In behavior analysis, extinction is defined as “the discontinuing of reinforcement of a previously reinforced target behavior to reduce the frequency of the behavior.”(Cooper, Heron and Heward 2019)
There are a lot of questions around extinction so I hope this post is helpful for navigating these protocols.
Be sure you have a working understanding of reinforcement, punishment and reinforcement schedules before reading on. This post is a good summary of background knowledge you may need.
You are teaching one of your students to raise his hand and waiting for a teacher. Instead he yells out what he needs. You provide him with what he requested when he yells out approximately 60% of the time which means you’re providing reinforcement in the form of attention and access. To put yelling out on extinction, you will provide reinforcement for any response that is not yelling out. If he yells out, you will not provide him with what he requested (attention or access).** This may cause an increase in intensity while he is learning that the expectation is to raise his hand. This is called an extinction burst.
Because we are increasing the response effort by changing the expectations, we will want to reinforce every instance of the student raising his hand quietly. This allows him to learn that raising his hand quietly will deliver reinforcement more frequently than yelling out (100% vs 60%). Once he is consistently raising his hand, you can begin to fade the reinforcement.
**note: Do not forget about negative reinforcement! Negative attention (“stop”, “no”, “we don’t do that in school” etc) is still reinforcing the behavior. True extinction protocols call for planned ignoring of student behavior.
What is extinction?
I want to break down the definition given to us by Cooper, Heron and Heward in their book Applied Behavior Analysis (aka The ABA Bible)
Using our above example, our previously reinforced behavior was yelling out. By no longer giving him what wants when he yells out, we are discontinuing the reinforcement. Work with your team to determine criterion for behavior reduction. Reducing yelling out as a form of mand will require teaching of a new skill. This is not part of the extinction procedure.
Implementing Extinction Ethically
Due to the potential of an extinction burst, a classroom must have adequate supports to implement an extinction protocol with fidelity. Classrooms should have a high staff to student ratio and there should be an explicit safety plan in place for all of the students. If the student yells out and does not get a response, they may continue to escalate until they receive a response. While an extinction burst may be inevitable, we do not want our students to be engaging in these extreme, potentially aggressive behaviors. Maintaining student dignity is critical for maintaining rapport, especially after an intense behavioral episode.
The priority of extinction is to reduce a behavior that was previously reinforced. When withdrawing that reinforcement, you must be sure to provide reinforcement for other preferred behaviors. If your student begins to engage in extreme maladaptive behaviors, an extinction protocol may not be right for them.
Remember: Extinction is NOT ignoring a child. Extinction is NOT punishing a child for engaging in maladaptive behaviors. Extinction is NOT the only way to reduce maladaptive behaviors.
As a BCBA, I rarely recommend extinction.
Why? Well, the costs out weigh the benefits, in my opinion. Not only are there concerns regarding student dignity and safety, but extinction does not teach replacement behaviors. Instead of using an extinction procedure, utilize differential reinforcement.