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Extinction and Reinforcement
By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA

For children and adults with developmental disabilities such as autism, positive reinforcement (giving rewards) is critical to learning new skills and maintaining them over time. Likewise, these individuals also learn and maintain problem behaviors as a result of “rewards” or positive reinforcement they receive accidentally and unintentionally.

For example, if a child slaps another child, that behavior might be maintained by the attention he or she receives from the teacher (“Stop that, don’t do that.”). Self-injurious head banging might be maintained because it results in the parent removing all demands placed on the child (“OK, you don’t have to help rake the leaves.”). Rocking or humming might occur because of the pleasant sensory sensations they give the child. We can think of these three behaviors as attention-maintained, escape-maintained, and sensory-maintained.

Therefore, one of the ways we can treat problem behaviors is to stop providing reinforcement after the behavior. This is called “extinction.” We use that term because it means that once there is no longer any reward for the behavior, it “disappears” or becomes extinct.

To implement extinction, we might ignore a behavior that is maintained by attention; not remove the instruction when an escape-maintained behavior is exhibited; and interrupt behaviors that are maintained by sensory stimulation.

Ceasing the reinforcement will reduce the occurrences of the problem behavior. However, the behavior will often get worse before it gets better. It is as if the individual tries harder to obtain the reward (attention, escape, sensory stimulation) by increasing the slapping, head banging, or rocking. This is called an “extinction burst” and teachers and parents should be prepared for it when using extinction techniques. It is important to follow through and not give in during this period.

Unfortunately, many of the serious problem behaviors we treat are the result of failed attempts to use extinction. For instance, a parent may correctly ignore the slapping, but when the extinction burst occurs and the behavior gets worse, the parent can no longer ignore it. Thus, the child accidentally and unintentionally gets rewarded (with attention) for a more severe level of problem behavior. As a consequence, more severe levels of the behavior are likely to occur in the future.

We are most successful when we use extinction as part of a comprehensive approach to treating problem behaviors. The approach includes not providing a reward, or reinforcer, after problem behavior occurs – providing it only after appropriate behavior occurs. Our approach usually includes incorporating nine components:

- Define the problem behavior in observable terms.

- Determine what is currently reinforcing the behavior.

- Make positive reinforcement available for lots of other behaviors.

- Teach alternative and new skills.

- Provide a stimulating and engaging schedule of activities.

- Take into account any medical factors, such as side effects of medications.

- Have a consistent response to the behavior when it does occur.

- Collect data so that progress can be assessed.

- Regularly review and modify the procedures.

Extinction procedures are usually thought of as a way to decrease problem behaviors. We can, however, take advantage of the principles of extinction and extinction bursts to be more effective in teaching new skills.

Much of our teaching involves progressing in very small steps. For example, to teach verbal language, we often work on sounds, or even parts of sounds, one by one. For teaching independence skills, we address only part of the tasks of dressing, toileting, or eating until they are mastered, and then we teach additional parts of the skills. We provide lots of reinforcement for success on these small behaviors.

If we provide reinforcement consistently and regularly, and then withhold the reinforcement when we think the child can do even better, an extinction burst might occur that includes more verbal language, or more independence. Then we can reward that higher, more desirable outcome.

Overall, continued attention to the role of reinforcement, especially rewards, will help us to be better educators, therapists, and parents. It will also help the individuals in our care enjoy a higher quality of life and reach their maximum potential.

Dr. Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300, or at aharchik@mayinstitute.org.

The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.

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