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Defining Behavioral Science: Escape Extinction

Extinction in behavioral science means that a behavior stops occurring or becomes extinct. Extinction happens because the behavior no longer “works” to get a reward, so there is nothing to strengthen the behavior and keep it going.

Extinction also happens when the child is not allowed to behave poorly and escape something they do not want to do. In this case, it is called escape extinction because the thing that is being extinguished is escape. This is best seen when a child does not want to do something, like a chore, or homework, or take a bath, or eat their peas. They start acting ridiculous and the result of the ridiculousness is that they don’t have to do the thing. In other words, they get to escape and in the process learn that when they don’t want to do the thing, ridiculous behavior is the best way to get out of it.

This happens to parents because ridiculous behavior is ridiculous and it feels awful and it’s not even close to fun for anyone, so you just give in. That turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving, but in the worst way possible. Enter escape extinction. Escape extinction works to remove the opportunity to escape and expect that the child will need to do the thing, no matter the behavior.

Initially, if a child is used to being rewarded by escaping from the thing with poor behavior, they may escalate their behavior to get you to let them escape. That’s an extinction burst and it’s expected, but maybe not that fun. Over time, the behavior will decrease because it is not getting the reward of escape and behavior needs to fed to keep going.

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