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5 Lifehacks for the Parent New to ABA Therapy, Part 3: Understanding Extinction

Understanding Extinction and its use in ABA Therapy

Extinction is a procedure that takes place when reinforcement of a specific behavior is withheld so that behavior will decrease in the future. It’s important to understand what is reinforcing a behavior so we know what to withhold. No reinforcement equals a behavior decrease. Extinction is not a punishment procedure and is used when wanting to decrease inappropriate behaviors. The reinforcement must go extinct if we want the behavior to decrease. Extinction is not always appropriate to use especially when dealing with severe behaviors. The way extinction is implemented varies dependent on how the behavior is reinforced. Behavior has 3 primary types of reinforcement; positive reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, and Automatic Reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement

Example: Bob drops toys on the floor from his highchair, which results in mom picking up the toys and talking to Bob. Mom's behavior of picking up the toys and talking are all reinforcing to Bob which in turn will likely increase this behavior.

Instead: When Bob engages in this behavior mom needs to ignore this behavior. At first the behavior may increase, but as mom continues to ignore this behavior Bob will likely discontinue engaging in this behavior because he is no longer receiving reinforcement.

Negative Reinforcement

Example: Mandy yells loudly when her dad asks her to do her homework. When Mandy yells loudly she is sent to her room to cool down. Sending Mandy to her room allows her to escape her homework.

Instead: When Mandy engages in yelling, her dad needs to ignore her, and continue to expect Mandy to complete her homework. It is likely that Mandy’s behavior of yelling will increase at first, but as her father continues to ignore her behavior, no longer giving her reinforcement, this behavior will likely decrease. It is important to not allow Mandy to escape from the demand placed by her father.

Automatic Reinforcement

Example: Johnny flips the light switch on and off constantly. Johnny receives self-stimulatory/automatic reinforcement through this behavior of flipping the light switch on.

Instead: This self-stimulatory behavior may be blocked (tape over the switches) or the switch may be disconnected to remove the reinforcement provided by this behavior.

Extinction Burst: Immediate increase in the frequency of the response after the removal of the positive, negative, or automatic reinforcement. The term extinction burst is used to define an initial increase in behavior frequency.

Extinction bursts are going to happen and it’s okay! This means that behavior will possibly increase before it decreases. In order for extinction to work reinforcers must be withheld at all times, not only some of the time. For example: Little Johnny screams and always gets attention, now when little Johnny screams you withhold the reinforcement of attention. It is important to know that the use of extinction is not always appropriate for a student, and when extinction is used the ENTIRE team will be on board before it is implemented!


Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E. Heward, William L.. (2007) Applied behavior analysis /Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall. Meadows, T. (1970, January 01). FREE ABA Resources!! Retrieved January 08, 2018, from Bailey, J & Burch, M. (2011). Ethics for Behavior Analysts, Second Expanded Edition. New York, New York: Taylor & Francis Group. Cosgrave, G. (n.d.). Positive Reinforcement. Retrieved January 08, 2018, from



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