Experimental analysis of social and task variables associated with escape-maintained problem behaviors in the general education classroom

James W. Moore


Researchers have expanded the use of functional assessment methodology to behavior problems exhibited by students in general education classroom settings. Although behaviors maintained by positive reinforcement are fairly well understood by experimenters, the school psychology literature contains few examples of negative reinforcement contingencies. In the applied behavior analytic literature, researchers have only begun to pinpoint the specific properties of this functional paradigm. As demonstrated by past analogue research, both task and social attention antecedent variables can function within a negative reinforcement paradigm. Similar types of functional relationships may also occur in the classroom. First, a traditional functional analysis identified negative reinforcement as the controlling contingency for 4 students in general education classrooms. A multiple element design was then used to assess the specific functional properties of problem behaviors maintained by negative reinforcement: namely escape from task demands and escape from the social attention of the teacher. Another multiple element design investigated the impact of three typical teacher verbal strategies (i.e., praise, encouragement, reprimands) delivered in different contingencies (i.e., contingent on either appropriate or inappropriate behavior) on problem behaviors maintained by either escape from task demands or escape from teacher attention with escape concurrently available. Results indicated that the employed methodology was successful in delineating children who engaged in problem behavior to escape or avoid social attention and children who engaged in problem behavior to escape or avoid task demands. Two children who were identified as socially avoidant responded aversely to praise for engagement and demonstrated low levels of target behavior when teachers either reprimanded or encouraged disengagement. Two children identified as task avoidant engaged in higher levels of problem behaviors when teachers reprimanded disengagement as opposed to conditions where praise was delivered for engagement or encouragement delivered for disengagement. These findings have major implications regarding best practice in the functional analysis of disruptive behaviors in general education classrooms. Past classroom-based research has not successfully identified the specific stimulus parameters of problem behaviors maintained by negative reinforcement. The current study also highlighted the need for research concerning treatments for social avoidance. Finally, results of this study suggest that knowledge of the specific stimulus parameters of problem behaviors maintained by negative reinforcement may help to predict the effectiveness of common teacher verbal strategies to reduce such problems.