You may have heard people say “You need to put that behavior on extinction”. But what does it really mean? Extinction just means that you won’t be providing any consequences after a child emits a behavior. The theory is that if you don’t provide a child with a consequence (in particular, a positive reinforcer) after they exhibit a certain behavior, they will stop engaging in that behavior. There is a lot of confusion about extinction because extinction has been associated with ignoring. What people don’t understand is extinction means that you ignore the behavior. Meaning that you don’t call attention to it. You don’t provide reinforcement for it but you don’t ignore the child. So if you ignore the child after they emit a certain behavior that is really not extinction. You are supposed to behave as if the behavior did not happen at all and carry on with what you were doing.
For example, let us say that you have a child and it is about dinner time. They are asking you for cookies and one time you tell them: “No we are not going to have any cookies now, we are going to have cookies after dinner.” After that the child keeps asking you over and over again for cookies. But instead of telling him no or giving in you simply ignore the fact that he said he wanted cookies. So you might say: “Hmm what do you want to watch on TV right now? Or Let’s go do a puzzle. Or read a book. Or what happened to you in school today?” You simply don’t address the fact that that child is asking you for cookies.
Research has shown that when you apply this concept correctly you will see a reduction in the behavior. Behavior analysis pioneer B. F. Skinner did many experiments regarding extinction. For example, he taught a certain group of pigeons to peck a lever to receive a food pellet. So they kept pecking the lever because they wanted to get food. This demonstrates positive reinforcement. You see an increase in the behavior that you wanted, in this case pecking the lever, thus making the food pellet a positive reinforcer. Let us say that Skinner took those same pigeons that he taught to peck the lever and did another experiment with them. This time when the pigeons pecked the lever nothing happened. They just pecked the lever and no food came out. So what do you think happened to the rate of lever pecking? That is right, it went away. The pigeons were not being positively reinforced any more, that is they were not getting anything out of pecking the lever, so they stopped emitting that behavior. But something really interesting happened before B. F. Skinner saw a decrease in the behavior. Those pigeons started pecking like mad trying to get that food that still wasn’t forthcoming. We call this an extinction burst. See the graph below to see what a picture of what an extinction burst looks like. You see a sharp rise in the level of lever pecking before it drops off dramatically. A good example in real life would be something a lot of us human animals do at an elevator. Let us say you push the elevator button and it doesn’t come right away. How many of you will stand there and frantically push the button several times with vain hopes that it is going to hurry the elevator up? And then when you realize that it won’t help you stop.
Many children with autism and typical children as well will emit certain behaviors not just to get tangible positive reinforcers, but to get your attention. Extinction is especially useful in these cases. You can use extinction with children who are trying to get your attention with behaviors that you don’t want as long as the behaviors are not dangerous to himself or others or property. A common example that you might see when working with a child with autism is when given some stimulus materials to work with they may simply drop the materials out of their hand onto the floor. A natural response might be to ask them to pick the item up. This is doing two things. It is calling attention to their behavior and it is also getting them out of working because when they should be doing the task they are picking something off of the floor. If you want to handle this using extinction you would either have a lot of duplicates of the items you are working with or simply pick the item up off the floor put it back in the child’s hand and deliver the instruction again while prompting the correct response. This way they are not getting any attention for the behavior of dropping the stimulus material on the floor. You are simply behaving as if it never happened and continuing with the task as designed. Many times children will enjoy the negative attention that they get from either dropping or throwing items onto the floor. And don’t say “no throwing” “pick it up” this takes away valuable time from instruction and generally this type of consequence does nothing to inhibit the behavior. Try extinction next time!