A Crash Course on Extinction

by Lizzy Engelman

Does your child throw tantrums at naptime, scream in the cookie aisle for sweets, or constantly interrupt your adult conversations? Don’t lose hope. We’ve all been there, and implementing behavioral strategies like extinction can really help.

What is Extinction?

Extinction in a basic principle of behavior, and its purpose is to extinguish or put an end to unwanted behaviors. Simply put, when a behavior is reinforced, it continues, so extinction removes the reinforcer and the behavior stops.

For example, a child may scream or interrupt every time a parent talks on the telephone, interacts with company, or engages with siblings. When the parent stops paying attention to others, the screaming child settles down; however, this unwanted behavior is disruptive and inappropriate. In cases such as this one, the tantrum is being maintained and reinforced, because the child is receiving the social attention he or she craves as a result of throwing a tantrum or incessantly interrupting. This is where understanding extinction can help. By removing the reinforcer, the parent’s attention, and ignoring the inappropriate behavior (extinction), the parent can gradually reduce the tantrum.

In addition, the parent can pair the extinction plan with a more socially appropriate means of getting adult attention, such as encouraging the child to say, “Excuse me,” and teaching the child to wait appropriately. Extinction and positive reinforcement can work together to be effective and powerful parenting tools.

Consistently ignoring screams and fits isn’t easy, especially when other adults stand on the margins giving you the stink eye. You may be tempted to punish, intervene, or succumb to the child’s demands just to make the screaming stop. But an extinction program really does work. Two things are key:

  • Be consistent.
  • Be prepared. It gets worse before it gets better.

What happens during an extinction burst?

When a behavior is no longer reinforced, there is a brief time where the behavior will increase in frequency, duration, or intensity before the behavior decreases and ultimately stops.

For example, if a toddler cries at bedtime or naptime, a parent may get into the habit of going into the room and talking to the child until she falls asleep. By doing so, the parent is actually reinforcing the crying behavior. If the parent now chooses to implement an extinction strategy, the parent will not go into the room when the child cries. On the first night, the child may cry for twenty-five minutes before falling asleep. This may go on for a week, but by the end of the week, the intensity, duration, and frequency of the crying will decrease. In fact, after one or two weeks of consistency, the crying at bedtime should decrease and eventually stop altogether.

During an extinction burst, the storm comes before the calm. Initially, the child ratchets up and increases the fit, crying longer and harder. She may even introduce a novel or aggressive behavior like kicking the wall. But don’t lose hope. This is a natural response to the termination of reinforcement (the parent sitting in the room and talking beside the bed). With extinction, the behavior stops.

What Is A Common Misconceptions About Extinction?

One misconception is that using extinction is simply ignoring the behavior. This is inaccurate. Extinction means removing the reinforcer. Ignoring a problem behavior only works if attention is the reinforcer. Thieves are reinforced by stealing and not getting caught. Ignoring a thief will not deter the crime because attention is not the motivation or reinforcer.

What’s The Nemesis To An Extinction Plan?

A surefire way to sabotage any extinction strategy is intermittent reinforcement. Once an extinction plan is in place, one slip of reinforcing the unwanted behavior is like starting all over. Behaviors that are intermittently reinforced are more resistant to extinction.

For example, if your toddler cries at night after you have implanted the extinction plan, and a well-intentioned grandparent or babysitter goes into the room and talks with the child until she falls asleep, expect the crying to take longer to decrease and stop. Accidentally reinforcing an unwanted behavior increases and prolongs the extinction process. Although it’s a challenge, being consistent is your secret to applying extinction strategies.