Extinction Happens

We all know the basic idea behind extinction. Usually, the dinosaurs come to mind. But did you know that behavior can also undergo extinction (as in, “it's there but then it's gone”)? Simply put, we consider specific behavior “on extinction” when it is no longer happening (typically when it once happened ALL THE TIME). In certain cases, this is a great thing. As parents, friends, siblings, and peers, we ALL want problem behavior to extinguish. However, we also want to be sure desirable behavior maintains and does not disappear from one's behavioral repertoire. How do we ensure that we actually place problem behavior on extinction? How can we avoid placing desired behavior on extinction? Read on-that's what we'll get to next!

The process of extinction that we refer to in ABA settings is simply defined as a withholding of reinforcement. We've learned that reinforcement is the fuel to behavior change (it increases behavior), so extinction refers to the process by which we withhold this same reinforcement. In real life, this most commonly plays out in situations where parents and staff alike are saying, "this problem behavior is back but we do not want it!" As I consult with the individuals that I work with in such situation, I constantly point them back to this concept of extinction. When we have problem behavior reemerge, it is often the result of an ineffective use of an extinction procedure. Most often, someone has been inadvertently reinforcing the problem behavior. There may not ALWAYS be someone providing this "sneak attack" of reinforcement though-occasionally behavior does truly reemerge without being reinforced (it's called Spontaneous Recovery). This spontaneous recovery is atypical-and something to discuss another day. 9.5 times out of 10, when a problem behavior reemerges, it’s because we're inadvertently reinforcing the problem behavior. I'll explain why this can be an issue.

If we inadvertently reinforce problem behavior, it'll never diminish. Let's imagine we put a plan together to put the behavior of "throwing food" on extinction. Juliana's treatment team determined that she's learned to throw food at the dinner table in order to gain access to attention (her parents would stop their conversation, tell Juliana to stop throwing food, sometimes laugh, and ultimately move Juliana to sit in their laps for the remainder of family dinner time). To introduce more serenity to their dinnertime, they created a treatment plan to decrease her rate of throwing food. After implementing the plan, mom and pops have done great all week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, they are solid. Every time Juliana threw food, they followed the plan (systematically ignore the behavior, reinforce Juliana for keeping her food on the table, etc.). In fact, she only threw food once on Thursday compared to the 15 times on Monday!

On Friday, they decide to go out to dinner (pops wanted Tex-Mex). In public, surely you cannot ignore throwing food behavior (I'm being sarcastic-kind of). So as soon as Juliana threw a chip towards her sister, pops gets the toddler out of the high chair and Juliana gets what she wanted (attention and a walk around the restaurant with Daddy). What happened? Pops inadvertently reinforced the behavior. While his aim was to help other diners enjoy their dinner, he also provided lavish reinforcement to Juliana for engaging in problem behavior. Saturday and Sunday, back at home, Juliana was back at it again, throwing food, and arguably like a boss (that means she was doing it even more-upwards of 20 times). Unfortunately, if this trend continues, Juliana will slowly make progress toward decreasing her food throwing, but true extinction of the behavior will never occur because of the occasional inadvertent delivery of reinforcement-this also does not include babysitters, grandparents, and SO MANY of the opportunities for the inadvertent delivery of that wonderful attention.

As we continue to explore the concept of extinction, it's good to learn how it interacts with other concepts. If we inadvertently reinforce problem behavior irregularly, we're actually reinforcing it on a Variable Ratio Schedule (VR). The issue with that is as follows: behavior that is reinforced on a VR Schedule becomes more resistant to extinction. Why? Because the learner learns that reinforcement is variable (and inevitable). They've learned, "eventually I'll get what I want, so until then, I'll consistently keep at it." Hopefully you're tracking; if not, let me explain using the following example. I work with a lot of great individuals. I love teaching and training these individuals. Why? Because my behavior is on a VR Schedule. Every now and again, I get to hear an AMAZING story from one of our staff members regarding the progress of one of our clients. Because of that, I'll teach and train them until I die. My behavior is incredibly resistant to extinction. As Skinner said, "the subject is always right," which implies that the trainer/parent/mediator/babysitter/etc.  is responsible for the errors-not the learner. I'm an imperfect trainer, so I'll make errors, and my learners will not learn. However, if I keep at it, and I keep teaching and training, they'll eventually learn it. As an added benefit, they'll eventually reinforce my behavior through their learning. That's how it works.

Before we end, let's look at the other angle. What happens to desirable behavior that also disappears? Extinction happened. Again, inadvertently, yet powerfully. We do this all the time. Let's continue to go with the teacher/learner example above. What if I was training a new DI and they were really spot on with their level of prompting with a particular program (this is a great thing!). If I never reinforce them by delivering affirming feedback, they may try other prompting procedures that are not as successful. Assuming they would be reinforced by receiving good feedback from me, their prompting behavior, which was desirable, was extinguished because I withheld reinforcement. This is one of those rookie errors that I want us to learn from.


The "takeaways" from this post:

  1. If you want to put a particular behavior on extinction, do it well. Be consistent and try not to inadvertently reinforce the behavior. Otherwise it's on a VR Schedule and can maintain for as long as you continue to reinforce it.
  2. Be sure to reinforce desirable behavior according to the schedule outlined. Otherwise, if you withhold reinforcement prematurely (before the plan specifies), you could lose traction on all the hard work establishing that desirable behavior.
  3. Case Supervisors and Parent Consultants, lovingly work with and alongside parents to encourage them to find the gaps where they could be inadvertently reinforcing behavior. Find the courage to lovingly call them out when it happens. Come alongside them during this process so that they sense your genuine support and interest in serving them.

As always, please ask questions if you have them! You can also comment below!"