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How We Learn

Emotional Wellness 3 curaJOY

There’s a home movie of me as a 3-year-old making an enormous fuss out of putting my rollerskates away. In the video, I yell about how much I hate rollerskates, refuse to put them away, run to my room, slam the door, and yell at my mom when she opens it. Eventually, I put them away (and grew up to love skating so much that I played roller derby in college and still hit the roller rink.) 

I’m sure this situation stirs up some scenarios in your mind!

Traditional wisdom would say, “What a little brat!” But there was an important bit of learning happening there: a young child learning that yelling and screaming and running off doesn’t get her out of cleaning up something she is perfectly capable of doing (which I was), even if she is mad because she cannot rollerskate perfectly yet. My parents let me have my outburst, but eventually, they followed through. 

What do you think little Caitlin did the next time she was asked to clean up? 

I don’t have proof, but, likely, she didn’t do the whole “I don’t wanna! I HATE rollerskates!” song and dance again – too much work, not enough reward. I might as well listen and do what’s being asked. 

When I was smaller, whining and yelling were acceptable ways of meeting my needs. As we grow, expectations change, and as a result, our behavior does, too. When our behavior is put on extinction, it means that the behavior (in this case, whining and yelling) stops producing its predictable desired result (to remove a demand). 

As we move into examples, we’ll refer to this as The Switcheroo, which disrupts the pattern in The Setup. The Setup refers to what the individual is used to happening in a particular situation (how they behave and what the outcome usually is).

The Switcheroo is followed by The Change: this is what the individual tries out and learns in this new situation in an attempt to restore the old consequence. You’ll see increases in:

  1. Variability (trying new behaviors: different words or actions), intensity (exhibiting “worse” or even “shocking” new behaviors)
  2. Frequency and duration (how often and how long the behavior lasts)
  3. Magnitude (might get increasingly louder or more forceful). 

In behavioral terms, The Switcheroo is called “extinction”, and The Change is an “extinction burst”. 


The Setup: Anthony, a boy with autism requiring substantial support, just started a gluten- and casein-free diet because his parents want to see if it helps him. 

The Switcheroo: All his favorite foods are carbs and processed snacks, but today he comes to school with all new, unprocessed food. When he opens his lunch, it’s not what he was expecting. 

The Change: Seeing other students with his favorite foods, he tries to take from them, then starts hitting and screaming when the teacher stops him. 

The Setup: Caitlin is accustomed to chatting with her teacher. 

The Switcheroo: Caitlin gets a new teacher who always seems busy and annoyed by kids.

The Change: Caitlin stops trying to chat with them and picks someone else to talk with instead. 

The Setup: Gerald puts his coins in the vending machine and punches in the code. 

The Switcheroo: The snack starts to move…and then gets stuck. 

The Change: Gerald cusses and hits the machine, and when that doesn’t work, he shakes it. It still doesn’t work, and his faith in vending machines is destroyed. He stops using them.

The Setup: You used to pick up the phone for them, but now they’re your ex. 

The Switcheroo: They call and call and call and call…but you keep your phone on silent and don’t answer. 

The Change: They keep calling, then send 68 text messages…then call 4 more times…

But you’ve stood your ground, and they finally stop. (For today.)

Extinction happens naturally as we grow, learn new things, and are held to new expectations and standards. If you have a child in ABA therapy and extinction is being implemented, there MUST be an alternative way – an easier, simpler way – to meet their needs. It’s unethical to try to reduce one behavior without teaching a new, better way to achieve the old result. (If I was treating my own self as a child, I would have taught her that she could say, “I don’t want to do that right now; I am playing”, or “Mommy, I’m so sad” or “Can you help me?” I could already talk in complex sentences, but I did not have the language I needed to communicate without blowing up. It did not occur to my angry 3-year-old self that I could say magic words instead. 

When receiving ABA:

  1. Ensure the clinician has a solid plan for teaching the new skill to replace the old behavior. There should be a major emphasis on communicating needs (called Functional Communication Training, or FCT). When the child is in a non-preferred situation, they can be quickly guided to say the new words, and receive what they asked for, and an extinction burst can be entirely avoided. 
  2. It’s very helpful to validate your child’s experience and emotions. Let them know you are there for them, you understand that they are feeling sad/mad/frustrated and that it’s okay to feel that way, and give the words: “You could tell me, ‘Mom, I really really want it right now.’”
  3. Provoking behaviors purposely and waiting for them all the way out is an ineffective use of time; it’s much easier for everyone involved to focus on helping the individual be successful with this new expectation and minimize errors. 
  4. Humans are much less tolerant of frustration when tired, hungry, hormonal, or have already had a bad day. Give grace (to yourself, too!) because sometimes we just aren’t 100% and need to take it easier with adjusted expectations). 
  5. Consistency is soooo important. You can support the fastest progress by sticking to the plan. Oh, and if you know your child is going to drive you crazy if you say “no” to extra TV time and you just can’t deal with that today? Just give in immediately before behavior starts to escalate. The faster, the better. That way, your child won’t learn that if they push you to your limit, you’ll say “yes” instead. 

Extinction is a powerful force in our lives that drives learning, but can be over-applied or lack critical components that make its use ethical. We’ll have more articles on extinction in the future. How has extinction showed up in your life? Have you ever had an “extinction burst” of your own? Share in the comments!

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