Extinction is a reductive procedure used to decrease the occurrence of a given behavior. Specifically, extinction  involves  withholding  reinforcement  for a  behavior  that  previously  received  reinforcement. For example, consider the case of a teacher who falls into the habit of laughing at students’ jokes. The teacher is reinforcing “joking” behavior by providing positive teacher attention contingent upon the presence of a joke. Extinction occurs when the teacher no longer laughs or responds to students’ jokes.

If extinction procedures are implemented consistently, the rate of the target behavior will decrease compared to baseline, or pre-intervention levels, meaning students will make jokes less often if the teacher does not laugh at the jokes.

There are four key features of extinction procedures. First, it is necessary to identify all reinforcers for the target behavior so that all sources of reinforcement (e.g., teacher and peer attention) can be removed. Extinction requires all sources of reinforcement to be withheld when the target behavior occurs. Sources of reinforcement can be determined via direct observations. The intent of these observations is twofold. One purpose is to identify circumstances or events that may set the stage for the target behavior to occur (antecedents). Another purpose is to identify circumstances and events that follow target behavior (consequences) to promote the occurrence of the target behavior. By analyzing the antecedents and consequences associated with the target behavior, it is possible to determine the conditions that are reinforcing the target behavior.

Second, it is important to specify the circumstances when extinction procedures will be employed. The goal is to make sure that all parties (e.g., teachers, students, and parents) are clear about when and if the target behavior is acceptable and the consequences associated with violating the expectations. For example, the teacher would need to talk to the students to let them know that the joking around is interfering with instruction and learning. Therefore, jokes are no longer going to be acceptable during instructional time, but they will be allowed during free-time activities on Fridays. If joking does occur at other times, a negative consequence (e.g., time out or a note home) will take place.

Next, all reinforcement must be eliminated when the  target  behavior  does  occur.  For  example,  it  is  imperative that neither the teacher nor the students laugh  at  jokes  that  are  told  during  instructional time. However, it is fine to respond during free-time activities on Fridays. If reinforcement is occasionally given during instructional time, this is called intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is actually a technique used to sustain a given target behavior. Therefore, consistency is critical. Further, the extinction intervention is not a quick procedure. Consequently, teachers and other professionals must be prepared to continue with the intervention for a reasonable length of time. Before the target behavior is eliminated, an extinction burst is likely to occur. This means that the rate or intensity of the target behavior will likely increase substantially before it gradually declines.

Finally, one should consider using other procedures to teach more appropriate behaviors that are functionally equivalent to the target behavior (e.g., reinforcement techniques). Although extinction, if implemented as intended, is likely to decrease the target behavior, it does not teach students a functionally equivalent replacement behavior. However, other techniques such as differential reinforcement procedures can be used in conjunction with extinction to teach more desirable replacement behaviors.

While extinction is an effective tool for producing lasting decreases in behavior without using more aversive reductive procedures such as punishment (introducing an aversive stimulus when the target behavior occurs), extinction procedures are characterized by a number of limitations. As previously mentioned, extinction takes time to occur and behavior often worsens before it improves (extinction burst). In addition to these limitations, extinction procedures are often associated with (a) a surge of aggressive behavior due to frustration (extinction-induced aggression), (b) imitation of the target behavior by peers, (c) spontaneous reoccurrence of the target behavior (spontaneous recovery or resurgence), (d) limited generalizability to other settings, and (e) difficulty in controlling all sources of reinforcement (e.g., peer attention).


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