Many behavior analysts focus on using positive reinforcement or differential reinforcement to increase desired and appropriate behaviors. This is an excellent strategy and can be very effective.
Difficulty with Reinforcement Alone
However, when it comes to what is realistic in many natural environments, such as in a family home or in a school setting, simply putting one behavior on extinction and using positive reinforcement on another behavior (such as with a DRA or DRI intervention) may not always be feasible.
Reasons to Find an Alternative to Reinforcement with or without Extinction
It may not also be comfortable or fully supported by some parents. Some parents may feel like they should do something about the maladaptive behavior their child displays rather than simply ignoring it and waiting for the appropriate behavior to be displayed so they can reinforce it.
Other reasons that it may not be the best option to use extinction on a behavior is when the behavior is dangerous to the self or to someone else.
Additionally, some parents don’t want to allow a certain behavior to be displayed in their home. This may be due to their preference not to want their other children to observe these maladaptive behaviors or simply due to their own parenting preferences for how they choose to raise their children.
Extinction is not Always Feasible or Desirable
No matter the reason, putting a behavior on extinction may not always be the best recommendation for a home setting or other natural environment.
Using extinction may involve ignoring, or not attending, to a child’s behavior. It may also involve not giving a tangible item to a child contingent upon their behavior. Either way, sometimes another strategy would better serve the child, the parent, and/or the family unit as a whole.
An alternative strategy that could be used in replacement of extinction, including using planned ignoring, is known as the matching law.
What is the Matching Law?
The matching law states that there are two potential reinforcement contingencies that occur at the same time.
One of these contingencies involves providing lower quality and smaller amounts of the reinforcer for as little amount of time as possible based on a specific behavior (the maladaptive behavior).
The other contingency involves providing higher quality and larger amounts of the reinforcer for longer amounts of time based on a specific behavior (the desired, alternative behavior; Athens & Vollmer, 2010).
Example of Using the Matching Law in a Family Home
What this may look like in a home setting could be when a three-year-old child tends to hit his sibling. The parent may use the matching law to give the child a consequence to his behavior.
Maybe the parent gives the child a stern “No hitting. Keep your hands to yourself.” Maybe the parent even physically moves the child a few feet away from his sibling to prevent them from hitting the other child again.
Additionally, the parent could give lots of praise, verbal attention, and even physical contact in the form of putting a hand on the child’s back or hugging them when they play nicely (playing without hitting).
In this example, the matching law is present in that there is shorter amount of attention given to the child contingent upon the maladaptive behavior and greater amounts of attention given to the child contingent upon the appropriate behavior. This is assuming that the child is reinforced by parental attention either in the form of verbal communication and/or physical contact.
Use the Matching Law in Natural Settings When Appropriate
Consider using and recommending the matching law in natural settings to help parents, teachers, and other people who care for and teach children.
Be sure to consider the individual situation and the individual person when making recommendations or using behavioral principles as there is never a one-size-fits-all approach to helping people improve their quality of life or helping kids learn new things.
With that being said, the matching law is an excellent potential option for using in the natural environment.
Athens, E. S., & Vollmer, T. R. (2010). An investigation of differential reinforcement or alternative behavior without extinction. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 569-589.