Non-Contingent Reinforcement & Extinction

This is part of the parent training course: http://www.simplybehaviour.com/parent-training/

Introduction:

NCR (or the “Non-Contingent Reinforcement”) and extinction (EXT) are two important concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) parent training. They are strategies used in conjunction with other interventions to promote positive behaviour and reduce challenging behaviours in their learners.

NCR is a technique used in ABA to decrease problem behaviour by providing the learner with the reinforcer that is maintaining the behaviour on a non-contingent basis, regardless of their behaviour. In other words, the reinforcer is delivered at predetermined intervals, independent of the child’s actions. The purpose of NCR is to reduce the child’s motivation to engage in problem behaviour by ensuring they receive the reinforcer without needing to engage in challenging behaviour to access it. By providing the reinforcer freely, the child becomes less dependent on problem behaviour, leading to a reduction in its occurrence.

EXT, on the other hand, is a procedure used to decrease or eliminate a behaviour by withholding the reinforcer that was previously maintaining it. In this case, when a problem behaviour occurs, the parent or caregiver does not provide the reinforcer that the learner typically receives for engaging in that behaviour. By removing the reinforcer, the individual learns that the behaviour no longer leads to the desired outcome, and its frequency and intensity decrease over time.

Both NCR and EXT can be employed strategically to promote positive behaviour and reduce challenging behaviour. NCR can be used to provide the someone with ample opportunities to access desired reinforcers without needing to engage in problem behaviour, thereby promoting alternative, more appropriate behaviours. Extinction, on the other hand, can be implemented to gradually decrease the occurrence of problem behavior by ensuring that it no longer results in the desired outcome.

It is important to note that the implementation of NCR and extinction should be done under the guidance of a trained ABA professional. They can assess the specific needs of the child and provide parents with appropriate strategies and guidelines to effectively use these techniques while ensuring the well-being and progress of the individual.

NCR

A NCR is often used in educational settings, but can be seen in everyday life as well. In the classroom, the goal of NCR is to provide the student with a reward so that it is unnecessary for them to engage in the usual problem behaviour. However, this approach does not include teaching the student replacement behaviours. Therefore, it is advised to add an instructional component regarding constructive, alternative behaviours. 

NCR And Functional Behavioural Analysis (FBA) 

The key to NCR being effective is to know the reason the student is being disruptive. What function do their actions serve? Sometimes a student misbehaves because they feel anxious about an assignment, so they look to the teacher for comfort. Because they may not have the social skills to ask for help, they seek help by being disruptive. In other circumstances, the reason may be to get attention. For instance, a student may call out answers to questions without raising their hand so the teacher will direct their attention towards them, which is very reinforcing to the child. 

Generally speaking, a student’s disruptive behaviour serves one of four functions: To gain attention To escape a task or activity To gain access to a wanted object To obtain or block sensory stimulation.

Gresham et al. (2001) define FBA as: “…a collection of methods for gathering information about antecedents, behaviours, and consequences in order to determine the reason (function) of behaviour” (p. 158). 

The teacher can apply NCR so the child does not need to engage the target behaviour. Or, if resources permit, the FBA team can devise an action plan to replace the disruptive behaviour with one that is more constructive, called a replacement behaviour. 

NCR EXAMPLES

Sitting Next to the Teacher: 

Letting a kindergarten student sit next to the teacher gives the child continuous attention, which eliminates their need to engage in disruptive behaviour to gain attention. 

Designated Time for Extra Attention: 

A teacher can make a point of setting aside a specific period of time to work with a student to give them the extra attention they usually seek by being disruptive. 

Bedtime Story Reading: 

Every night before bedtime, a parent reads to their child for 10-15 minutes. This can help prevent challenging bedtime behaviours. 

Movement Breaks: 

Giving a student that has difficulty maintaining their concentration a movement break every 20 minutes is reinforcing, but should occur regardless of their on-task or off-task behaviour. 

In Charge of Distributing Handouts: 

A primary school teacher recognizes one student’s need to feel important, so they allow them to distribute the handouts during each class. 

Reducing Repetitive Speech: 

A student with autism often engages in repetitive speech (i.e., perseverative speech) to reduce their anxiety during certain types of lessons. So, the teacher makes a habit of periodically gently patting the child on the shoulder during those lessons. 

Applying Verbal Praise: 

After taking detailed notes, a teacher realizes that one student engages in disruptive behaviour to gain attention about every 2 minutes. Therefore, the teacher offers the student verbal praise approximately every 90 seconds.

In a Paediatric Dental Setting: 

A pre-set automatic cuing device informs dental assistants to implement non-contingent escape for their autistic patient every 3 minutes. This significantly reduces crying and body movements (escape behaviours) during dental treatments. 

Peer Approval: 

The peer of a disruptive student delivers approval in the form of high-fives and fist-bumps at random intervals while working together on a class project.


After-School Talk Time:

A parent spends 10 minutes after getting home to let their energetic child talk about their day. This releases a lot of pent-up energy in the child and helps them relax.

  • Non-contingent Reinforcement Pros And Cons 
  • Can decrease problem behaviours without directly addressing them 
  • May not target the root cause of the behaviour and produce a respondent conditioning effect 
  • Easy to implement, as it doesn’t require complex strategies 
  • May not be sufficient for more severe or complex behaviours 
  • Can be applied across various settings and behaviours 
  • May not generalize well if the problem behaviour persists 
  • Can improve the individual’s mood and overall well-being 
  • May lead to dependency on external rewards 
  • Can help foster a positive environment and support motivation 
  • May undermine intrinsic motivation if overused 
  • Adaptable to the needs of different individuals 
  • May not be equally effective for all individuals 
  • Can be effective for managing behaviours in the short-term 
  • May not lead to lasting changes in behaviour

How Effective Is Noncontingent Reinforcement? 

There is a large body of research demonstrating the high effectiveness of NCR in the treatment of individuals with learning disabilities (Carr et al., 2009). Delivering a reinforcer independent of behaviour, the cornerstone of NCR, “results in a rapid and robust treatment effect” (p. 45). According to Carr et al. (2009), there are numerous advantages to using NCR. For instance, NCR works with several function types (escape, attention, access), across numerous problem behaviours (self-injurious, aggression, elopement, bizarre speech), and can “bolster the efficacy of other treatments” (p. 46). In addition, by examining the results of 59 studies, Carr and colleagues were able to assess the effectiveness of NCR according to stringent criteria as defined by The Task Force on the Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological Procedures (1995) of Division 12 of the American Psychological Association.

How To Increase NCR Effectiveness
When implementing an NCR treatment, there are several key elements that can increase the intervention’s effectiveness.

Ignore instances of the problem behaviour: 

Since the problem behaviour of students is often performed to gain teacher attention, reacting to disruptive behaviour reinforces it. 

Deliver reinforcement on time: 

Using the vibrating alarm on a cell phone will ensure the reinforcer is delivered at the correct time interval. 

Increase length of interval gradually: 

After the student has exhibited a reduction in the problem behaviour, increase the interval needed to receive the NCR. 

Return to the previous interval: 

If after lengthening the interval, the NCR is no longer effective, then return to the previous interval. 

Ignore problem behaviour at the end of an interval: 

If the problem behaviour occurs at the end of the interval, ignore it for approximately one minute before delivering the NCR.

Case Studies Of Noncontingent Reinforcement

  1. Schedule of Noncontingent Reinforcement (NCR) involves delivering reinforcement on a specific schedule, even though it is not contingent upon behavioir. The fixed interval (FI) schedule is commonly used, where reinforcement is provided after a specific time interval. For example, with an FI-5 schedule, reinforcement is given every 5 minutes. The schedule can be adjusted based on the frequency of problem behavior, with the goal of reducing the child’s dependence on reinforcement over time.
  2. In a case study on food selectivity in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), NCR was implemented to increase acceptance of non-preferred foods. A 4-year-old boy named Sam, diagnosed with ASD, was given continuous access to cartoon videos while non-preferred foods were presented during 10-minute sessions. NCR resulted in a significant decrease in aggression and an increase in food acceptance, with Sam consuming a variety of non-preferred foods.

Conclusion:

NCR refers to delivering a reinforcer which is independent of a specific behaviour. Unlike typical reinforcement practices that involve rewarding occurrences of specific behaviour, there is no connection between the target behaviour and NCR. NCR is often used in classroom settings to address the attention-seeking behaviour of students, which can be disruptive. By delivering a reinforcer before the disruptive behaviour occurs, there is no need for the student to be disruptive; their need for attention has already been met. The effectiveness of NCR can be improved by ignoring problem behaviour, using an alarm to ensure timely delivery, and gradually lengthening the interval of time for delivery of the NCR. A large body of research has demonstrated that several versions of NCR are highly efficacious.

Extinction

In other words, when a behaviour is no longer followed by a reward, the individual may exhibit an increase in the frequency, duration, or intensity of that behaviour. This increase in behaviour is known as an extinction burst.

For example, if a child is used to getting a candy bar every time they ask for one, and suddenly the candy bar is no longer given, the child may throw a tantrum or ask for the candy bar repeatedly. This is an extinction burst.

Extinction procedures play a significant role in behavior analysis, aiming to reduce or eliminate previously reinforced behaviours. However, implementing extinction requires careful consideration of various factors to ensure ethical and effective practice. Here we will explore important aspects to consider when utilising extinction procedures in behaviour modification.

  1. Function of the Behaviour:

Before implementing extinction, it is crucial to understand the function or purpose that the behaviour serves for the individual. Conducting a functional behaviour assessment (FBA) can provide valuable insights into the underlying reasons for the behaviour. By identifying the function, behaviour analysts can tailor extinction procedures to target the specific reinforcement contingencies maintaining the behaviour.

  1. Alternative Reinforcement:

Identifying and providing alternative sources of reinforcement is essential during extinction procedures. If a behavior is being extinguished, it is important to offer alternative behaviors that serve the same function or fulfill the individual’s needs in a more appropriate way. By redirecting the individual towards more acceptable behaviours, the likelihood of extinction bursts or the emergence of new problem behaviours can be reduced.

  1. Consistency:

Consistency in applying extinction procedures is crucial for their effectiveness. It is essential to ensure that reinforcement is consistently withheld in the presence of the target behavior. Inconsistency, such as intermittently providing reinforcement, can lead to confusion and make the extinction process more challenging. Caregivers and behavior analysts should communicate and collaborate to maintain consistency across different environments.

  1. Extinction Burst:

During the initial phase of extinction, it is common to observe an extinction burst. This refers to a temporary increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of the behavior being extinguished. It is crucial to anticipate and prepare for this burst, as it can be challenging for caregivers and may lead to frustration. Educating caregivers about the possibility of an extinction burst can help them remain committed to the extinction process.

  1. Ethical Considerations:

Ethical considerations are paramount when implementing extinction procedures. It is crucial to ensure that withholding reinforcement, particularly attention, does not cause harm or distress to the individual. Behaviors serve as a form of communication, and ignoring them entirely can impede the individual’s ability to express their needs. Striking a balance between reducing unwanted behaviors and maintaining positive relationships is essential for ethical practice.

  1. Monitoring Progress:

Regularly monitoring the progress of the extinction procedure is essential. Collecting data and objectively analyzing the results can help determine if the extinction process is effective or if adjustments need to be made. It is important to track changes in behavior frequency, intensity, and duration, as well as any potential side effects or the emergence of new behaviors.

Why Do Extinction Bursts Happen?

Extinction bursts happen because the individual has learned that a particular behaviour leads to a reward. When the reward is no longer given, the individual becomes frustrated and may try harder to get the reward. This is a natural response to the removal of a reinforcer.

How to Handle Extinction Bursts

Dealing with extinction bursts can be challenging, but it is an essential part of ABA therapy. Here are some strategies that can be used to handle extinction bursts:

  1. Stay Calm

It is essential to remain calm when dealing with an extinction burst. The individual may become agitated, but it is crucial to remain calm and not react emotionally. Reacting emotionally may reinforce the behaviour and make it more challenging to extinguish.

  1. Be Consistent

Consistency is key when dealing with extinction bursts. It is essential to be consistent in not reinforcing the behaviour. If the behaviour is sometimes reinforced and sometimes not, the individual may become confused and continue to exhibit the behaviour.

  1. Provide Alternative Behaviours

Providing alternative behaviours can be helpful in reducing extinction bursts. For example, if a child is used to getting a candy bar every time they ask for one, an alternative behaviour may be to ask for a healthy snack instead.

  1. Reinforce Positive Behaviours

Reinforcing positive behaviours can also be helpful in reducing extinction bursts. When the individual exhibits a positive behaviour, it is essential to reinforce it immediately. This will help to increase the frequency of positive behaviours and decrease the frequency of challenging behaviours.

Examples of Extinction Bursts in ABA Therapy

Extinction bursts can manifest in various ways depending on the individual and the behaviour being targeted. Here are some common examples of extinction bursts that may occur during ABA therapy:

  1. Tantrums

Tantrums are a common extinction burst in young children undergoing ABA therapy. If a child is used to getting their way by throwing a tantrum, removing the reward may lead to an increase in tantrums.

  1. Aggression

Aggressive behaviours such as hitting, biting, or kicking may also be exhibited during an extinction burst. If an individual has learned that aggression leads to getting what they want, removing the reinforcement may result in an increase in aggressive behaviours.

  1. Attention-Seeking Behaviours

Attention-seeking behaviours such as interrupting, calling out, or talking over others may also be exhibited during an extinction burst. If an individual has learned that these behaviours lead to attention from others, removing the reinforcement could result in an increase in these behaviours.

It’s important to remember that each individual is unique and may exhibit different types of behaviours during an extinction burst. It’s crucial for therapists and caregivers to work together to identify potential extinction bursts and develop strategies for handling them effectively.

How to Control Extinction Bursts

While extinction bursts can be challenging to handle, they can be controlled with appropriate interventions. Here are some strategies that can be used to control extinction bursts:

  1. Conduct a Functional Behaviour Assessment (FBA)

Conducting an FBA is crucial in understanding the function of the behaviour and identifying potential triggers for an extinction burst. By understanding why the behaviour occurs, therapists and caregivers can develop targeted intervention strategies.

  1. Implement Reinforcement Schedules

Implementing reinforcement schedules can help reduce the frequency and intensity of extinction bursts. For example, gradually reducing the frequency or magnitude of reinforcement over time may help individuals adapt to changes in their environment.

  1. Use Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement involves reinforcing alternative behaviours that are more socially acceptable while withholding reinforcement for challenging behaviours. This method can help individuals learn new, more appropriate behaviours while reducing the occurrence of challenging behaviours.

  1. Provide Visual Supports

Visual supports such as social stories or visual schedules can also be helpful in reducing extinction bursts. These supports provide individuals with clear expectations and help them understand what will happen next, reducing anxiety and confusion.

  1. Involve Parents and Caregivers

Involving parents and caregivers in developing intervention strategies is critical for success in controlling extinction bursts outside of therapy sessions. By working together, therapists, parents, and caregivers can implement consistent strategies across all environments, leading to more positive outcomes for individuals undergoing ABA therapy.

By implementing these strategies consistently and effectively, therapists and caregivers can control extinction bursts and support positive behaviour change in individuals undergoing ABA therapy.

How long is an extinction burst?

The duration of an extinction burst can vary depending on the individual and the behaviour being targeted. Some extinction bursts may be short-lived, lasting only a few minutes or hours, while others may persist for days or even weeks. It is crucial to remain patient and consistent when dealing with extinction bursts, as they are a natural part of the behaviour change process. By implementing effective strategies and remaining committed to positive behaviour change, therapists and caregivers can help individuals successfully navigate through extinction bursts and achieve their goals in ABA therapy.

Summary

Extinction bursts are a common occurrence in ABA therapy. They happen when a behaviour is no longer reinforced. Dealing with extinction bursts can be challenging, but it is an essential part of ABA therapy. It is important to stay calm, be consistent, provide alternative behaviours, and reinforce positive behaviours. Extinction bursts can manifest in various ways, such as tantrums, aggression, or attention-seeking behaviours. Each individual may exhibit different types of behaviours during an extinction burst. Therapists and caregivers should work together to identify potential extinction bursts and develop strategies to handle them effectively. To control extinction bursts, conducting a Functional Behaviour Assessment (FBA) is crucial to understand the function of the behaviour and implement targeted interventions. Reinforcement schedules, differential reinforcement, visual supports, and involving parents and caregivers are additional strategies to control extinction bursts. The duration of an extinction burst can vary, ranging from minutes to weeks. It is important to be patient and consistent during this process.

In conclusion, extinction bursts are a natural part of behaviour change in ABA therapy. By implementing appropriate strategies, therapists and caregivers can successfully manage extinction bursts and support positive behaviour change in individuals.

References 

Bachmeyer, M. H. (2009). Treatment of selective and inadequate food intake in children: A review and practical guide. Behaviour Analysis in Practice, 2(1), 43–50. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391736

Britton, Lisa & Carr, James & Landaburu, Heidi & Romick, Kimberlee. (2002). The efficacy of noncontingent reinforcement as treatment for automatically reinforced stereotypy. Behavioural Interventions, 17, 93-103.

Carr, J. E., Severtson, J. M., & Lepper, T. L. (2009). Noncontingent reinforcement is an empirically supported treatment for problem behaviour exhibited by individuals with developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30(1), 44-57.

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