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Function-Based Interventions for Escape-Maintained Problem Behavior

Functional‐analysis research demonstrates that negative reinforcement is the most common variable maintaining problem behavior (Hanley, et al., 2003). That is, individuals engage in problem behavior to end or escape non-preferred tasks or activities. When this occurs, they miss out on numerous learning opportunities. Specifically, what the individual wants to avoid or escape from varies; ranging from specific tasks (e.g., cleaning, reading) to social interactions (e.g., group work, certain staff) to other things such as rooms or even smells. After confirming an escape function via a functional analysis (Iwata, et al., 1994), research has shown that function-based interventions, those that match the function, are most effective at reducing problem behavior (Ingram, et al. 2005). The following are evidence-based antecedent and consequence strategies that can be used to increase compliance and other adaptive behaviors, while decreasing problem behaviors.

Andrea Bader, MSEd, BCBA

Andrea Bader, MSEd, BCBA

Stefanie Perrin, MSEd, BCBA

Stefanie Perrin, MSEd, BCBA

Antecedent Strategies

Many antecedent strategies involve assessing and adjusting parameters of curricular targets and instructional procedures that may occasion problem behavior. Consider task parameters (e.g., length, novelty, order of presentation, pace of delivery), environmental factors (e.g., teacher or peer proximity, distractions), and ensure prerequisite skills are present and tasks are functional for the individual. Providing activity choices (e.g., Romaniuk et al., 200); and interspersing known with unknown targets (Rapp & Gunby, 2016) are common adjustments. In addition, incorporating individuals’ interests (e.g., behavior traps) and using project-based assignments can increase on-task behavior and task completion while maintaining the integrity of the instructional objectives (Alber & Heward, 1996; Clark et al., 1995; Dunlap et al. 1995; Ken et al. 2001).

Schedules, whether picture or written, set the expectation for what is required. When designing a schedule, it is beneficial to incorporate both preferred and non-preferred tasks (May, 2019) to build momentum for on-task behavior. If you are not sure which tasks are considered preferred, conduct a preference assessment. For instance, place the tasks in an array and have the individual choose one to complete. Continue until all tasks have been chosen.

Noncontingent escape (NCE) provides a break from the on-going task based on the passage of time. When implementing NCE, begin with a dense schedule of reinforcement, below baseline levels of problem behavior, to ensure the individual contacts the contingency reliably. Over time, the schedule should become more natural for the environment. Individualize the type of signal used to inform the individual that she or he is on a break. For some a thumbs up, tap on the desk, or other discrete cue is sufficient, while others need someone to remove the work and state, “Great working on math, time for a break.” (Vollmer, Marcus, & Ringdahl, 1995; Lalli, Casey, & Kates, 1997).

Another option is demand fading, where all demands are removed and then gradually re-introduced. Because all demands are removed, there should be an immediate and large decrease in problem behavior. Be sure to determine criteria both for increasing demands, and if needed, for reducing the number of demands based on the individual’s behavior. Although demand fading can be used without extinction, it often works best when combined with escape extinction (Zarcone et al., 1994).

Consequence Strategies

Differential reinforcement of alternative (DRA) behavior provides reinforcement for appropriate behavior and withholds reinforcement for problem behavior. A benefit of DRA is that it can be resistant to treatment fidelity errors. For instance, Roane and Ringdahl (1999) showed high levels of appropriate behavior both when DRA was implemented with high fidelity and when there were errors such as missed reinforcement for appropriate behavior and occasional reinforcement of problem behavior. Thus, DRA may be an appealing intervention when the plan will be implemented by someone without rigorous training in ABA techniques (e.g., a caregiver) and who may not be able to implement with high levels of treatment fidelity (Carter, 2010; Athens & Vollmer, 2010).

Sometimes it is difficult to implement extinction, such as when working with a larger, combative individual or when responsible for other concurrent activities (e.g., teaching other students). Often extinction requires high levels of treatment fidelity, otherwise the behavior is intermittently reinforced and strengthened. If you are not able to effectively implement extinction, focus your intervention on altering reinforcer dimensions (i.e., magnitude, quality, immediacy, and rate of reinforcement) for appropriate behavior (e.g., Castelluccio & Johnson, 2019; Gardner et al., 2009). For instance, consider enriching a break by providing access to preferred activities or an edible reinforcer during the break.

Functional communication training (FCT) involves teaching a functionally equivalent communicative response (Carr & Durand, 1985). When designing your FCT intervention, the functional communicative response (FCR) should initially be less effortful than the problem behavior. For example, if an individual communicates using 3-4-word sentences, require a one-word utterance or card exchange. In a general-education classroom, consider a specific signal (e.g., placing an item on the desk) to indicate a break is needed or work is too difficult. Include the individual in determining this signal whenever possible. Thin the schedule of reinforcement using a multiple schedule where FCRs are reinforced when one signal is present (e.g., green card) and not when another signal is present (e.g., red card). Alternatively, use a chained schedule where the FCR is only reinforced once a designated number of tasks is completed (Tiger, Hanley, & Bruzek, 2008).

In conclusion, there are a variety of antecedent and consequence strategies to decrease escape-maintained problem behavior. If you are having trouble choosing, Geiger, Carr and LeBlanc (2010) provide a useful decision-making tree to help determine the most appropriate or optimal treatment selection. However, it is important to tailor the interventions to fit the environment and needs of each individual.

Stefanie Perrin, MSEd, BCBA, is Director of Remote Consultation and Andrea Bader, MSEd, BCBA, is Executive Clinical Director at Brett DiNovi and Associates. For more information, visit


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Zarcone, J. R., Iwata, B. A., Smith, R. G., Mazaleski, J. L., & Lerman, D. C. (1994). Reemergence and extinction of self-injurious escape behavior during stimulus (instructional) fading. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 307-316.

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