Extinction is a process that stops a learned behaviour from occurring. When used in combination with reinforcement, it is much more effective than punishment at reducing or eliminating an undesirable behaviour. Extinction occurs when a behaviour is no longer reinforced, and eventually, loses its attraction. The key to successful extinction in many cases is to first identify exactly what is reinforcing the behaviour. If a child throws tantrum because she has learned that she can get her own way when throwing one (reinforcement), then giving into the child will only reinforce the behaviour further. Once you have identified the reinforcer (getting what she wants), you remove it. If your child throws tantrums, put them in their room and don’t give them what they want. If a child has learned that tantrums work, they might try harder, so don’t expect it to be easy. Just remember, if they get their way this time, they will be more likely to throw another tantrum next time.
Remember we said that the key was to identify what reinforces the unwanted behaviour. In many cases, there might be several reinforcers. The child might also be seeking to establish their own sense of power or to gain your full attention (both perfectly natural desires which certainly should be addressed). Your frustration, anger or despair can provide them with what they want, and will reinforce the behaviour. Try the following guidelines:
- remove all rewards for that behaviour
- refrain from administering punishment
- establish a procedure for dealing with the behaviour that does not reinforce it (e.g.
putting the child in his room)
look for occasions to reward desirable behaviour
- expect the extinction to take time. It took several repetitions to reinforce the behaviour; it will take a few more to extinguish it
- address the desires (for power, for attention) that might have led to the behaviour in ways that are acceptable to both of you.
Problems with punishment
While punishment can be effective at reducing behaviour, it also has some significant disadvantages:
- It is often administered in anger and without careful thought. This means that the underlying reason for the punishment can become less important than the punishment itself.
- The effects are temporary, and usually depend on the punisher being present. In other words, I might not bully others around my teacher because I will be punished, but when the teacher is out of the room, I will bully whom I choose.
- Punishment can lead to negative consequences, such as anxiety and fear, distrust of the punisher, and anger towards the punisher. A parent who punishes might come to be always associated in the child’s mind with punishment. A punished child might feel unloved, misunderstood, and humiliated. Also, unless you are perfectly clear about what is being punished and why, you might simply confuse a small child who may not understand why you are so upset.
- Punishment cannot always immediately follow the behaviour, which reduces its effectiveness, and reduces the association between the behaviour and consequence.
- Punishment does not teach the person how to behave, or why the behaviour was so offensive. In many cases, a much better consequence is to explain why the behaviour is unacceptable, tell the person exactly how you want them to behave in that situation (not something vague like, ‘be a good boy’), and reinforce desirable behaviour.
- Punishment can actually reinforce unwanted behaviour, especially if the person wanted to cause distress or gain attention.
If you do use punishment, research clearly indicates that in most everyday instances, it is most effective:
- when mild and accompanied by reasoning,
- when it is administered calmly and promptly,
- when it is of reasonable duration (it doesn’t help to remain angry at your child for an hour after the event),
when it is followed as soon as possible with reinforcement of a desirable behaviour.