A Proven Strategies for Dealing with Extinction Bursts in ABA

Extinction bursts are a typical part of the ABA therapy process, marked by an increase in unwanted behaviors. Learn effective strategies for addressing this phenomenon.

Understanding Extinction Bursts in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), extinction bursts are a phenomenon that occurs when a behavior, which has previously been reinforced, no longer receives reinforcement. This section provides an introduction to extinction bursts and a definition and explanation of extinction in ABA.

Introduction to Extinction Bursts

Extinction bursts refer to an increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of a behavior when it no longer produces the desired outcome or reinforcement. It is important to note that extinction bursts are a temporary and predictable response that can occur during the process of behavior modification. Understanding and managing extinction bursts is crucial for behavior analysts and practitioners in ABA.

During an extinction burst, individuals may exhibit a range of behaviors, such as increased vocalizations, aggression, or repetitive actions. These behaviors may be attempts to regain the previously reinforced response. It is essential to recognize that extinction bursts are a natural part of the behavior change process and should be anticipated and addressed effectively.

Definition and Explanation of Extinction in ABA

In ABA, extinction refers to the deliberate withholding of reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior. The goal of extinction is to decrease or eliminate the occurrence of the target behavior. When a behavior is no longer reinforced, individuals may initially show an increase in the frequency or intensity of that behavior, leading to an extinction burst.

Extinction works by breaking the association between the behavior and the reinforcement. Over time, when the behavior consistently does not result in reinforcement, it is expected to decrease in frequency and eventually extinguish. Extinction is commonly used as a technique to modify behavior and promote the acquisition of more appropriate behaviors.

In the following sections, we will explore what happens during an extinction burst, why they occur, and strategies for effectively managing them in the context of ABA. Understanding the phenomenon of extinction bursts and employing appropriate techniques is essential for behavior analysts and practitioners to facilitate positive behavior change while maintaining ethical guidelines.

The Phenomenon of Extinction Bursts

Extinction bursts are a significant phenomenon in applied behavior analysis (ABA) that occur when a previously reinforced behavior no longer produces the expected reinforcement. Understanding what happens during an extinction burst and why they occur is essential for professionals working in ABA.

What Happens During an Extinction Burst

During an extinction burst, the frequency, intensity, or duration of the behavior that was previously reinforced may initially increase significantly. This surge in behavior can often be seen as a last-ditch effort by the individual to obtain the reinforcement that is no longer available.

For example, let's consider a child who has been receiving attention for throwing tantrums. When the attention is no longer provided as a consequence of tantrum behavior, the child may initially escalate their tantrums, becoming louder, more intense, and exhibiting a wider range of behaviors in an attempt to elicit the attention they were previously receiving.

It's important to note that the increase in the behavior during an extinction burst is temporary and part of the process of behavior change. The behavior may eventually decrease if the extinction procedure is consistently implemented.

Why Extinction Bursts Occur

Extinction bursts occur due to the principles of operant conditioning. When a behavior has been consistently reinforced in the past, the individual has learned that performing that behavior leads to a desired outcome. However, when the reinforcement is suddenly removed, it creates a state of frustration and confusion.

During an extinction burst, the individual may experience an increase in aversive emotions and engage in an escalated level of behavior in an attempt to regain the lost reinforcement. This increase in behavior occurs because the individual is testing the boundaries and exploring alternative strategies to obtain the desired outcome.

From a behavioral standpoint, extinction bursts can be seen as a natural response to the removal of reinforcement. They reflect the individual's efforts to regain control and restore the reinforcing consequences they were previously receiving.

Understanding the phenomenon of extinction bursts is crucial in designing effective behavior modification strategies and managing behavior during the extinction process. By recognizing the temporary nature of extinction bursts and the underlying principles of behavior change, professionals in ABA can implement appropriate strategies to navigate through this challenging phase.

Examples of Extinction Bursts

Extinction bursts, a phenomenon observed in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), can manifest in various behavioral and real-life examples. Understanding these examples can provide insight into the nature and impact of extinction bursts on behavior.

Behavioral Examples of Extinction Bursts

In the context of ABA, extinction bursts can be observed in a wide range of behaviors. These bursts often occur when a previously reinforced behavior no longer receives the expected reinforcement. Here are some behavioral examples of extinction bursts:

  1. Tantrums: A child who has learned that tantrums result in attention from their parents may initially escalate their tantrum behavior when their tantrums are no longer reinforced. This escalation is an extinction burst, as the child is attempting to regain the attention they once received.
  2. Protesting: When a person has been reinforced by being excused from a task or activity, they may initially increase their protest behaviors, such as whining or arguing, when the reinforcement is no longer provided. This increase in protest behavior is an extinction burst.
  3. Persistence: In some cases, individuals may persistently engage in a behavior that previously led to reinforcement, even if the reinforcement is no longer present. For example, a child who used to receive a treat for asking repeatedly may continue to ask repeatedly, hoping for the treat, even when the treat is no longer given. This persistence is an extinction burst.

Real-Life Examples of Extinction Bursts in ABA

Extinction bursts can also be observed in real-life situations where behavior is influenced by reinforcement contingencies. Here are a few examples:

  1. Cell Phone Addiction: If an individual is accustomed to receiving instant gratification through social media notifications on their cell phone, they may experience an extinction burst when they attempt to reduce their screen time. They may initially intensify their checking behavior, hoping to regain the previous level of reinforcement.
  2. Gambling: In the context of gambling, an individual who has previously experienced wins and rewards may exhibit an extinction burst if they suddenly stop winning. They may increase their gambling behavior, hoping to recreate the past reinforcement.
  3. Smoking Cessation: When someone tries to quit smoking, they may experience an extinction burst in the form of increased cravings and even heightened smoking behavior. This burst occurs because the expected reinforcement (nicotine) is no longer being received, leading to an initial escalation in smoking behavior.

Understanding these behavioral and real-life examples of extinction bursts can help individuals and behavior analysts recognize and navigate the challenges that arise during behavior modification. By being aware of these bursts, targeted strategies can be implemented to effectively manage and address them. 

Managing Extinction Bursts

When implementing applied behavior analysis (ABA) techniques, it is important to be prepared for the occurrence of extinction bursts. These bursts can be challenging to navigate, but with the right strategies and mindset, they can be effectively managed. Here, we will explore some strategies for dealing with extinction bursts and emphasize the importance of consistency and patience throughout the process.

Strategies for Dealing with Extinction Bursts

  1. Anticipate and Plan: Before beginning an extinction procedure, it is crucial to anticipate the possibility of an extinction burst. By understanding the behavior patterns and triggers, you can develop a comprehensive plan to address and manage the burst effectively. This plan should include guidelines for staff members, teachers, or caregivers involved in the ABA program.
  2. Maintain Clear Communication: Consistent and clear communication is key when dealing with extinction bursts. It is essential to explain the procedure and its potential effects to everyone involved, such as parents, teachers, or caregivers. Ensuring that everyone understands the process and is on the same page can help mitigate confusion and frustration.
  3. Establish Replacement Behaviors: During the extinction process, it is important to provide individuals with alternative, appropriate behaviors to replace the behavior being targeted for extinction. This helps redirect their focus and provides them with an opportunity to engage in more desirable actions. Reinforce and praise these replacement behaviors to encourage their adoption.
  4. Implement Reinforcement Strategies: While extinction involves the withholding of reinforcement for a specific behavior, it is important to continue reinforcing other appropriate behaviors. By doing so, individuals are motivated to engage in these desired behaviors instead of exhibiting extinction bursts. This positive reinforcement can help maintain progress and encourage continued growth.
  5. Collect Data and Monitor Progress: Throughout the extinction process, it is crucial to collect data and monitor the individual's progress. This data provides valuable insights into the effectiveness of the strategies being implemented and allows for adjustments to be made if necessary. Regularly review the data to assess progress and make informed decisions regarding the continuation or modification of the extinction procedure.

Importance of Consistency and Patience

Consistency and patience are fundamental when managing extinction bursts. It is important to maintain a consistent approach and follow the established plan without wavering. Deviating from the plan can inadvertently reinforce the undesired behavior and prolong the extinction process. Consistency also ensures that everyone involved in the individual's care is on the same page, reducing confusion and promoting a unified approach.

Patience is a virtue in managing extinction bursts. It is essential to remember that behavior change takes time and that extinction bursts are a temporary and expected part of the process. By remaining patient, caregivers, teachers, and therapists can provide the individual with the support and understanding needed to navigate through these challenging moments successfully.

As with any behavior modification technique, it is crucial to adhere to ethical guidelines and prioritize the well-being of the individual. Balancing the use of extinction procedures with appropriate support, reinforcement of replacement behaviors, and ongoing assessment is essential. 

By employing effective strategies and maintaining consistency and patience, individuals and their support systems can successfully manage extinction bursts in applied behavior analysis programs. Adaptability, flexibility, and a focus on long-term progress are key components of navigating through these challenging moments and promoting positive behavioral change.

Ethical Considerations

When addressing extinction bursts in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it is essential to consider the ethical implications and prioritize the well-being of the individual undergoing behavior modification. Balancing the individual's needs with the goal of behavior change is crucial in maintaining an ethical approach.

Balancing the Well-being of the Individual

In the context of extinction bursts, it is important to strike a balance between the well-being of the individual and the desired behavioral outcomes. While the purpose of ABA is to promote positive behavior change, it is crucial to ensure that the techniques used do not cause excessive distress or harm to the individual.

When implementing extinction procedures, behavior analysts should carefully monitor the emotional and physical well-being of the individual. It is essential to assess the intensity and duration of the extinction burst and consider adjusting the intervention if the individual's well-being is significantly compromised.

Ethical Guidelines for Addressing Extinction Bursts in ABA

To maintain ethical standards, behavior analysts should adhere to specific guidelines when addressing extinction bursts in ABA. These guidelines ensure the well-being and rights of the individual are protected throughout the behavior modification process. Some key ethical considerations include:

  1. Informed Consent: Behavior analysts should obtain informed consent from the individual or their legal guardian before implementing any behavior modification procedures. This includes providing a clear explanation of the goals, procedures, potential risks, and benefits of the intervention.
  2. Least Restrictive Alternative: The principle of using the least restrictive alternative emphasizes the importance of choosing interventions that are minimally intrusive and considerate of the individual's needs and preferences. Behavior analysts should explore less aversive techniques before resorting to extinction procedures.
  3. Monitoring and Data Collection: Continuous monitoring and data collection are essential during the extinction process. Behavior analysts must closely track the individual's behavior and emotional responses to ensure that the intervention remains effective and does not cause undue distress.
  4. Individualized Approach: Each individual is unique, and behavior analysts should tailor their approach to suit the specific needs of the individual. A personalized behavior intervention plan should be developed, taking into account the individual's strengths, challenges, and cultural considerations.
  5. Ongoing Evaluation and Modification: Behavior analysts should continuously evaluate the effectiveness of the behavior modification plan and make modifications as necessary. If an extinction burst becomes excessively distressing or poses significant risks, it may be necessary to reassess the intervention and consider alternative strategies.

By adhering to these ethical guidelines, behavior analysts can ensure that the individual's well-being is prioritized while addressing extinction bursts in ABA. It is essential to approach behavior modification with empathy, patience, and a commitment to ethical practices. 


Are extinction bursts harmful to my child?

No, extinction bursts are not harmful to your child. It is a normal reaction to the change in the reinforcement schedule. It is important to remember that the behavior will eventually decrease once the child realizes that the reward is not coming back.

How long do extinction bursts last?

The duration of an extinction burst can vary depending on the child and their behavior history. Some children may only exhibit an increase in behavior for a short period, while others may take longer. However, it is important to note that extinction bursts are temporary and will eventually subside.

Can I prevent extinction bursts from happening?

Extinction bursts are a natural part of ABA therapy and cannot be completely prevented. However, gradual reduction of rewards can help minimize the intensity and frequency of these bursts. Additionally, working closely with your therapist can help you prepare for any potential increase in challenging behavior during this process.

What should I do if my child exhibits an extinction burst?

If your child exhibits an extinction burst, it is important to remain consistent with the new reinforcement schedule and not give in to their demands for the previous reward. Stay calm and patient as your child adjusts to the new reinforcement schedule. If you have concerns or need additional support, speak with your therapist or healthcare provider for guidance.

Is there anything else I should know about extinction bursts?

While extinction bursts can be challenging for both you and your child, they are a natural part of learning new behaviors through ABA therapy. Remember that consistency is key during this process and trust that over time, your child will adjust to the new reinforcement schedule and show progress towards more positive behaviors.


In conclusion, extinction bursts are a normal part of ABA therapy and are a temporary increase in challenging behavior when a reward is no longer given. They occur because the child is used to getting a specific reward for a specific behavior, and they can be managed by gradually reducing the reward.

Understanding extinction bursts is important for parents and caregivers of children with challenging behavior because it can help you prepare for any potential increase in challenging behavior and have a better understanding of ABA therapy. Remember, ABA therapy is a process that takes time, and with patience and consistency, your child can make progress.






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