It’s gotta get worse before it gets better..

Categories: Interventions

… right?! … right? I feel like I keep telling myself that and it kinda sounds like I’m convincing myself. Ugh I have had a LONG day today. I am lay-on-the couch-with-an-endless-bowl-of-doritos tired.

So here’s the story: one of my student has a history of a lot of attention maintained behaviors. Last year it was screeching (can you say annoying??) and it was constant. However, we were successful at eliminating those completely. Now, this year a brand new one popped up – self injurious behavior of smacking himself on the thigh. And hard. He must have bruises. Based on the history of his behaviors and some ABC data it seems to be attention maintained again. So he is doing this behavior to get attention from peers or adults. We eliminated the screaming last year through planned ignoring. So we are doing that again with this new behavior.

It’s not uncommon for new behaviors like this to come up. Sometimes once a child is no longer getting reinforcement (in this case attention) 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! We do tons of communication and social skills training with this child but I think because of the summer break he has reverted to the inappropriate behaviors.

So anyways, my kiddo: so we are using planned ignoring for this attention maintained behavior. Today we had, what is called in the ABA world, an extinction burst. When you no longer give a reinforcer for a behavior (this is what planned ignoring is because we 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.

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.

I spent all day today in the middle of thigh slapping (literally) extinction burst. I spent most my afternoon taking frequency data and trying to provide countless opportunities for this student to gain attention appropriately. I’m pooped. Thought I would take this opportunity to share with you all the woes of an extinction bursts and promise that if you find yourself in this situation – it will get better!



 For more info on attention behavior interventions, check out my post from behavior week!


  1. Just wanted to let you know I totally feel you! I’ve been going through this with some escape behaviors in my classroom, but after a giant 2-hour escape-related meltdown on Monday, we’ve had an AWESOME rest of the week. It gets better!!

  2. Thanks Amanda!! I know it’s right around the corner. Just have to get there, right!? Glad to hear you intervention worked so well!

  3. We’re battling attention maintained regurgitating in my room currently. Talk about fun!
    I, like you, know that it will get better, but right now, I’m about ready to “regurgitate” myself!
    Hope your kiddo gets this behavior over and done and you can find meaningful ways for him to gain attention so that no new behaviors pop up!

  4. Ugh aren’t attention maintained behaviors the worst! Good luck with your kiddo too!

  5. Mine is wetting pants. It is so much fun. How do you ignore that behavior?

  6. So we just got over the hurdle of spitting with one of my students. Now I have another that is constantly reciting entire episodes of his favorite cartoon, Smurfs. I liked the Smurfs before now…any suggestions to replace this behavior?

  7. The scripting behavior is hard because it’s usually an ‘automatic’ behavior – meaning attention or escape from work are not reinforcing – the child is getting some internal sensory reinforcement. I talk about these is this post from behavior week: I have a student who had horrible scripting – scooby doo, scenes from chuckie, the fight his parents had last night – it was constant. We did an intervention with a timer and started with a really small interval (I think 1 minute) and if he had no “bad talking” (I felt like we needed to define the scripting for him so we could talk about so we call it “bad talking”) in the minute than he earned some high preferred item. Then once he was successful for this we raised it to 2 minutes and then 3 and so on. If he scripted during the interval he has to reset the timer. He is still using this intervention and is now on 15 minutes and he earns points that he cashes in at the end of the day for a ‘bigger’ reinforcer. This has gone AMAZING and he is a totally different kid. If this doesn’t make sense, shot me an email and I’d be happy to explain it more in depth!

  8. Ugh what a stinker you have! Wetting pants is the worst! Yea you definitely can’t ignore that one. What about doing an overcorrection intervention? I talk about it in this post: Basically he needs to clean up the mess of the accident and then some. Maybe he has to clean the whole floor in the classroom and clean part of the bathroom (sink, mirror, etc.). Do you think it’s for attention? While prompting this overcorrection you can still do so while providing minimal attention (no eye contact, just redirecting, minimal talking, etc.). For some kids, the movement/physical exertion of doing a lot of cleaning can be very punishing.


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