to make for unhappy kids and unhappy teachers. Lead your classroom with compassion and bring in as much joy as possible to even the least desired activities. Solving avoidance behaviors doesn’t have to be conflict ridden.

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