What is Meant by Extinction in ABA Therapy?

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In applied behavior analysis (ABA), extinction refers to the fading away and eventual elimination of undesirable behaviors. If a problem behavior no longer occurs, it’s said to be extinct, and the therapeutic process of accomplishing this is referred to as extinction.

The philosophy of ABA recognizes positive reinforcement as a way to encourage positive behavior…. Negative responses to problem behaviors do not effectively cause those behaviors to stop.  Instead, it’s simple inaction, or refraining from reinforcing an undesirable behavior, while at the same time using positive reinforcement to promote desirable behavior that  causes problem behaviors to naturally die out.

Reinforcement in ABA means any consequence that’s immediately delivered following a behavior, which then increases the likelihood of that behavior being repeated.

Extinction isn’t achieved through the typical discipline system—i.e., the client displays an inappropriate or undesirable behavior and the teacher reacts to that behavior in an attempt to stop the behavior. Instead, using the concept of extinction, only those behaviors that are deemed positive are reinforced, with all negative behaviors simply ignored.

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What Does Extinction Mean?

While withholding positive reinforcement by ignoring the behavior is an effective strategy, extinction may also mean denying the client access to specific items or activities (e.g., the client cannot leave the classroom for lunch until he stands in line with his peers) or removing the child from the environment.

For example, if  a student with ASD continuously pinched her classmate during circle time, the ABA practitioner would remove the child from the environment each time this occurred to ensure the safety of her classmates, but without saying anything to the child or identifying the problem behavior. However, each time the child sat beside her classmate without pinching, the teacher would provide her with praise or other positive reinforcement, such as a token or sticker.

It is important to not just reduce/eliminate an undesirable behavior but to also encourage a replacement behavior. Therefore, removing the child from the environment wouldn’t be enough; providing praise when the child sat with her hands in her lap and did not pinch her classmate is equally important.

What Does Ignoring the Behavior Mean?

In general, during extinction, the undesirable behavior is met with no eye contact, no physical contact, and no verbal reinforcement or reaction.

Consider this: a child disrupts the class, and the class responds by laughing. The response by the class serves as a reinforcement of the disruptive behavior and increases the likelihood that the child will disrupt the class again in the future. Now, if the child disrupts the class, but the teacher and the other students choose to simply ignore the behavior, the reinforcement of the behavior is eliminated. Without receiving any reinforcement of his behavior, the child will be less likely to continue to disrupt the class in the future.

While the undesirable behaviors in ABA are ignored, the positive behaviors that take the place of the negative behaviors are encouraged through positive reinforcement. Depending on the individual and the environment, the ABA practitioner may acknowledge the positive behavior by rewarding the child with activities, tokens, or praise.

When and How Should Extinction be Used?

Extinction can be used for a number of behaviors, including:

  • Sleeping/eating problems
  • Dangerous/aggressive behaviors or those that can cause self-injury or injury to others
  • Functional communication
  • Inappropriate social behaviors

Applying extinction takes patience and consistency by the ABA practitioner because it’s common for the undesirable behavior to increase in frequency, duration, or intensity before fading away. For example, the child who disrupts the class may become louder or more disruptive in an attempt to elicit a response when the class ignores the behavior. This exaggerated attempt at getting a response is referred to as an extinction burst.

Before applying extinction, the ABA practitioner should:

  • Identify the behavior and patterns related to it (frequency, duration, intensity, location, etc., including when it does and does not occur)
  • Create an extinction plan and share it with all other practitioners working with the child to ensure consistency and support; in a classroom environment, this may include encouraging other students to ignore a specific behavior
  • Create an extinction burst safety plan (should behavior get progressively worse before it gets better)