When parents and ABA therapists work to support a child having a distressed response behavior, the understanding is that learning new modes requires time and trust in the process. An extinction burst means that there has been an increase in the frequency, duration, or intensity of a challenging behavior – but it doesn’t mean that the therapy isn’t working.
Diminishing the occurrence of challenging behaviors is not always a linear process, and understanding what extinction bursts are is key to dealing with them appropriately. We’ll cover:
- Extinction bursts in ABA therapy.
- Why do extinction bursts happen?
- Examples of extinction bursts.
- How to manage extinction bursts.
While extinction bursts are not ideal situations and can be uncomfortable to address, knowing about them is a great way to deal with them most efficiently.
What is an Extinction Burst in ABA Therapy?
An extinction burst is when the reinforcement or reinforcing variables that cause behavior are removed, causing an increase in the challenging behavior.
This means if a family is working on fixing a distinct action – for example, if a child is crying in the grocery store checkout line to get an adult to buy candy, and the adult with them typically provides candy after the crying, this may be potentially problematic over time. The family should be advised to switch their response and avoid buying candy when the child cries for candy. This is the process of extinction or removing the reinforcement of candy for the behavior of crying. This may result in an increase in intensity and duration of the crying and would constitute an extinction burst.
Why Does an Extinction Burst Happen?
Extinction burst can happen for several reasons and is typical when the mode of reinforcement changes for a behavior. A child will then look to escalate challenging behaviors to express displeasure or confusion at the change in contingency.
Parents need to follow the ABA strategies and remain the course if the plan is to change reinforcements surrounding a challenging behavior. If there is an immediate reversion to the prior reinforcement, it will reinforce the tantrum and problematic behavior in a damaging way.
A collaborative plan for extinction burst will give your child and your family the best chance to reduce challenging behaviors in a healthy, long-term fashion.
What Causes an Extinction Burst?: Examples of Extinction Bursts
An extinction burst is extremely common in ABA therapy, and many parents experience and overcome it without knowing that the phenomenon exists. Whenever we try to reduce a challenging behavior via reinforcement, it will likely reassert itself for a short time. Some examples might look like this:
- Your child hates going to the store, as they think it is boring. If they complain during the trip, you give them candy to stop them from doing so. In the process, it creates a positive association with the store.
Eventually, if you do not believe candy as a reward to be a good solution, you try to stop reinforcing trips with it. Your child may then revert to complaining – and perhaps at a higher frequency or intensity – until they realize that this response will not change the reinforcement back.
- A child who screams at the teacher for attention may get immediate attention. While this may solve it short term, eventually, a teacher may determine that it is not healthy to reinforce in this way.
An extinction burst may occur when attention is withheld by the child screaming more and not understanding why social reinforcement is no longer happening. Eventually, the behavior should correct back towards the desired outcome.
During an extinction burst, it is often said that the storm comes before the calm. As your child tries to adjust and produce the prior-known reinforcement, they may increase or introduce a novel behavior. It is critical for parents, teachers, support groups, and therapists to be patient and weather this storm until the behavior stops.
What Happens After An Extinction Burst?
After an extinction burst, it is typical for the challenging behavior to increase in frequency and intensity. Additionally, extinction bursts can also occur for long periods after which the child had not been exhibiting any problem behavior.
This can be frustrating and challenging for parents, educators, and therapists, but it is critical to be consistent in reacting to and treating extinction bursts. Each child will have a unique timeline for extinction burst and its follow-up behaviors, so make sure to communicate about best practices for your child with your ABA therapist.
How to Manage Extinction Bursts
The principle of extinction bursts makes them hard to predict or prevent, but there are several measures you can take to help control extinction bursts, including:
1. Make a plan for reinforcement removal and stick to it
2. Determine an alternative functional method for obtaining the reinforcement and teach this skill
3. Respond consistently to an increase in challenging behavior
4. Do not reinforce the challenging behavior by reverting to prior reinforcement
5. Make sure everyone in your family and support group is prepared
6. Do not use extinction outside the ABA framework provided by a licensed therapist
Extinction is a very effective behavior-changing technique, but it can be difficult to tolerate during an extinction burst. Having a top-notch ABA clinic and licensed therapists to help you through this method is a surefire way to make this strategy less stressful and more successful.
Ally Pediatric Therapy is Arizona’s Leader for ABA
At Ally Pediatric Therapy, our number one goal is helping families succeed via ABA therapy. Our team of licensed therapists and clinicians can help with extinction and dealing with extinction bursts so that you can make behavioral changes for the better. If you want to learn more about an ABA framework for your child with autism, please reach out to us today. One conversation could be the beginning of a brighter future.