Extinction

The procedure of planned ignoring involves deliberate parental inattention to the occurrence of target child behaviors. In other words, parents identify behaviors that function as a means of getting their attention, and selectively ignore them. One example of planned ignoring might be with the child who engages in tantrum behavior whenever his mother is on the phone. As it is likely that Mom is unable to attend to her child while her attention is diverted to a phone call, it is reasonable to believe that repeated instances of tantrum behavior in this context may be attention-seeking in nature. Mom then may choose to employ planned ignoring techniques during future phone calls by selectively ignoring tantrums. This ignoring procedure thereby serves to test whether, in the past, she may have inadvertently rewarded her child’s tantrums by attending to the behavior rather than continuing the phone call. In addition, planned ignoring in this example can serve as a useful intervention tool – by continuing to show that tantrums will not work for the child in getting his Mother’s attention, he may be less likely to engage in the future.

Planned ignoring is one the simplest types of extinction procedures. The term extinction refers to discontinuing rewarding a behavior that has previously been rewarded. Extinction is an intervention strategy that has been widely shown to be effective in reducing rates of inappropriate behaviors in children. Although the process sounds simple enough, it is often extremely challenging to implement. By shifting the way that you respond to a child’s behavior, you are changing their expectations – often very suddenly. When implementing extinction procedures, it is important to remember the following:

Be consistent: Keeping consistent is essential when seeking to change unwanted behavior. The target of intervention needs to understand that whatever expectation they had in the past will no longer relevant in the present.  Sometimes this can be a very subtle process – even occasionally responding with “NO” or “not right now” to a child who is engaging in problem behavior to seek attention may give them just enough reinforcement to maintain the behavior (or keep it continuing to occur).  

Reinforce other behavior: For a child who tends to engage in problem behavior to get what they want, it’s often easiest to take a reactive approach and tell them when they are wrong. However, another way to think about eliminating problem behavior is to reward appropriate behavior proactively!  Since we know that children can’t engage in both appropriate and inappropriate behavior at the same time, it may be more useful to focus more on positive behavior. The message you would be sending to the child would essentially be “it is easier for you to get what you want if you do the right thing!” Often, reinforcement of appropriate behaviors is recommended along with extinction procedures. This way, inappropriate behavior becomes very tiresome and ineffective, while appropriate behavior seems easy and often gets the child what they want.

Get ready for extinction burst: Extinction bursts are a sudden, expected increase in behavior, and occur often when extinction procedures are first implemented. During an extinction burst, a child may respond emotionally; that is, they may increase both the rates and intensity of problem behavior.

Why does this happen? Let’s use a simple metaphor to explain: Imagine you are going to a vending machine to get a soda, as you do every day at lunchtime. You put your money in the machine, the soda starts to come out, but gets stuck. What do you do? You bang, thump, and push into the vending machine trying to get that soda out. You are behaving that way because the thing that you are expecting to work for you (vending machine) no longer works, so you have an emotional response! This is the same as an extinction burst.

So why do professionals continue to recommend extinction procedures knowing that extinction bursts are likely? We do so because we know that if we remain CONSISTENT, that problem behavior associated with extinction will eventually go down. Let’s go back to the vending machine example:

After the first day of the vending machine being broken you may go back to the machine the following day. Maybe it was a fluke, maybe they fixed the problem. You put your money into the vending machine as you did the day before, and what happens? NO SODA. You may kick and push the machine again or you may not. But do you know what you’re most likely to do the following day? Buy your soda somewhere else.

This example is the perfect metaphor for how extinction works with regard to behavior. The vending machine that used to work for us (problem behavior) no longer works. We initially get upset by this and respond emotionally (extinction burst), and continue to try to use the vending machine to no avail. Eventually, we realize that kicking and screaming is just a big waste of energy when it still doesn’t work (consistency). Ultimately we decide that it would be much simpler to get a soda from the corner deli instead (reinforcement of other behavior).

By Stephanie Jean, RBT

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