Challenging behaviour can be, at the very least, stressful at the best of times. Parents, caregivers, teachers and teacher aides alike, are often faced with behaviour we don’t like to see. This can be socially inappropriate behaviour that can get in the way of learning, cause problems with getting along with other children, or cause a child to be unable to accept that they can’t have something when they want it. All behaviour that we do is reinforced in one way or another – that’s why we continue doing what works for us. When something we do no longer gives us the result we want, we try something else or discontinue what we were doing. When a child or young person (and this goes for us adults too) wants something, and then gets reinforcement for it, the chances are that this will increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again. So for an example, a toddler wants a particular toy in a shop. The toddler asks his mum to buy it but mum says no. The toddler then starts to cry and whine loudly. By now, mum is horribly embarrassed by the ‘can’t you control your kid’ stares from other shoppers, so mum gives in to the toddler just to keep him quiet, pays for the goods (oh and the toy) and runs for the door.

I think it’s safe to say that we have all been in that position at some point or another, as an adult on the receiving end or as a child – I even, to this day remember doing it myself in a bookshop to get a magazine that had cardboard cutout dolls in the back of it (an absolute must have at the age of 5). So what did I learn from that situation? Although I may have not thrown a complete and utterly embarrassing tantrum, what I did learn was that by putting a little bit of pressure on my mum, she would eventually cave and give in to my tears resulting in me getting the magazine I wanted resulting in ‘Positive Reinforcement’ (gaining something tangible). And, I was only 5! Now you can guess what I might have done the next time we went to that bookshop! In fairness to my mum, I can only remember the one incident.

We all want things we can’t have and sometimes saying ‘no’ is the hardest thing to do – whether it be in a parental role, a teacher or as a teacher aide. Sometimes, it’s easier to take the easy option and just give in. But the good news is, we don’t have to, but we do have to overcome what’s called an ‘extinction burst’. This has nothing to do with dinosaurs by the way but is, when we no longer reinforce a behaviour. We put the behaviour on what’s called ‘extinction’, in technical terms. This means that the behaviour could get worse before it gets better.

Let’s go back to the crying toddler who wants the toy. It starts with…. Can I have that toy? No. Can I pleeeeease have that toy? Mum explains to the toddler, they can’t have the toy because it’s not a special occasion etc… The toddler tries a few times (nicely) but it’s not working so then gives the crying a go – maybe now mum will give in. By this stage, mum is ignoring the pleas and continuing with searching for the items she came into buy. Now this is where the ‘extinction burst’ comes into play. Mum no longer reinforcers the crying or whining so now the toddler takes it up a notch. Loud screams are now coming from the toddler while mum chooses to casually continue shopping. Onlookers are horrified and the stares are not just those of ‘control your kid’ anymore, they are more like ‘you shouldn’t even have a kid’ stares. Because the behaviour is no longer being reinforced, it causes the level of behaviour to increase – like a burst of ‘I will try anything now’ to try to get the desired result, and in this case, it was the toy.

So this is the point where mum needs to remain calm, tactically ignore, and get over the ‘extinction burst’. It may take several attempts of mum and toddler going into the same shop for the toddler to realise that no matter what he does, he won’t be getting that toy anytime soon. The crying and whining behaviour is no longer being reinforced and will mostly start to decrease in frequency. It’s important to note that there may be times when the toddler tries this strategy again, just to see if mum is really following through. This is when mum needs to stick to her guns and continue to tactically ignore the behaviour burst.

This is just one example of putting a behaviour on extinction. Next month I would like to talk more in depth about positive reinforcement (gaining something from behaviour). In the meantime, here is a little meme I found that sums up the ‘extinction burst’ perfectly…