Operant Extinction

A lot of times, when operant extinction (or extinction for short) is mentioned, it is in the context of planned ignoring. The problem with this is the assumption that the individual is ignored. The reality is that should always be the BEHAVIOR which is ignored, not the individual.

Extinction occurs naturally all the time, so it is important to specify what it is. Operant extinction is what happens when reinforcement that normally is available is no longer available. While planned ignoring can be one way of putting extinction for a behavior into place, it is just an example.

For example, there is a chemical that is on the market which you can consume. This chemical makes it so you don’t taste sweet. Why would this chemical be used? Well, individuals who are trying to reduce their sugar consumption will use it so that when they are tempted by a sweet treat they will not get the reward. The behavior being placed on extinction by those individuals is eating sweet things. The reinforcement that isn’t accessible is the taste of sweetness. The consequence is that, if they are consistent with consuming this chemical, that they will consume sweet things less.

In the case of planned ignoring, it can be done wrong if we don’t keep in mind our objectives and how we can do it right. Here are some basic rules for planned ignoring to make sure it’s been done correctly and in a way that doesn’t harm.

1. Always focus on a behavior, not the person. We should never ignore a person, and should always honor functional communication.

2. We need to make sure we are teaching/shaping replacement skills that are accessible to them. An example of this is that we can teach an individual that is non-vocal how to sign or using other communication methods to ask for help or gain attention. Expecting them to speak about their needs is unreasonable & cruel. Likewise, expecting a small child who is struggling with big emotions to “remain” calm and “talk nicely” is unreasonable. We can shape tone of voice and more complex words over time, but we need to focus on what can be done.

3. Honor functional communication whenever can. If attention is the function of the behavior, we should be sure to reinforce attention seeking that is functional.

4. Attention isn’t bad. Behavior isn’t bad. It is. The behavior itself if telling us something. If the individual is doing a dangerous or maladaptive behavior it’s because they have learned that that is how they can access attention. Giving attention for pro-social behaviors is essential.

5. Look for the win. Look for the behaviors that will help the individual. Focus on those. Start focusing on what is wanted rather than trying to avoid something not wanted.

6. Have the attitude that this is you and the individual working together towards a goal. You are a member of a team. Your goals should be aligned with helping the individual succeed.

Ultimately, attention is a wonderful thing. If attention is the function of a behavior that is highly dangerous or socially significant, the best answer is usually giving plenty of attention before the behavior occurs. You can gradually decrease the attention over time so that the individual can learn to tolerate less attention, but the reality is that we should be giving attention when and where we can. It should be up to the individual as to whether they want to have less attention. It is respectful and caring. But regardless of preference, we should never ignore the individual, only behaviors if it is appropriate to the context, and only if we are following the rules listed above.