Understanding Extinction Procedures

No, not that kind of extinction. :-)

Extinction is a behavioral term that basically means to determine the function/cause of a behavior and then to terminate access to that function in order to extinguish the behavior. You determine what the reinforcement for the behavior is and then you withhold it. There are different types of extinction, such as Tangible Extinction (the child does not receive access to a desired item or activity) and Escape Extinction (the child does not get to avoid or escape a non-preferred task or person). Extinction is used to decrease inappropriate behaviors such as tantrums, screaming, or saliva play. Here's some real life examples of extinction:

  1. Screaming: Your client screams in the car when they want you to turn the radio on. You used to plead with him to stop screaming, now you ignore the screaming.
  2. Crying/Tantrums: Your client tantrums at restaurants when she is ready to go home. You used to pick her up and leave the restaurant when this happened, now you ignore the crying and continue eating.
  3. Excessive scratching: Your client scratches at scabs or wounds excessively to the point of causing harm. You used to tell him not to do this, and sometimes place him in time out. Now you place cotton gloves on his hands so he cannot cause harm by scratching.
Notice in each example that extinction does not mean you stop the behavior. When you apply an extinction procedure the behavior may still happen. For this reason extinction isn't always an appropriate choice for a behavioral intervention. Particularly if you are dealing with very aggressive or self harming behaviors such as headbanging or eye poking.
 In my opinion another reason extinction isn't always appropriate is that it is extremely hard for non-professionals to implement. I have had  parents tell me that doing an extinction procedure just feels wrong, and counter-intuitive. When doing an extinction procedure consistency must be really strong, so as an ABA professional it will be important to get the family on board with the treatment before you try to implement it.

It might sound like an extinction procedure just means to ignore problem behaviors. There is an important distinction between Ignoring and Extinction. Ignoring is to not give your child attention because they are doing something you dont like or are seeking your attention in an inappropriate way. Extinction is a behavioral technique where you withhold reinforcement when the behavior occurs, so by definition you must know what the reinforcement is. Planned ignoring would only extinguish a behavior if the reinforcement was attention. If your client bites her arm because of sensory input and you ignore that, your ignoring will have no effect on the behavior. The child isn't biting for a reaction so you withholding a reaction doesn't matter.

Another way to understand the difference between Extinction and Ignoring is that extinction procedures will have Extinction Effects. If you are properly implementing an extinction procedure this is what it should look like:

This graphical display shows the course of a behavior after an extinction procedure was applied  *the path of the behavior is what is important here. Try to ignore the "bad behavior" label. This is not my graph :-)

Initially the behavior is occurring at a rate of about 20 occurrences per day. Then the intervention begins. The intervention is clearly effective, as the problem behavior almost immediately drops off in frequency. But that "Honeymoon Period" ends, and the behavior skyrockets to a frequency of 40. Then the behavior makes a gradual decline until it is at a frequency of about 5, before dropping to 0. Some parents or professionals may think at this point that the behavior has been successfully terminated and the extinction procedure can be stopped. However, that's incorrect. After some time passes the behavior pops up again a few times, before decreasing to a very low rate.
This graph is explaining that once you introduce an extinction procedure you will see the Extinction Burst, then a gradual decline in the behavior, then Spontaneous Recovery of the behavior until eventually the behavior is extinguished completely, or occurs at a very low rate.

An extinction burst is a dramatic increase in the frequency/duration/intensity of the problem behavior. I like to explain this to my clients by saying "Its going to get worse before it gets better". From the child's point of view, he/she is doing MORE of the behavior to try and get that reaction they are used to getting.
Spontaneous recovery occurs after the behavior starts to go away and can happen even without reinforcement. You could be doing everything right and all of a sudden the behavior will pop back up. This is normal, and you should expect it. If everyone on the team is being consistent then when spontaneous recovery happens you have nothing to worry about. However if spontaneous recovery occurs and someone reinforces the behavior it will skyrocket and may be difficult to decrease again.

The last extinction effect is what I like to call "pop up" behaviors. Once you determine the function of the behavior  and start withholding it now the child has no way to access that function. So they may start engaging in new behaviors you haven't seen before. For example you may decide to start an extinction procedure with your 9 year old client for his behavior of teasing his sister. You determine that the function of teasing is attention from his sister. So you teach his sister to stop giving him attention as part of the extinction procedure. The teasing begins to decrease, but now your client has started slapping his sister.

What happened?

The problem is you removed the reinforcement but didn't replace it with anything. Your client has no way to get his "attention fix" because his sister no longer gives him the attention reaction he wants when he teases her. So your client starts being aggressive with his sister to get a reaction out of her. The great news is if you know that these pop up behaviors will happen you can plan for them. To reduce pop up behaviors you need to incorporate contingent reinforcement into your extinction plan. Think of contingent as meaning "based on".  Based on certain behaviors, you provide reinforcement. If your client talks to, hugs, or is appropriate towards his sister in any way she is free to give him attention. The second your client is inappropriate, attention is removed. Using contingent reinforcement can help reduce the severity and frequency of pop up behaviors during an extinction procedure.

When done correctly and consistently extinction is a very effective behavior reduction procedure to terminate inappropriate behaviors. Before beginning an extinction procedure decide if this is something you can stick to, and can get the whole treatment team to stick to. If you are doing an extinction procedure for spitting can you handle ignoring spitting during a session? At the playground? In the car? At school? If not, then select a different behavioral intervention method.

**Quick Tip- Be thoroughly prepared for the extinction burst, because it will happen. The extinction burst can mean the behavior increases by frequency, duration, magnitude, etc. For example, if you are doing an extinction procedure for screaming the child may scream much louder or they may scream AND hit.  Have a crisis plan in place that specifically states how to address escalating behavior during an extinction procedure. The good news?? The extinction burst means your intervention is working. So hang in there!


  1. Thank you so much for your clear and simple explanations of the various aspects of ABA. I'm newly acquainted with this kind of therapy, and your blog posts have already taught me many valuable ins and outs! :)

    1. You are welcome! I aim to keep things simple to understand and to grasp :-)

  2. Really fantastic work! Thank you for helping me grasp this subject with more simplicity and fluidity.

  3. I love your blog, it has helped me soooo much.

    Thank you!


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