Stop that reinforcer!

In this mini-course we have discussed why behaviors happen and how to help your child learn which behaviors are preferable. Now you are ready to learn about extinction.

“Extinction” – I don’t like the sound of that

Extinction sounds a bit threatening because we are used to hearing it for things such as:

Dinosaurs: The end of their existence = extinction
Fire Fighting: A fire extinguisher is used to put out a threatening and scary situation
Rare species: We are trying to “protect them from extinction”

These general-use terms mean that we have a pre-existing opinion of the term extinction. I highlight this because over the years, parents have been cautious when we first introduce this concept. So as you read on, I urge you to be mindful of this initial response and willing to see the process for what it is: a tool to help your child learn more readily.

What is extinction?

Extinction is stopping a specific behavior from resulting in reinforcement.

During that terrible IRS phone call, Cutie learned to scream and holler at you when she wants a cookie. You don’t particularly enjoy being yelled at over a cookie. However, admittedly, sometimes you do give her the cookie when she yells/screams. After all, it does get her to stop yelling and screaming and, let’s face it, parenting can be exhausting.

In this situation we can guess that Cutie’s yelling/screaming behavior is due to her desire to get a cookie:
Function = Access to the cookie.

What would be an appropriate replacement behavior? There are several options:

  1. she could ask for a cookie,
  2. point to a cookie, or
  3. sign for a cookie.

These socially-welcomed behaviors will still get her access to the cookie and those around her will be more pleased to comply!

Advocacy Work at Step-In Autism Center
Alaska Step-In Autism Center

Differential Reinforcement

As a parent, you can show your child the replacement behavior and reinforce the replacement behavior. However, you also need to stop reinforcing the yelling/screaming behavior. This is one example of “differential reinforcement”. Differential reinforcement ins simple terms is different levels of reinforcement for different behaviors. The yelling/screaming behavior never gets access to a cookie (reinforcement level = none). The asking for a cookie behavior usually gets access to a cookie (reinforcement level = heavy).

Extinction Burst

Depending on how long she has been successfully getting a cookie for screaming, it may take her a while to realize that screaming will no longer result in getting a cookie. This process can be very difficult for parents because the behavior almost always intensifies before it stops (fancy term alert: this is called “Extinction Burst”). She may yell louder or scream more. During this time, put the cookies high out of reach and you can remind her “use your words”. Sometimes the best option is to find a different activity to engage in.

Remember to teach before she is upset

This is where teaching a replacement behavior is very important. You can make the process of unlearning the socially-unwelcome behavior faster by showing her the socially-welcome behavior before she has become too upset over the no-more-reinforcing-screaming procedure.

You have decided to help Cutie unlearn screaming for a cookie. She is playing with a puzzle at the kitchen table. She is calm and happy, her little brain and hands working hard. You take a cookie from the cookie jar and sit down next to her. “Look cutie, a cookie.” She looks at you and her eyes light up. You help her point to the cookie and repeat “Cookie”. This time she says it with you, “Cookie”. You hand her the cookie with a big smile. “That’s right, you get cookies by using your words!”

Take little opportunities like these to solidify the relationship between asking for a cookie and getting a cookie.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you get stumped or are dealing with a strong or aggressive behavior, don’t be shy about reaching out for help. Behavior Analysts are trained on assisting with strong behaviors. We never suggest a parent attempt to implement extinction on their own for behaviors where the child might hurt themselves or someone else.

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