Reducing Behavior through Non-Aversive Techniques: Extinction and the Extinction Burst
I’m sure you have all heard the phrase, “It gets worse before it gets better.” As cliché as it may sound, this really does apply to behavior and is particularly applicable when we are talking about extinction and the extinction burst.
What is extinction?
Extinction occurs when a reinforcer for a particular behavior is no longer delivered following the behavior. Extinction essentially involves two steps:
- Identify the function of the behavior by taking ABC data. Behavior occurs for one or a combination of the following reasons: to gain attention, to gain access to a toy or activity, to escape from something non-preferred, or for sensory purposes.
- Once you have identified the function, it is important that future occurrences of this behavior are no longer followed by the desired consequence.*
Consider the following example: Your ABC data shows that your child tends to scream in order to get a preferred toy because doing so has resulted in getting the toy in the past (tangible function). To put the behavior of screaming on extinction in this situation, ensure that you no longer provide the toy after he/she screams. Over time, the behavior should decrease because it has become ineffective.
Here’s the thing…
Whenever you change environmental variables, the behaviors may initially get worse due to an extinction burst. An extinction burst is an increase in the frequency or intensity of the targeted behavior when extinction is used. To say it simply, all behavior is a tool and your child is used to getting a certain consequence for a certain behavior. When this no longer happens, expect to see the following things occur:
- The behavior may occur more frequently or for a longer period of time (they may try harder)
- Variability in the child’s behavior (they may try new things)
- The child may have an emotional reaction
So how does it apply to the real world? Consider this example: You are at a soda machine, put your money in, press the button for your soda, and nothing happens. How do you react?
- First you may try pressing the button a few more times in a row (increase in behavior)
- You may try pressing other buttons on the machine or kicking the machine (variability in behavior)
- You may also get angry (emotional reaction)
You may go to the soda machine once or twice more, but if it still fails to give you your soda, you will eventually stop going.
One of the most important things when using extinction is to be consistent. If the child is still getting the desired consequence for the inappropriate behavior, even intermittently, the behavior will likely still occur. In addition, giving in during the extinction burst will make it more likely that your child will exhibit more intense, persistent, or novel behaviors in the future. Extinction does not happen overnight, nor does the behavior stop occurring after you have used extinction only once or twice. Understanding extinction and the extinction burst will help everyone involved in the child’s care be consistent.
One final note is on a phenomenon called spontaneous recovery. Sometimes, the inappropriate behavior will seemingly spontaneously reoccur after not occurring for weeks or months. Maybe after refraining from that soda machine for a few weeks, you decide to try it out again. If extinction continues to be used (if you still don’t get your soda), the behavior should stop occurring.
How have you used extinction in your own life? Any tips on getting through the extinction burst? Leave comments below and stay tuned for tips on teaching appropriate replacement behaviors.
*Sometimes extinction is not the most appropriate intervention to use (i.e. with self-injurious behaviors that may become more harmful during the extinction burst or with dangerous or harmful behaviors). In these situations, it is best to set up a consult with one of our BCBAs or BCaBAs to determine the most appropriate intervention.