TASK AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOUR AS PART OF NORMAL DEVELOPMENT

Most children occasionally have times when they do not want to do a task because it’s too difficult, unfamiliar, unpleasant, boring, ambiguous or they want to do something else instead. When this happens, adults can help their child by talking through the importance of completing the assigned task, encouraging them and if needed helping them complete the activity. The reluctance or refusal to do the task usually fades away.

TASK AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOUR OF CONCERN

Some children show a repetitive and persistent pattern of only partially completing or totally avoiding the assigned task – is called task avoidance. Task avoidance behaviour is used by the child to escape/avoid a specific activity that they perceive as aversive (meaningless, non-functional, boring); has the potential for causing physical discomfort (e.g. physical pain, injury and experiencing the physical symptoms related to anxiety) and/or psychological discomfort (e.g. thoughts related to anxiety, failing and shame) connected to performing a task. Children with low self -esteem believe that they are less capable than their peers, lack the skills needed to perform a task and even if they put their best effort into the activity they will not succeed.

IMPACT OF TASK AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOUR

When a child engages in task avoidance behaviour, they experience a temporary sense of relief from the physical and psychological discomfort. However, in the longer term prolonged and ongoing task avoidance leads to the behaviour becoming ingrained.

The example below describes how this happens. Jamie has to leave for a camp on Monday for two nights. She has never been away from home before or gone camping. A week before the camp she starts experiencing anxious thoughts on a daily basis such as, ‘What if nobody sits with me on the bus on the way to camp? What if I can’t do all the outdoor activities? What if I can’t sleep? I’ll lose my new towel. I won’t be able to open my sleeping bag or pack it up and everyone’s going to laugh at me.’ Accompanying these thoughts are a range of physical symptoms. She finds it hard to breathe, feels nauseous, and has trembling and shaky hands. These thoughts and symptoms appear to be getting worse, as she doesn’t know how to deal with them. Mid-week, she starts telling her parents she doesn’t want to go to camp. They try to convince her and encourage her to go, but as the week progresses, she begins to have meltdowns. By Sunday night, Jamie is in such a state that her parents can’t calm her down and are feeling helpless so they tell her she doesn’t have to go to camp. Jamie immediately calms down and it appears that her anxiety has gone away. Her parents feel extremely disappointed because they know how much fun she would have had at camp. The consequences of permitting the avoidance of the camping trip are:

It reinforces that all of her thoughts about camp were true: i.e. that nobody would have sat with her on the bus. She wouldn’t have been able to do all the outdoor activities. She wouldn’t have been able to sleep on camp. She would have lost her new towel. She would have struggled with opening and packing away her sleeping bag and everyone would have laughed at her.

By not going to camp, Jamie has missed out on a ‘corrective experience’ whereby facing her fears she would have realised that some of them were not true and even if something ‘bad’ did happen, it would have been tolerable and not as ‘bad’ as she thought. For example, had she gone on the bus, the peer sitting next to her might have spoken to her for a little while or maybe they would have become good friends. Had she attempted the outdoor activities, she could have seen that other children also struggled and realised she was not too bad at them, or actually quite good at some of them. She might have been able to sleep after all, or spend the night talking to her friends and having fun.

Avoidance reinforces her belief that if all of her fears came true, she wouldn’t have the skills to face and overcome them. It reinforces that it was good that she didn’t go to camp. This reduces her self-esteem and sends the message that the world is a dangerous place, which increases her general feeling of insecurity.

 From the example above it’s clear each time a child avoids a task, they experience a temporary loss of the confidence and skills involved in engaging in what they perceive as a challenging task. This in turn makes them increasingly afraid of the task and other similar tasks, allowing the cycle of avoidance to intensify, encouraging further avoidance. The example also highlights the frustration, distress and feelings of helplessness that the families experience. Task avoidance also presents a challenge to contexts such as childcare, preschool, kindergarten, schools, disability support and youth services.

 

POSITIVE BEHAVIOUR SUPPORT AND TASK AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOUR

Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is an evidence-based approach that is used to eliminate or minimise the occurrence of challenging behaviours.

PBS recognises that there is no single cause for task avoidance behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.

Task avoidance behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem.

There are three main setting-related factors which impact the child and their behaviour:

  • environment
  • activity, and
  • interaction

These factors place different demands on the child and when any of these demands outweigh the child’s skills to cope with them, the child engages in task avoidance behaviour. Task avoidance may be the only way the child has learnt how to respond to these demands and get their message across.

For example, Terrance is a primary school aged child who has ADHD, learning difficulties and anxiety. His teacher gave him advanced notice of two months (instead of one month like all the other children) that he needed to build a solar system model for science. His mum would ask him on a daily basis to get started with building the model. Terrance would keep saying, ‘I will do it later.’ If she persisted, he would become argumentative. So, his mum decided to not mention it. At school, his peers would talk about the solar system models they were making. Some were making their models out of wood, foam, super clay and so on. His teacher would also ask about his progress and if he needed any help and Terrance would simply say he had it under control. The night before when the model was due, he had a big meltdown and did not go to school the next day and ended up not submitting a model. 

Some of the skills needed to deal with the situation include:

  • Attention skills – Can Terrance initiate a task, sustain his concentration, persist on a task to completion that he finds boring?
  • Learning skills – Does Terrance understand what a solar system is made of? Does Terrance understand what is expected of him in this project?
  • Executive functioning skills – Does Terrance have the skills to get organised by identifying what items he needs for building the model and how to get them? Does Terrance have the skills to come up with a detailed plan on identifying the steps he needs to take to build the model? Does Terrance have the time management skills to know when to get started and how and when to keep working on it?
  • Anxiety – Does Terrance know how to cope with his anxious thoughts such as, ‘There’s no point doing this task. I’m going to fail anyway so I’m not even going to bother getting started.’ Or ‘Everyone else is doing such an amazing job. Theirs is so much better than mine. Everyone’s going to laugh at my model. I don’t want to embarrass myself.’ Does Terrance know how to deal with the physical symptoms of anxiety such as, ‘I can feel my heart pounding and I feel like I’m going to vomit. I can’t do this.’ As Terrance does not have the skills needed to cope with the demands, he resorts to task avoidance behaviour.

The example highlights that task avoidance behaviour is not without purpose. It is never too late to address task avoidance behaviour, even if it has been occurring for a while.

Developing a comprehensive and individualised PBS plan to address the task avoidance behaviour involves three stages: Assess-Manage-Prevent.

  • ASSESS: How to identify the reasons that contribute to the task avoidance behaviour,
  • MANAGE: How to respond when task avoidance behaviour occurs, and
  • PREVENT: How to minimise or eliminate the occurrence of task avoidance behaviour.

ASSESS STAGE

Assess Stage Aims

The Assess stage helps to identity:

  • Activities during which the task avoidance behaviour occurs,
  • Environments in which the task avoidance behaviour occurs, and
  • People dealing with the task avoidance behaviour. 

Assess Stage Checklist:

  • Child’s profile – Gather information about the child to create a comprehensive picture of the child, their abilities and needs.
  • Behaviour data collection forms – Record measurable details (e.g. frequency, intensity, duration) about the child’s task avoidance
  • Functional Behaviour Analysis (FBA)- Systematically reflect on an incident by analysing the antecedents (what preceded the task avoidance behaviour), describing the task avoidance behaviour, consequences (what happened after the task avoidance behaviour).
  • Hypothesis – Determine the purpose (function) that the task avoidance behaviour served.

MANAGE STAGE

Manage Stage Aims

The Manage Stage outlines how to effectively respond to the behaviours that occur before the task avoidance and after. Appropriate responses can help to safely defuse, redirect, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner. 

Manage Stage Checklist:

  • Escalation stages – Help those supporting the child to recognise the number of stages the child exhibits as their emotion rises (i.e. mild escalation, moderate escalation, extreme escalation, and recovery stage).
  • Escalation profile– Help those supporting the child to recognise what non-verbal and/or verbal behaviours are exhibited in the different escalation stages, where the task avoidance behaviour occurs in the escalation and how long it can last.
  • De-escalation plan – Help those supporting the child with guidelines on how to immediately respond when the behaviour occurs, safely defuse, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.

 

PREVENT STAGE

Prevent Stage Aims

This stage aims to minimise the occurrence of the task avoidance by reducing or avoiding the triggers that cause it and teach the child alternative behaviours.

Prevent Stage plan

The plan details strategies to minimise or avoid the triggers that contribute to the task avoidance behaviours by providing the child with:

  • Supportive environments – Tailoring environment related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that contribute to the occurrence of task avoidance
  • Supportive activities – Tailoring activity related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that contribute to the occurrence of task avoidance
  • Supportive interactions – Tailoring interaction aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that contribute to the occurrence of task avoidance behaviour, and
  • Teaching the child – Teaching the student positive ways of communicating their messages and managing their emotions and behaviours.

T FOR TASK AVOIDANCE: POSITIVE BEHAVIOUR SUPPORT GUIDE

Use the practical tools (checklists, forms, and strategies) in T for Task avoidance: Positive Behaviour Support guide to develop comprehensive PBS plans that can be used to support children of all ages consistently in all settings.

This invaluable guide is useful for parents, caregivers, educators in childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary schools, disability, mental health, allied health, and supervisory professionals. 

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