Want to know something crazy? When I implement a new intervention and a few days later, behaviors have gotten even worse, I get a little happy. No, I’m not a masicist and no, I’m not being mean to the child. I get a little happy because it means we are on the right track. We are on the track to decreasing inappropriate behaviors and increasing positive, functional, prosocial behaviors. Who wouldn’t be happy about that? But when you look at data that is steadily increasing, you’ll probably think I’m insane. 

When behaviors go up after a new intervention, I know we are on the right track because I have identified the correct reinforcer. Remember way back when we discussed taking baseline data and identifying the function (or reason) behind the problem behavior. We took all of that great ABC data and came up with a reason why the behavior is occurring. When we decide that reinforcer, we really don’t know for sure. We are taking our best guess. “Based on this data, I would guess that this screaming behavior is maintained by attention.” When we implement an intervention and removing the reinforcing consequence and the behavior gets worse, I know I was correct on my guess!  

In the ABA world, we call this an extinction burst. When you no longer give a reinforcer for a behavior (ie. if you use planned ignoring you are taking away the attention) – it is called extinction. And sometimes when you use extinction this can cause an increase in behavior. I know! Hold the phone – aren’t we supposed to be decreasing the behavior??!? This increase is only temporary! And this burst usually tells you that you are on the right track.



Extinction Burst

“An extinction burst is a temporary increase in the frequency, duration, or magnitude of the target response” (Lerman, Iwata, & Wallace, 1999).

A good example to think about this with is when you press an elevator button. You probably press it once and then wait. If no elevator comes you might press it again. If you are still waiting after a few more minutes, what are you gonna do? Probably pound away on that button right before you give up. So the extinction burst is that last push to try get reinforcement.

So let me tell ya – the extinction burst sucks. No nicer way to put it. Clench your teeth and bring your extra dose of patience because this the WORST TIME TO GIVE IN. You are then only teaching them that they need to be louder or more frequent with the behavior to get the reinforcement. Think about the classic kid in the candy aisle example. The kid starts whining, then goes to crying, then yelling, and soon is in level 5 tantrum on the floor. That mom is just trying to buy some quick groceries and out of desperation hands him the candy bar. What did that child learn? He learn he should go straight to a tantrum when he wants a candy. So think of this example, if you are dealing with an extinction burst. Keep telling yourself that this is temporary. This is okay. Ride the wave. Make sure you do not reinforce the behavior during the extinction burst. 

It’s not uncommon for new behaviors to pop up as well. Sometimes once a child is no longer getting reinforcement from one behavior, they will use a new behavior to try to get the reinforcer – which is why we always need to be teaching an appropriate way to get the reinforcement (those replacement behaviors I am always talking about)!