What if it were one of your kids?: Escape Extinction

1 Oct

I remember hearing another telling a story one time about when her son, Ricky, was at the clinic to get his shot in preparation for going to school so he was about 4 years old. His mother had prepped him, and told him why they were there and promised Ricky a trip to McDonald’s afterward. So when Ricky walked into the clinic he was actually in a pretty good mood. There happened to meet another little boy about his age. “Are you here to get your shot, too?” he asked the little boy.

That boy’s mother had NOT told her son why he was there and the result was a temper tantrum. My question to you: what should this mother do? Should she give in to his crying and demanding to go home? Should she try to entice him with McDonald’s? The boy was clearly not negotiating. He was crying, kicking and throwing himself on the floor.

Are there any other parents or teachers who have encountered this sort of behavior? Are there any other parents who have a child who is not keen to get up out of bed in the morning to go to school? Am I the only one?

One reader suggests ignoring as a legitimate intervention in such circumstances. When the function of the behavior is to escape demands, escape responsibility or even escape consequences, ignoring is completely inappropriate. I’m not necessarily talking about overt behaviors like tantrums as much as refusing to move. If your child doesn’t get out of bed in time to go to school, and refuses to comply and he is allowed to sleep in, you are reinforcing noncompliant behavior. Who wouldn’t rather sleep in?

Thomas is such a textbook case of this. Monday through Friday, it is a chore to get him up at 6:15 to catch a 6:45 bus. He acts like he just can’t stay awake and sometimes complains that he feels sick. But, being the mean parents we are, we FORCE the boy out of bed and MAKE him go to school! This is non negotiable. Ignoring is not an option.

Guess what happens on Saturday morning? Does he sleep in? Does he take advantage of the opportunity to rest and sleep? No, he is up at 5:30!! Heck, we might even let him stay up and hour or two later on Friday just to see if he might sleep in. Not a chance. But we are not quite as rigid on this point, although I’ve been sorely tempted to keep in his room until 7:30 just because he can’t be left alone. But we just deal with it. Jane does mostly.

If a person refuses to do something, they may be trying to access attention. Then ignoring is a legitimate extinction technique, because it is matched to the function.

In the case of Jim, attention was not the function of his noncompliant behavior. How do I know? Because he could be left in the room completely alone and he would be perfectly content to sit in the chair with his head down between his knees all day long. Attention from people is not real high on his agenda. He’d rather people left him alone and there are more times than not when I can totally relate!

So we have a situation where a student is not only escaping demands but also getting access to some sort of automatic reinforcement. The first thing is to get the attention of the person. In Jim’s case it involved shutting down the whole vestibular feedback he had going on by leaning over his chair. The intent was that by gently tipping his chair forward he would just stand up. making guidance a lot easier. Instead, he rolled on the floor.

Upon some reflection, I now realize that what I wanted to do was put the escape behavior on extinction. The only way to do that is to block escape. Ignoring works when attention is the maintaining factor. Since I couldn’t get Jim to go to his class and he was too big to carry there, that is when I did some other work with him. In this case, trying new foods was a much higher demand activity than what the other class was doing which was basically watching a movie. And there was the key.

As a youngin’ I didn’t always want to go to school either. But I rarely ever missed a day because I lived on the farm. Farming involved MUCH higher demands than schoolwork ever could. Dad wouldn’t hesitate to dump me out of bed and kick my posterior out to the barn if I had a notion to skip school. So yes, I am pretty old school.

Many kids today have absolutely no concept of authority. Mine do. If one of my own kids refuses to follow a teacher’s instruction and dumping him out of the desk does any good, I say it’s okay. Parents nowadays are unwilling to project authority, and then wonder why their kids are brats.

I expect my sons’ teachers to follow through on what they say. If they threaten consequences, then there had better be some consequences. Failure to do so merely trains the student to ignore adults. This is how students begin training adults, as they begin putting parenting behaviors on extinction! Ignore a parent long enough and they will throw up their hands and say “What’s the use?”

So how do you put escape behavior on extinction? By not allowing the escape. And anyone who has spent more than a few weeks with a student can tell most of the time whether a student is trying to escape or gain access to something. You know who in your class loves attention. You also know the ones who will do anything to get out of doing work. It is possible to have both things in play at thesame time.

I’m not saying I haven’t made mistakes. Maybe I should spend a week chronicling my biggest snafus. I don’t care how much of a behaviorist one is, kids don’t come with an instruction manual and each one will present something new and interesting. That’s one of the reasons I stay.


5 Responses to “What if it were one of your kids?: Escape Extinction”

  1. Bewildered and Saddened October 1, 2006 at 7:03 pm #

    Dear Dick –

    It seems that you have given some thought to your actions and changed your belief on what you did. Providing two choices to a student is always a legitimate strategy to use. Making sure that one of them is more non-preferred is the teacher’s perogative.

    You don’t need to put a behaviour on extinction until you know what is causing that behaviour. Why would he want to escape? What has changed in the student’s day that made this happen? Is the other teacher using too much language? etc. etc.

    I really find that non-compliance is such a small part of my day. Students want to take part and learn. All Students. If a student indicates they don’t want to do something I pull the pic of the schedule board- shrug my shoulders and say “Sorry – the schedule says its time”. If a student turns down taking a part in a game I say “Maybe later” and heap all kinds of positive attention on the other students. They are back in the game in a few minutes. If not I give them another role which is less demanding at that moment.
    Our students are in special education because they have special needs. Otherwise they would be in a regular class and could handle it.

    Even my non-verbal students get to choose from two activities for at least part of the day. That means they are more willing to accept control from me at others.

    You still need to figure out why eating aversive foods (you probably could have made him eat almost anything at that point!) was more preferable for this student than leaving his class.

    Change that and you will be on your way.

    PS. I too was raised in a rural area where you just did what you were told. Doesn’t mean it was right then and it certainly isn’t right now.

  2. molly_g October 2, 2006 at 10:04 am #

    I’ve been that mother in the doctor’s office once. And since that time I’ve learned a couple of things:

    1. Do not try to calm an out of control child in front of a room of people. Remove him from the room, go somewhere private and calm down.

    2. Manage expectations! The bribing of this little boy would probably have worked if she had fully explained what was going to happen. I recently went through this with The Kid when he had an upper GI. I explained that they were going to have him drink a whole lot of icky stuff called barium, but they were doing this to take pictures of his tummy so we could see why he throws up all the time. He got it. He’s also 6, and so has two years on the little shot-taker in your story.

    The only other thing I wanted to say (or ask you) was in the vein of the commenter above. I see some of the behavior mod things that schools do as set-up for failure with an especially explosive kid. As a behaviorist, how do you approach a kid who isn’t responding to a ‘sticker chart’ kind of program, and is indeed displaying worse behavior because of it? We’d like The Kid’s rage and running to be extinct too, but they really seem to be set off by “making him be accountable for his actions through subtracting points, etc.” The Kid responds to time to settle down, and empathic discussions after he’s settled down. But it doesn’t really prevent the behavior either. It’s a puzzle, and I just thought I’d ask if you’ve seen this before and what you’ve done. Fully realize that you are working in a DD classroom, not an ED one, but you know. Take care!!!

  3. Dick Dalton October 2, 2006 at 8:55 pm #

    Bewildered, I simply added a bit more info for you and then reframed my procedures into something more recognizable. You are correct in that is counter productive making a lot of assumptions without checking things out. I know Jim and never tire of getting to know him better. I know him and the specific context. “New foods” were not aversive once he tried them. They weren’t strangers anymore ala Forrest Gump. You, OTOH, like to make oodles and gobs of assumptions about my class and what I should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s a free country and I’m sure you’re an amazing teacher. You’re at least as prickish as me, so I highly recommend you start your own blog in order to cast your pearls before the rest of us swine. I’ll definitely add you to the blogroll.

    Yes, Molly, I have scene kids react negatively to an excess of “programming.” My own is a case in point. Taking away points is just looking for a meltdown, and it is unfortunate that schools operate their behavior systems that way. Imagine if you had pay deducted from your check everytime you broke some sort of little rule or code or didn’t do something to expectations? The problem with so many of these kids (yours and mine especially) is the lack of self-regulation. Making expectations known ahead of time, preteaching and laying as much out in advance as possible does wonders to help that process. Our kids do not do well with surprises. They over react, and then perserverate longer than other kids on these emotional waves. Extinction is not so appropriate here, as rage can not always be safely ignored. However being calm in the face of it can work wonders. Easier said than done. Prior to working here, I worked in a state mental hospital with children and adolescents, and prior to that I worked in a psychoed center with severe EBD kids. I’m working on a post covering the Psychoed stuff more in-depth that may at least be somewhat inspirational if not helpful.


  4. Kim March 22, 2007 at 11:30 am #

    I just came across this page and I hope I can find help!! I am a new behavior teacher with experience only as a resource room teacher and substantially separate classroom. This behavior room is also full day. I have 9 boys grade 1-2. I have a good handle on dicipline and following through. I have set up whole class behavior systems both positive and negative. As well as some individual plans. The year started off with 12 and crazy. I have since lost 2 to other schools and 2 have been integrated fulltime. The class has made great gains and I am very proud. However there are always those couple that I can’t seem to reach for more than a couple of days. One is noncompliant to the extreme. I cannot motivate him. He will sit and do nothing with his head on his desk or betweeen his legs. If I move him he will flop to the floor. He is only just below average academically and can be sweet and loving. He just seems to be escaping and I don’t know how to reach him. He is only 7 in first grade. Any suggestions??

  5. Dick March 22, 2007 at 12:42 pm #

    Without knowing more, I would say, don’t allow him to escape. I had one that tried that on me. When he got down on the floor I simply took out some instructional materials and worked with him where he was.

    It sounds like you’re doing a great job! Keep up the good work! Sometimes it takes a LOT of time to reach certain kids, as in a YEAR or more. If you persist with your efforts, you’ll eventually see some movement on these last hold outs.


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