In our first article in the series, we looked at how positive and negative reinforcement is sometimes used by parents, unintentionally to increase undesired behaviors. Extinction is a technique that is used to remove the reinforcer that promotes the undesired behavior.
When my youngest daughter was 2 years old I would take her grocery shopping with me on my day off. She would ask for a balloon and I would buy her one. When I tried to resist she would begin to pout and plead and so I just gave in, I mean it was just a balloon, right? Eventually, I noticed the house was being overtaken by half inflated/deflated helium balloons and realized I was spending about 20-40 dollars a month in accomplishing this.
I decided I would simply stop buying her balloons. She started with the expected pleading and repetitive requests which I tried to manage using a combination of ignoring (the requests) and attempts at distraction. Eventually, she went into full blown tantrum mode and I realized I was in the midst of a burst– an intense increase in the undesired behavior that usually follows an attempt at extinction.
Let’s stop here and break down what happened.
1. My daughter would pout and plead (undesired behavior).
2. I rewarded the behavior by giving her a balloon. (positive reinforcer).
3. I stopped giving into her request for a balloon. (extinction).
4. She increased the intensity of the undesired behavior. (burst).
Extinction can also be applied to negative reinforcers. A child does not like math class and begins to misbehave (undesired behavior). The teacher sends him out of the class and the child gets to hang outside the principles office for the remainder, thus avoiding class (negative reinforcer). The next day the same thing occurs only this time the teacher decides to ignore the behavior and allow the child to stay in class (extinction), the child increases the intensity of the behavior (burst). In response, the teacher gives the child additional math homework as a consequence to the behavior (punishment).
Bursts are the biggest obstacles to successful extinction because they make it appear as if the extinction is not only not solving the problem but making it worse. Many times parents give in either out of fear or frustration and set themselves up for an even bigger problem down the road.
Depending on the severity of the burst parents may consider learning, practicing and engaging in certain coping skills, which we’ll discuss in a future article, to tolerate the likely burst. Sometimes extinction is done best in controlled environments as the bursts may center on behaviors that are connected to physical harm.
Our next article will revisit punishment through the lens of efficacy. If you’re interested please read the second article on punishment as a primer.