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The Gentle Power of Extinction in ABA: How to Use Understanding, Empathy & Skill Building

In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis, the principle of extinction is both powerful and widely used among BCBAs. However, its application and understanding are often surrounded by misconceptions.

At the heart of effective ABA practice lies a commitment to empathy, kindness, and a deep understanding of the individuals we support. Today, we’re exploring the approach to extinction – emphasizing respect, emotional safety, and the fostering of replacement skills.

What is Extinction in Behavior Analysis?

Extinction, within the context of ABA, refers to the strategy of ceasing to reinforce a behavior that was previously reinforced.

It’s a common misconception that extinction simply means ignoring a behavior or caving to every demand to avoid difficult situations. In reality, it’s about strategically stopping the reinforcement of a specific behavior.

For instance, if an individual repeatedly seeks attention through a certain action, the response isn’t to ignore the person but to modify how we engage with that behavior while still providing necessary attention and care.

Example: If a learner continuously comes up to you with “knock, knock” jokes, you can simply stop replying, “Who’s there?” But that doesn’t mean you have to ignore the child completely; you could say, “Let’s try another type of joke” or “I’m all done playing ‘knock, knock’ right now.”


Beyond Ignoring: How to Foster Understanding & Replacement Skills

Misinterpretations of extinction might lead some to believe it involves ignoring the needs or bids for attention from learners. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ignoring a learner’s needs, especially those who may have experienced trauma or who struggle with communicating their needs effectively, can lead to feelings of neglect and increase challenging behaviors.

Instead, our focus should shift toward understanding the underlying needs or synthesized reinforcers and teaching replacement skills that allow learners to access what they seek in a more appropriate manner.

For example, instead of focusing solely on decreasing disruptive behavior, ABA professionals and caregivers can concentrate on increasing positive replacement skills. This approach not only addresses the unwanted behavior but also equips the learner with valuable skills for better outcomes.

Realistic Approaches & Emotional Safety

Another critical aspect to consider in the application of extinction is its feasibility and safety. Is it realistic and safe to consistently ignore certain behaviors, especially when they might escalate or lead to unsafe situations?

The physical, psychological, and emotional safety of learners must always be a priority. This means responding to emotional needs first and ensuring that our actions convey understanding and respect.

It’s essential to remember that learners are allowed to express upset feelings. Validating these emotions (“I see you’re upset because you can’t play with the iPad right now”) and reframing the situation (“They’re not giving me a hard time; they’re having a hard time”) are crucial steps in teaching empathy and understanding.

Boundaries Held with Kindness

Another vital element in the gentle application of extinction is the establishment of boundaries held with kindness. Clear boundaries are necessary for learning and safety, yet they should be chosen carefully and enforced with compassion (using a variation of, “I know this is hard, but we can work through it together”).

This approach not only maintains the dignity of the learner, but also strengthens the relational bond, making the learning process more effective and nurturing.

Planning & Reflection

Implementing extinction thoughtfully requires meticulous planning, including the gradual removal of reinforcers and the teaching of replacement behaviors. It’s equally important to reflect on the outcomes and adjust strategies as needed.

If behavior continues, it may be a sign to slow down and build skills more gradually, always prioritizing the learner’s well-being.

The principle of extinction, when understood and applied with empathy, respect, and a commitment to skill-building, can be a transformative tool in ABA. By focusing on understanding the individual needs of learners, teaching replacement skills, and maintaining emotional safety, we can support them in achieving meaningful and lasting behavior change.

Remember, the goal of ABA is not just to reshape behaviors but to foster an environment of understanding, growth, and connection. Principles of ABA, when applied with care and kindness, align perfectly with this mission, paving the way for a more inclusive and empathetic approach to behavior analysis.

4 thoughts on “The Gentle Power of Extinction in ABA: How to Use Understanding, Empathy & Skill Building”

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  2. Extinction is not planned ignoring alone. As per behaviorism Extinction is a phenomenon of unpairing conditioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus to stop reinforcement ( giving attention to inappropriate behavior or not allowing to escape called as escape extinction ) the key is whether a reinforcement is continued to provide for the stimulus like tantrum. Use of extinction alone is never suggested, combining it with positive approaches are mandatory. And if the child has self injurious behaviors and aggressive behaviors extinction is less likely to be suggested.

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