De-escalating Challenging Behavior: Work Avoidance Strategy

Today is Day 3 of 4 of our de-escalating challenging behavior series!

We have examined how students with anxiety or defiance disorders experience typical behavior management techniques differently and how to pro-actively create an environment that decreases the likelihood of disruptive actions. Today’s focus is strategies to overcome a common side effect of anxiety:  Work Avoidance.

Unsurprisingly, when a child fails to initiate and follow-through with tasks, adults tend to attribute such avoidance to laziness or inability.  In truth, a child’s anxiety, caused by a diagnosed anxiety disorder or simply from past failures, “freezes” working memory, making it impossible for the child to move forward.  Luckily, myriad strategies exist to either mitigate or prevent anxiety-provoked work avoidance altogether.

1.     A teacher might allow a student to preview assignments before they are assigned in class.  Doing so bypasses the “flight or fight” reaction anxious students experience when they first see an assignment.  Similarly, students can be allowed to use individual whiteboards as a rough draft before committing their work to paper, thereby minimizing anxiety about “messing up.”

2.     Directly teaching and labeling strategies when used by the child is another excellent preventative tool.  If a student has difficulty getting started, rather than swooping in to help, the teacher can label what is occurring and ask the student what strategy she might use: “Looks like you’re having trouble persisting.  What strategy are you going to use?”

3.     Speaking of persistence, a teacher can encourage students to use strategies such as chunking an assignment to complete easier problems first, checking their own work, or collaborating with peers.

4.     Ask a student his perception of a task before beginning and after completion, and keep a running record of his responses over the course of a few weeks.  Then share this data with the student.  More often than not, the perceived difficulty is greater than reality.

Anxiety-induced disruptive behavior is another form of work avoidance.  As a result, students can be taught self-monitoring skills by recognizing their own signs of agitation and skills for calming themselves.

1.     Making students aware of their own physiological signs of anxiety is a good starting point.  The teacher can prompt students to describe where they are feeling anxiety in their bodies and keep a record of such responses to then share with students.  This data is used to teach student to do a “body check” and implement a strategy to calm herself if she feels anxiety building.

2.     Collaborate with the student to find a calming strategy, preferably one that does not require cognition, such as singing softly to himself or repeating a phrase.  Rehearsing calming strategies while the student is not agitated builds the “go-to automatic reply” needed in stressful situations.

More importantly, teachers should remember that what adults perceive as negative behavior is often a manifestation of uncomfortable emotional and physiological responses.  Our final instalment will reiterate the importance of the teacher’s response to anxious and defiant behavior.