This has nothing to do with dinosaurs, and you’ll likely be implementing extinction with your child without even knowing you are doing so.

In ABA land ‘extinction’ is one of the basic principles of behaviour; it’s a type of consequence in that it happens AFTER a specific response/behaviour occurs.

Remember this take home point =

It’s the consequences (the thing that happens immediately after a behaviour) that influence whether or not you will see your child engage in that behaviour again in the future.

YOUR reactions serve as consequences to your child’s behaviour so you have the ‘power’ to change their behaviour!

So this is worth a read because you’ll want to understand extinction to be able to put it to use effectively J

Extinction = when you stop reinforcing a previously reinforced behaviour.

Bare with me…let’s look at a real life example.

My daughter is a snack monster; she constantly asks for a snack – usually whilst I am cooking dinner.  I noticed, after a while I have to admit, that I was repeatedly responding to her – telling her that it’s nearly dinner time and she can’t have a snack.

She’s persistent and KEPT asking. Meanwhile I’m trying to cook the dinner, stop the baby from climbing all over the dog, get the laundry on etc and eventually I can’t handle the nagging anymore so I give in to her by telling her she can  have a biscuit (just stop nagging me!!!).

BINGO! I’ve just reinforced her behaviour of repeatedly asking for a biscuit!  She’s delighted that she’s got what she wanted so what do you think will happen under similar circumstances???

I’ve inadvertently taught her that her persistence PAYS OFF.

The likelihood is that when she wants a biscuit she’ll just keep on asking until I eventually say yes. Reinforcement INCREASES future instances of behaviour.

Now, let’s say that one day I remember that this is actually my profession and I know exactly what I should be doing…..I put on my behaviour analyst hat and get to work!

I decide to reduce this persistent asking for a snack by putting this behaviour on extinction – I am no longer going to cave by giving in to her and allowing her a biscuit (i.e. I am going to stop reinforcing a previously reinforced behaviour).

I am extinguishing the ‘repeatedly asking for a biscuit’ behaviour and over time this behaviour should reduce until it doesn’t happen anymore.

I’m teaching my daughter that nagging me for a biscuit is not going to work anymore so don’t bother.

It would look something like this; my daughter asks me for a biscuit and I tell her “not right now because it’s nearly dinner time but you can watch some TV until dinner is ready”.  I’m offering something else I know she values as an alternative to keep her busy until her dinner is ready. She can either choose to keep asking me for a biscuit, in which case I will turn my ears off, ignore these repeated requests and turn the radio up, or she can accept that she’s been told no and go and watch some TV.

The first time this happened she chose to persist with asking – remember her learning history is that persistence typically pays off so she goes with what she knows.

I ignore her.

Her behaviour intensifies. She starts crying and stamping her feet.

Now, many parents might give in at this point as the behaviour worsens and lets’ face it – no one enjoys seeing their child upset.  But she’s not in any pain – she’s just angry that her ‘usual’ way of getting what she wants doesn’t seem to be working anymore!


Extinction burst: when a behaviour is put on extinction it will get worse (either in intensity, magnitude or duration) before it get’s better.

Witnessing an extinction burst isn’t fun and actually for a lot of parents can be highly stressful and upsetting but in a weird kind of way it’s actually a good sign…..

An extinction burst shows you that the intervention is actually working. The extinction burst shouldn’t last for too long (so grit your teeth and stick to your guns – don’t cave!) and then the behaviour should decrease rapidly.

The difficult thing is ensuring consistency at this stage because it can be very easy for parents to cave in the middle of running extinction.

I should also point out that there are different types of extinction depending on the function of the behaviour. The type I have just described would be used in relation to behaviours maintained by access to tangibles (getting stuff the child wants). I’ll chat more in next weeks blog about extinction related to escape behaviours.

And the final point I want to make is this; we would never use extinction by itself – we would always need to be teaching a new replacement skill at the same time so that the child has an appropriate way of getting what they way. In my snack example the skill deficit I needed to work on with my daughter was ‘accepting no – you can’t have a biscuit’.

To watch a video I did with BCBA Corey Robertson on principles of behaviour (amongst other things) click here:


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