Everyday, I help break down a confusing ABA term and put it in plain English! Whether you are studying for your BCBA exam, explaining ABA to parents or are a student, there is no reason to be so confused over ABA terms. While “behavioral language” is very confusing, these concepts don’t have to be.

Today we will break down escape extinction: 

According to Cooper, Heron and Heward, “escape extinction- Behaviors maintained with negative reinforcement are placed on escape extinction when those behaviors are not followed by termination of the aversive stimulus; emitting the target behavior does not enable the person to escape the aversive situation.”

In plain English, escape extinction means to simply stop allowing someone to get out of something. Extinction refers to when you stop reinforcing (allowing a behavior to work) when you used to in the past. Escape is a behavior function that refers to trying to get out of a demand.  So put together, escape extinction means to stop reinforcing a behavior with the function of escape. 

If you are unclear about the functions of a behavior, watch this.

Example 1 of escape extinction

John’s mom would give him five minutes every time he cried when she said to turn off the television. As a result, every time John was told to turn off the television, John would cry because it usually resulted in him getting five extra minutes of television. John’s mom wanted the crying to stop. John’s board certified behavior analyst recommended John use escape extinction to get John to stop crying. To do this, John’s mom would have to stop giving John 5 minutes extra of television when he started to cry. Instead, she should turn off the television right away, even if he cries. 

Example 2 of escape extinction 

Every day during math class, Samantha throws her worksheet on the floor to get out of doing her math worksheet. When she does this, her teacher sends her to the principal’s office. At the principal’s office, Sara must write a letter of apology before completing her math worksheet. By the time she gets back, math is over and she does not have to complete the worksheet. This continues to happen almost daily so the teacher calls in a board certified behavior analysis to complete a functional behavior assessment. The behavior analyst determined that the function of Samantha’s behavior is escape. She explains that the reason that Samantha continues to throw the paper daily is that the reason she is doing it is to get out of doing the math worksheet and when she is sent to the principal’s office, she is getting what she wants from the behavior and is able to escape the task. The behavior analyst recommends that her teacher use escape extinction. Instead of sending Samanatha to the principal’s office when she throws the worksheet, the teacher should immediately pick it up, providing as little attention as possible, put it back on the desk and keep the demand of completing the worksheet in place until Samantha completes the worksheet. 

There are few things to think about when using any extinction procedure.

The first is that it can be very challenging to implement and sometimes unrealistic. It can be difficult if not impossible to apply extinction consistently. A basic but relatable example is a single mom who is working from home and is in an important meeting. Her son starts screaming because he wants a cookie. Mom knows that she will reinforce his behavior if she gives him a cookie but at the moment she also needs him to be quiet because she is trying to negotiate a deal and put a roof over his head. So, she gives him a cookie.  The problem with this is that when you use extinction only sometimes, what that is actually called is intermittent reinforcement meaning you reward a behavior sometimes. The reason that this is a problem is that it is the hardest schedule reinforcement to break because people will continue to try to use a behavior to get what they want if it works sometimes. 

The other thing that occurs when you use extinction is an extinction burst. I always like to use the example of a vending machine. 

Imagine the following scenario. It is a hot summer day and you have a million errands to do. You have been running back and forth from store to store trying to get home in time to get your child off the bus. You are parched but there is no way you have time to stop and get an ice cold latte. Then, from the corner of your eye, you see it, a little gift from heaven – a vending machine! You dig through your purse to find tissues, sticky candies your son must have put in there, a few Legos and just enough quarters to get a delicious bottle of water. You put your money in, press the button and the unthinkable happens…. Nothing comes out…..

What do you do? Do you just walk away? Of course not!

You punch the numbers again!

When that doesn’t work, you tap the machine lightly, and then ….. Maybe, not so lightly.

Then you go full on crazy! You kick it, shake it, and scream in frustration.

Finally, if none of that works, eventually you walk away…

An extinction burst is when a behavior gets worse before it gets better. When using extinction to manage challenging behaviors, this can lead to aggression or self injury creating a potentially dangerous situation. 

Both of these scenarios must be planned for.

A final limitation of extinction is that it must always be paired with reinforcement. If you are going to stop reinforcing one behavior, ethically you must teach someone a functionally equivalent way to get what they want. For example, if you no longer reward a child for throwing a tantrum every time they want food, they don’t need to stop eating. You need to teach them how to ask for food.

For more information on extinction, watch these.


APA Citation: Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.

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