Beyond Attention and Escape: The ABCs of Behavior in the Classroom

A Teaching Aside

This post comes from my experiences with more experienced teachers trying to help me run my classroom more effectively. The theme of these interactions were to use what are called functional analyses to identify why certain students were acting the way they were and how to help them not misbehave anymore.

I these interactions, I always had a major difference of opinion, but I went with their analyses and implemented their ideas. As I wrote in an earlier post, these advice tended to not work as well as my ideas. So I want to share my approach so others may benefit in some way from my ideas and the methods I use to approach behavioral problems.

Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Model

I’ll start this discussion with a set of operational definitions: By antecedent I mean events or circumstances that occur immediately before a behavior of interest. When I say behavior I mean the way a person, functions, or reacts to it’s environment. By consequence I mean the result or effect immediately following an action or behavior. And finally, by function I mean the psychological or physiological need fulfilled by the behavior.

In behavior analysis, this so-called ABC model reigns supreme. The idea is to identify the antecedent to a target behavior as well as the consequence. Using these information (antecedent-behavior-consequence), the analyst can infer the function that any behavior serves. This is a very useful model. It is easy to set up data sheets to collect data on target behaviors, what happened immediately before, and what happened as a result of the behavior. However, I tend to disagree with 90% of the interpretations of these ABC charts. I think the function of the behavior is often decided upon prior to the analysis and often fails to meet my definition of function as given above.

To illustrate my point, I will describe a situation I had with a teacher leader about a student. We were filling out a functional analysis for some problematical behaviors (I cannot give the behaviors because they would identify the student). When I looked at this student’s behavior, I saw it was more often than not the antecedent was that adults in class were being inconsistent and domineering toward this student. The student would thus misbehave in a spectacularly aggressive manner, and the adults would back off. When the teacher leader looked at the behavior, they saw the student was off task and not willing to work (the antecedent), so the student would misbehave, and the adults would back off. Can you see the difference in these interpretations?

My interpretation: I saw it was more often than not the antecedent was that adults in class were being inconsistent and domineering toward this student (specifically requiring the student to work while peers got to play). The student would thus misbehave in a spectacularly aggressive manner, and the adults would back off. For my data, the function of the behavior was to regain control of the situation (or to reduce anxiety) by getting rid of the adults the student saw as unfair.
The teacher leader’s interpretation: They saw the student was off task and not willing to work (the antecedent), so the student would misbehave, and the adults would back off. For their data, the function of the behavior was to escape/avoid doing schoolwork.

Now, these two interpretations of the data do not reconcile. To be honest, looking at the situation later I realized the teacher leader and I were using different data. Our preconceptions going into the data collection had influenced what we saw. I knew this student had a tendency for aggression that was almost always laser-focused on an adult being inconsistent. I also knew this student had a social as well as general anxiety disorder, generalized depression, major sensory issues, profound ADHD, and autism. All of that informed my data collection. For this analysis I remember writing down that the paraeducator told the student to do work, and the student countered by asking why others were not being required to do all the work, why do they get a break? When the paraeducator answered something like, “thats the way it is”, the student went off.
When the teacher leader collected data, they were looking at different endpoints. They saw a student not working, misbehaving, and as a result not working. Cut and dried. But, they did not write down that the student was arguing with an adult and what the conversation entailed. They also did not write down exactly when the student did when the adults backed away.

My approach, beyond attention and escape/avoidance

The difference in our approaches can be explained by the fact that my teacher leader only allowed 2 possible functions for behavior in school: escape/avoidance of a task or else attention from a teacher or peers. This is very common approach and a necessary simplification used by BCBA and other ABA specialists. These definitions are sort of useful among children in the general population that are bored in school. I, however, do not limit myself to these boxes. In fact, I find these two explanations rarely work in cases of disabled children.

When I look at behavior, I look at it in terms of brain development as well as cognitive development. In other words, I look at it like I am still a behavioral neuroscientist. I try to dive as deep as possible into the problem; meaning I keep asking, “well, what underlies that…” until I run out of answers. So, when I see “escape/avoidance” I ask two questions: 1) escape from what exactly? and 2) Why do they feel the need to escape? I then pull out my metaphorical shovel and start digging.

In the above example, my first question was not, “is it escape or attention?” because both almost always play a role. In this case, the student was forcing the adults to pay attention to the behavior in a rather brutal manner and the end result was an escape. To me attention and escape are very superficial functions and do not enlighten. So let’s ask why a few times. Why is it so important that this student get the teacher’s attention. Well, the student wants to shock the adults to get them out of the student’s space. One does not get shocked into action (especially revulsion) if they are not paying attention.

Okay, well why was the student trying to escape? This is not so easy to answer from just the behavior. I mentioned earlier the student had a social as well as general anxiety disorder, generalized depression, major sensory issues, profound ADHD, and autism. Perhaps these conditions may enlighten us. If a student sees teachers are being unfair that spiked anxiety (it always did for me), and if the student was being forced to sit still and not move around then ADHD enters into the equation – as does more anxiety, and if the student thinks they are being picked on that impacts depression as well as anger. If I had to choose one word to describe the above it is that the student felt powerless. None of us like to feel like others are imposing their will on us. So the student found a solution to his perceived problem (powerlessness – our new antecedent by the way), he spectacularly misbehaved and offended the adults (the behavior), and the adults backed off and gave the student space (consequence). From this interpretation the student was empowering them self-or regaining control of a situation. I like this function as well because it fit neatly within the nature of this student’s autism. The student always had to be in control of situations, at school, church, home, play. Always in charge.

In the end, we started by applying my teacher leader’s advice for reducing the target behavior for this student. Since the student was escaping, we facilitated some noncontingent escape (student could escape for small intervals so long as they return), and faded that into contingent escape (work for 5, break for 5). We used differential reinforcement of others to motivate this student into appropriate behavior. This is didn’t work. In fact, the behaviors increased.

My plan was actually a lot more simple. My interpretation was the student felt powerless. So I had a nice long chat with them. We talked about how to get in control and how to feel empowered. By the end, the student was asking me for a quick break if they felt out of control and they went off to handle themselves. By the end of the year, this student was always in control of them self. The student was unflappable, even in light of adults messing with them. Above all else, we got more schoolwork out of this student.

A more general description of my approach

Moving away from the specifics, here is my approach in bullet points:

  1. Do my research about each student. Read everything I can about the student. All the reports, testing, etc. Ask the parents to just tell me about their child. Ask the parents what they want me to work on with the student in class to help them at home. Determine through the file if there are difficult home situations (abuse, acrimonious divorce, etc). Pay specific attention to psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression and sensory integration issues. Ask school psychologists, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, APE teachers, and peers for interpretation of tests you don’t understand. And by all means call their teacher from the previous year.
  2. Do my research about the diagnoses of each student. It is important I know about anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Fragile X, Kleinfelters, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome… as a special education teacher. Each disorder has a unique collection of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Each disorder also has a unique collection of brain abnormalities that inform behavior.
  3. Watch all the behavior. This means not just look superficially at the student. What are those around the student doing? What are the adults doing around this student? What, specifically, is the student saying? Write as much of this down as possible
  4. Ask Why? I pretend I am a 3-year old. I keep asking why about the behavior until there is either a fundamental cognitive dysfunction or brain abnormality at the root of the explanation. If no brain abnormalities can be inferred (as in autism), then I focus in on the most basic behavioral outputs that reflect a brain disorder (e.g., anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc)
  5. Ask if an adult, especially myself, is provoking the student. This is not trivial. Reflect. Ask, “what did I do?”. make sure the answer is “nothing” before moving forward with consequencing behavior.
  6. Ask if medication compliance/noncompliance is a root cause. Missing a dose of a medication can derail months of progress. It is worth building a strong enough rapport with parents and students that they will volunteer medication status without having to be asked.
  7. Ask if the behavior is a meltdown. This is important because if a student is having a meltdown, There is no function to their behavior. The students have simply gotten overloaded. Just wait out the meltdown. When the student has recovered, pick up where they left off instruction as if the meltdown never happened. It is never worth drawing rewarding attention to meltdowns. It can lead to temper tantrums later on.

Obviously the first two steps require a lot of work. I, personally love reading the files on my students. I feel I can get a feeling about how they tick and how they approach life. And, clearly, given my dissertation work I have spent a lot of time, almost too much, thinking about the neurodevelopmental consequences of genetic disabilities. The other steps are actually easy to learn. They just require a person to be observant. This can be difficult in a stressful situation, but it is possible with practice. We should be thinking prior to acting anyways in these situations. As the teacher leader I mentioned above told me, and I took to heart, “It is always better to let a kid get away with something once, than to make the wrong choice in the moment before you have a chance to think it out”.


Behavior is complicated. We need to remember that when we look at our students. Interpreting behavior in a binary manner (escape vs attention) cheapens behavior and insults the students. If we really want to help them succeed, we need to work as hard as we can to understand not only their behaviors, but also the challenges they have in their lives that informs their behavior. Only then can we give an individualized plan for student success!


11 thoughts on “Beyond Attention and Escape: The ABCs of Behavior in the Classroom

  1. Autumn Metsker says:

    Great blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused .. Any tips? Thanks!


    • Michael H says:

      I would start free since there is no obligation. Saves frustration of having writers block and trying to post because you are paying for the site.

      Other than that, remember that someone out there DOES want to hear what you have to say. You are writing to make yourself happy and others will come along for the ride.

      Good luck!


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  3. Chaos Gorilla says:

    I read this a few weeks/months to apply it to a workplace situation; but the learning path I have embarked on to reform myself from one of those inconsistent or “chaotic” overseers to an understanding and enlightened one is well articulated in your post.

    Thank You,
    Chaos Gorilla


  4. Craig says:

    Interesting write up. However, what you disagree with seems to be behavior ASSESSMENT (positive behavior support) not functional ANALYSIS (behvior analysis). These are often confused by people outside of the field of Behavior Analysis. A behavior assessment is often conducted via indirect or observational descriptive measures, whereas a functional analysis is the experimental manipulation of possible variables, showing repeated changes in behavior using an alternating treatment design. People are generally very bad at identifying the A-B-C relations of a particular behavior, even behavior analysts, often looking for patterns that might not exist.

    Additionally, you might be interested in the work of Greg Hanley. His model of functional analysis is called interview informed synthesized contingency analysis. With this work, Hanley argues that rarely do behaviors function solely for one reason (as you noted above) but instead functional relations exist in a dynamic manner that cannot typically be recreated in a steril experimental context. For example, a child’s challenging behavior does not function solely to escape work, but escape work when more relatively preferred alternatives are available or after a period of lean reinforcement and high response effort.


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