Education Matters: Behavior analysis in home and school: Extinction
Behavior analysts are professionals who use a variety of strategies to reduce inappropriate behaviors. One of those strategies is called extinction.
Extinction can reduce or even eliminate a range of behaviors in both home and school settings. Behavioral experts often target excessive children's whining, bragging, bedtime crying, tantrums, patterns of frequent verbal threats and high levels of interrupting.
One of the most common types of extinction involves the removal of reinforcers. Behavior analysts, school psychologists, parents, teachers and others working with children often identify one or more factors that reinforce the inappropriate behaviors. For example, a teacher or parent may attempt to comfort a child who is whining by offering reassurance. In doing so, the adult may unintentionally reinforce the whining.
In another case, an adult may scold a child for making threats. Even that negative response can reinforce the behavior by providing the child with desired attention.
Whether an adult response is positive or negative depends on the reinforcement history of the child. A response that is positively reinforcing to one child can be punishing to another. Once a behavior analyst identifies the primary reinforcer, it can be completely removed.
A sudden and complete removal of the reinforcer often results in an "extinction burst" in which the target behavior increases, often dramatically. This is the point at which many adults decide that the strategy is not working, and they reimplement the reinforcer.
The rise in the amount of the behavior is probably an indication that the reinforcer has been correctly identified, and what is required now is patience. Extinction can be highly effective if followed to completion.
Extinction should be selected with care. Ethical considerations are paramount. Behavior analysts should select behaviors that are culturally appropriate, result in positive behavioral change for the individual and do not cause harm to the individual or others. The objective is always to bring about positive change for the individual and society.
Even if extinction meets ethical standards, the analyst should consider other options and think through the likelihood that it will bring about the desired change. There are conditions in which it is unlikely to work.
For example, if a child's crying is related to chronic,x diagnosed physical pain, extinction would not be recommended. It would also not be wise to use it with a child who is hitting others because this inappropriate behavior would be apt to increase for a time and would cause suffering to others and a continuation of classroom disruption.
The extinction burst may seem like punishment to the child since an established reinforcer has been removed. But one of the advantages of extinction is that it does not involve the application of a punishment.
Used as a strategy to reduce behaviors, punishment is generally considered more intrusive, and it often requires more careful planning.
Paul Carlson is a professor in the UHV School of Education & Human Development.