As we’ve been talking about in the past couple blogs, ABA is SO MUCH MORE than one-on-one table work with preschool-aged kids. It crosses all lines of age and ability once you understand the underlying principles of behavior. Last month we talked about one of the most impactful principles: behaviors happen for a reason (i.e., have a function) and that reason is almost always to tell us something that the person may not have other healthy communication skills to convey.

Let’s do a quick recap of the four functions & what they are telling us:

Attention—I want your attention right now! Escape—I do NOT want to do this task or be in this situation! Access—I really want that item or to do that activity! Self-Stimulation—This activity looks/feels/smells/sounds/tastes really good!!

Now that we understand the purpose of challenging behaviors, there are two more strategies that can be used to help reduce those behaviors: extinction and differential reinforcement. These two things go hand-in-hand; neither one will be nearly as successful as it can be without the other!

Strategy #3 Extinction

Are you thinking in your head, “Extinction?! What does extinction have to do with my students or how they behave?” That’s ok; extinction is a technical word in the behavior analysis world that doesn’t really have a “normal” counterpart. Basically, extinction means that a behavior no longer brings the same result. For example, many students might act out in class and be removed from the lesson to sit in the hall. Extinction, then, would be that acting out in class no longer results in being removed from class.

Like we’ve said before, people engage in behaviors that work to get them what they want or need; and this is true about both positive and negative behaviors. If something works, there is no reason not to do it in the future, right? Let’s go back to the example from before with the student acting out in class. If he began acting out one day because he was really upset with the tasks being presented and was sent into the hall, he likely noticed that he got to escape the work. In the future, he might try to use that same behavior of acting out when he doesn’t want to work (i.e., the function is escape) because it has worked before. It isn’t a positive means of getting out of work, but it is effective; and in the grand scheme of things, people are most likely to do what is effective, even if it isn’t the healthiest. If we know acting out is occurring to escape work, we can change the response so he does not get sent into the hall when acting out. And, thus, set the occasion that the behavior does not work to gain escape from work.

There are dangers in using extinction, though. These aren’t dangers that suggest it shouldn’t be used; but it needs to be well-planned and used in conjunction with other strategies (one of which I’ll get to next). To think about the side effects of extinction, picture a soda machine. You approach the soda machine, put in the money, and push the button for your favorite soda…and nothing comes out. What is your response? For me (a self-professed diet cola addict), I immediately start pushing the button over and over quite rapidly. I know you’ve all done it a time or two as well. And, when pushing the button doesn’t work, maybe I’ll give the machine a little shake, a little kick; who knows what I might do to try to get my soda out of the machine that I just gave WAY TOO MUCH money to. This is called an extinction burst or a behavior burst. When something that usually works doesn’t work any longer, we will try other (usually more intense) means of getting the desired result.

For kids with limited skill sets or when a particular behavior has been working for a really long time, the behavior burst might not stop in escalation before there are safety risks. Usually people have to work through all of the escalations they can think of and see that none of them work before they stop trying. With a student acting out, that might mean that they are going to try some fairly risky behavior before the behavior burst is over. That is why it is essential to plan for this before starting extinction and to have other pieces to the intervention that offer a healthy way of getting the same result.

The most important element to the success of extinction is consistency. If extinction is implemented consistently so the problem behavior never results in the desired outcome, the behavior burst will be shorter and likely less intense than if it is only inconsistently used.

Strategy #4 Differential Reinforcement

I said it many times when talking about extinction—it should not be used alone! If problem behaviors occur as a means of communication and we remove the only behavior that the student has to communicate a particular want/need, we have basically taken away their means of advocating for themselves. That is not what we are trying to do. Yes, we want them to stop that particular negative behavior, but they need some other way to get the same result. Oftentimes students display some positive behavior(s) that could be as effective as the negative options, but they don’t always do them as frequently as the negative behaviors. In the example above, I highlighted the extinction of an escape-maintained behavior. In order to give that student a replacement behavior so acting out is no longer the only option, he needs a new way to request escape from class or the work. Depending on the student’s current behaviors, the exact response will differ; however, it will always look like a means to access the same result that the problem behavior used to get. Let’s say this student occasionally demonstrates highly attentive, on-task behavior or asks to be excused from class. By making sure that these more appropriate behaviors are reinforced with a break from class, he will come to see that these positive behaviors are more effective and easier. This gives him a healthy way to request escape from the work tasks rather than using his unhealthy means of demanding it.

Both of these strategies will look slightly different based on the function of the challenging behavior, but what is most important to think about is the ultimate reinforcer that may be fueling problem behavior. Extinction is about making a behavior ineffective so that negative behaviors no longer result in positive outcomes. And when paired with differential reinforcement, the students will learn to shift their behavior away from the (now ineffective) problem behavior to the easier and more effective positive behavior.  In the most simple terms, this means providing “the good stuff” following positive behaviors while withholding “the good stuff” following challenging behaviors.

Check back in a few weeks as we dive further into how to use ABA to increase motivation in students and feel free to leave questions or thoughts in the comments; we love the conversations they can start 🙂