By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA
children and adults with developmental disabilities such as autism,
positive reinforcement (giving rewards) is critical to learning
new skills and maintaining them over time. Likewise, these individuals
also learn and maintain problem behaviors as a result of rewards
or positive reinforcement they receive accidentally and unintentionally.
example, if a child slaps another child, that behavior might be
maintained by the attention he or she receives from the teacher
(Stop that, dont do that.). Self-injurious head
banging might be maintained because it results in the parent removing
all demands placed on the child (OK, you dont have to
help rake the leaves.). Rocking or humming might occur because
of the pleasant sensory sensations they give the child. We can think
of these three behaviors as attention-maintained, escape-maintained,
one of the ways we can treat problem behaviors is to stop providing
reinforcement after the behavior. This is called extinction.
We use that term because it means that once there is no longer any
reward for the behavior, it disappears or becomes extinct.
implement extinction, we might ignore a behavior that is maintained
by attention; not remove the instruction when an escape-maintained
behavior is exhibited; and interrupt behaviors that are maintained
by sensory stimulation.
the reinforcement will reduce the occurrences of the problem behavior.
However, the behavior will often get worse before it gets better.
It is as if the individual tries harder to obtain the reward (attention,
escape, sensory stimulation) by increasing the slapping, head banging,
or rocking. This is called an extinction burst and teachers
and parents should be prepared for it when using extinction techniques.
It is important to follow through and not give in during this period.
many of the serious problem behaviors we treat are the result of
failed attempts to use extinction. For instance, a parent may correctly
ignore the slapping, but when the extinction burst occurs and the
behavior gets worse, the parent can no longer ignore it. Thus, the
child accidentally and unintentionally gets rewarded (with attention)
for a more severe level of problem behavior. As a consequence, more
severe levels of the behavior are likely to occur in the future.
are most successful when we use extinction as part of a comprehensive
approach to treating problem behaviors. The approach includes not
providing a reward, or reinforcer, after problem behavior occurs
providing it only after appropriate behavior occurs. Our
approach usually includes incorporating nine components:
- Define the problem behavior in observable terms.
Determine what is currently reinforcing the behavior.
Make positive reinforcement available for lots of other behaviors.
Teach alternative and new skills.
Provide a stimulating and engaging schedule of activities.
Take into account any medical factors, such as side effects of medications.
Have a consistent response to the behavior when it does occur.
Collect data so that progress can be assessed.
Regularly review and modify the procedures.
Extinction procedures are usually thought of as a way to decrease
problem behaviors. We can, however, take advantage of the principles
of extinction and extinction bursts to be more effective in teaching
of our teaching involves progressing in very small steps. For example,
to teach verbal language, we often work on sounds, or even parts
of sounds, one by one. For teaching independence skills, we address
only part of the tasks of dressing, toileting, or eating until they
are mastered, and then we teach additional parts of the skills.
We provide lots of reinforcement for success on these small behaviors.
we provide reinforcement consistently and regularly, and then withhold
the reinforcement when we think the child can do even better, an
extinction burst might occur that includes more verbal language,
or more independence. Then we can reward that higher, more desirable
continued attention to the role of reinforcement, especially rewards,
will help us to be better educators, therapists, and parents. It
will also help the individuals in our care enjoy a higher quality
of life and reach their maximum potential.
Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300, or
information presented on this site is intended solely as a general
educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for
any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional
advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar
with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician
or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical
condition and before starting any new treatment.