Extinction – what it is and how to use it

When our children are exhibiting problem behaviour, behavioural therapists will often advise parents, caregivers and instructors to ignore the problem behaviour and put it on extinction.  Extinction involves withholding or terminating the reinforcing element that maintains an undesirable or problem behaviour.   Take the classic example:  the child wants something (food, a toy, attention, to be left alone) so he or she screams until whatever it was that he or she wanted appears.  The child has learned, this is good, it got me what I wanted and I’ve got to do that again.  In that case the reinforcing element (the toy, attention etc.)  is maintained by the problem behaviour of screaming.  Extinction in this instance would be not producing the reinforcer when the child screams.  The child can have access to the reinforcer only if she or he asks in any way that does not involve screaming (takes your hand and points, asks for your attention in a nice voice, signs for the item, gives you a PEC, gives you a “Need a break” card).  In other words, the former “effective” manner (screaming) will no longer get the child the desired reinforcer.  Screaming for a reinforcer is on extinction.
Extinction in the example does not decrease the behaviour of screaming.  To use extinction effectively, you must ignore the problem behaviour and not reinforce it by “giving in” when the problem behaviour occurs.  However, you should have an alternative behaviour that you are willing to reinforce.  The child may have that alternative behaviour already or he or she may need to be taught it.  The child will learn that screaming is not going to get what he or she wants like it used to, so the child will find new ways to get the same results. Quite often this will mean putting behaviours that used to achieve results on extinction until a new or a better way of getting the outcome becomes solid.   It is our job to teach our children effective, more socially acceptable ways of communicating their wants and needs and so that they can be successful and happy.
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