The Kindness of Extinction

The Kindness of Extinction

Although extinction may be a harsh-sounding word, for those that are familiar with it, it refers to a well-established ABA procedure that is logical and straight-forward:  we’ve clinically determined that there is something reinforcing a behavior and thus maintaining it, and so we want to remove the reinforcer from following that behavior. Whether it’s our attention (negative or positive) that’s maintaining some behavior we don’t like, or a tangible reward like getting access to the iPad for the behavior of demanding it in a not-very-nice way, by removing the consequence of attention or access to the device we are making sure the behavior is no longer rewarded and, as a result, the behavior will stop (or extinguish). 

All of us, and especially children, have a really difficult time not engaging in a behavior that pays off consistently. Therefore, it’s unfair to expect a child to not engage in a behavior that we see is being reinforced each time it occurs. Becoming frustrated or disciplining a child for a behavior we know has paid off for them is not the kindest way to help them. Supporting them with an extinction procedure is both kind and effective. However, it does take the willingness to commit to the procedure and some understanding of a few of the nuances, including a common temporary reaction on the part of the child that sometimes makes it look like we are being anything but kind.  

As previously stated, if we have correctly identified what is maintaining the behavior and then we remove that consequence, the behavior will absolutely stop occurring eventually. Eventually. That’s one of the things that makes extinction a challenge. It is well-documented that the first thing that almost always happens when you use an extinction procedure is that the behavior worsens. Well, that’s a drag. The behavior in question is never desirable, otherwise we wouldn’t be using an extinction procedure. So of course, a temporary worsening of behavior is not very appealing. 

However, if we look at the circumstances that lead to this worsening of behavior in a little more depth, it does make a lot of sense and this effect on behavior even tells us we’re on the right track. Have you ever put money in a vending machine and your choice does not fall out? For most people, the first thing they do is push the buttons again, probably at least two or three times and maybe more. Then they might start pushing random buttons and then the coin-return button multiple times if that’s not working. That is extinction at work. It always worked in the past and so we automatically engage in the behavior that worked before. Eventually though, we do give up! Depending on the individual, we might walk away and not ever use that machine even in the future, or we might not give up right away and put even more money in and go through the same process all over again if we are really motivated to get that bag of chips! 

This vending machine scenario is the same exact thing that happens in our extinction program with our children: they probably are not articulating it in the same way we are, but they are behaving as if why the heck is she not giving me the ice cream? She always gives me whatever I want if I start whining when she is on the phone! I’ll just keep trying! Now, a child might not give up and walk away as easy as we abandon the vending machine. In fact, they may keep it up every time we’re on the phone for the next week or more just because it has always paid off in the past. The technical terminology for this is extinction burst. It is observed in the laboratory and there is a massive amount of research documenting the phenomenon. 

And just like we might try pushing the buttons harder or kick or shake the machine a little, the child may up the ante and engage in even more disruptive behavior. And they may seem really distressed. In fact, it is at this point when some parents or caregivers just give in. It’s too hard to hold fast to the procedure in the face of worsening behavior or to see tears. But going back to the kindness of the procedure, there are many reasons we need a behavior to change (such as it is preventing learning from taking place, it is disruptive to the family, it is a bad pattern of behavior to have as the child ages, it won’t be tolerated when a child goes to school, it occurs way too often or in inconvenient situations, and other reasons) and again, it won’t change if we continue reinforcing it. This temporary challenge of worsening behavior will subside, and everyone will come out happy on the other side. Done correctly, there is no suffering or damage. 

What’s important is that when we do an extinction program (or any program), we are on the child’s side. We aren’t angry or even irritated – even if we are withholding attention, it is done with a calm and neutral attitude and we are ready to show the sweetest attention the minute the behavior shifts to what we are looking for. The same holds true if the child is having a tantrum to get a favorite video or toy. We don’t withhold the toy because we’re mad at the child having the tantrum – our attitude is one of support and compassion – come on, I know you can finish what I’m asking you before I give you the toy, and I am your biggest fan on this! Even when a child is crying, we are not being cold-hearted by not giving in. We are caring and sympathetic and are fully supportive, just in new and healthy ways. It is common for behavior analysts to have seen children with a lot of negative behaviors which have been inadvertently reinforced go from seemingly always angry, tearful and demanding to consistently fun, playful, and engaging when we simply stop reinforcing those negative patterns. 

One final make-it-or-break-it consideration for extinction is that holding off on a program is better than starting prematurely. That is, if someone can’t commit to withholding the reinforcement consistently (maybe too many other things going on or it will take a lot of emotional energy that you have to prepare for) then it’s best to just wait until the timing is right. 

This is because one of the most important things in an extinction program is to stay solid on not delivering the reinforcer. The reason? Because if you cave or provide the reinforcer once you’ve started to withhold it, then you’ve taught persistence. The logic of this should be somewhat obvious – if you’re withholding a reinforcer and the child is mildly disruptive but then engages in more and more disruptive behavior and then you finally give in, you’ve set it up in a way that teaches them that if they just outlast you and make it even harder for you, reinforcement will follow. And they are not by any means little manipulators in the same sense as an adult who would pressure someone to give in, they are children learning to navigate the world and just doing what works. So, we always say if you think you’re going to give in, give in right away! If you can’t do it all the way, then wait until you can commit. 

But when you are ready with a plan from your ABA Supervisor and you can be 100% on board, extinction is a powerful and caring method of communicating our expectations to even our littlest and youngest learners.