Reduce Problem Behavior Through Extinction

Extinction is a technique used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to decrease or eliminate problem behaviors. This is done by eliminating reinforcement that has allowed the problem behavior to continue. In the past, this reinforcement might have been given unintentionally or unknowingly, which is why the problem behavior persisted and probably got worse.

Extinction is commonly used for clients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or down syndrome but can also be used on people without these conditions.

Three Forms of Extinction

The method of extinction to be used depends on the cause of the behavior. Here are the three forms of extinction and sample scenarios:

1.      Sensory extinction: for behaviors caused by automatic reinforcement

Example: A child keeps switching the fan on and off while standing in front of it because he enjoys the burst of cold air going through his body. To fix this, the parent should take away the automatic reinforcement (the burst of cold air) that the child gets out of repeatedly switching it on and off.

2.      Escape extinction: for behaviors caused or maintained by negative reinforcement

Example: A child throws a tantrum when it’s time to do homework. The parent responds by asking him to face the wall until the tantrum is over. Although it is a widely practiced disciplinary tactic, facing the wall might end up reinforcing the child’s problem behavior because he ends up not doing his homework while facing the wall. To fix this, the next time the child throws a tantrum, the parent should ignore it while insisting that the child sit down and do his homework.

3.      For problem behaviors caused or maintained by positive reinforcement

Example: A 10-year-old child insists on being spoon-fed his lunch and dinner. He asks cutely, and the mom feeds him because she thinks he’s being cute. The problem behavior, spoon-feeding, is reinforced because the child gets the attention that he wants. Moreover, he convinces her to feed him. To fix this, the parent can ignore the child when he is starting to act cute during lunch and dinner time. The parent can go further by giving the child compliments (positive reinforcement) when he eats by himself. When a parent ignores the child’s acting cute, it negatively reinforces the behavior.

After the Extinction: What You Need to Know

When the extinction procedure is being done, an extinction burst might take place. An extinction burst is when the behavior gets worse before it gets better. You might observe that the problem behavior will happen more frequently before it lessens or goes away (spontaneous recovery); the problem might occur again sometime after initially being successful with implementing the extinction.

If you are the person who is conducting the extinction procedure, you have to be consistent; otherwise, you will risk regressing or reinforcing the problem behavior. If the problem behavior does not go away or gets replaced with something worse, add a step by reinforcing the desired behavior. Identify the desired behavior that results from extinction and reinforce that.

Final Thoughts The process of extinction is easier to explain than it is to implement. It takes a lot of time and effort from the implementer. If you are unfamiliar with or have not done extinction in the past, then it would be better to consult a professional before attempting to do this with your child or with your student.