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Extinction Bursts In Aba

Dive into the world of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and understand the concept of extinction bursts with a human touch. Explore how behavior patterns may intensify before fading away, unveiling the complexities of behavioral change.

mark elias
Mark Elias
June 22, 2024

Understanding Extinction Bursts

Extinction bursts are a common phenomenon observed in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. It is important to understand what extinction bursts are and their significance in the context of ABA.

What Are Extinction Bursts?

Extinction bursts refer to temporary increases in the frequency, intensity, or duration of a behavior when it no longer produces the expected reinforcement. When a behavior has been consistently reinforced in the past and the reinforcement is suddenly removed, individuals may exhibit an initial surge or "burst" of the behavior before it eventually decreases.

During an extinction burst, the individual may engage in more intense or varied attempts to receive the reinforcement they were previously accustomed to receiving. For example, a child who used to throw tantrums to obtain a desired toy may escalate their tantrum behavior when they realize their previous strategy is no longer effective.

Extinction bursts are a normal part of the behavior change process and should not be seen as a sign of failure. Instead, they provide valuable information about the function and strength of the behavior and can guide the development of effective interventions.

Importance of Extinction in ABA

Extinction is a fundamental principle used in ABA to decrease unwanted behaviors and promote the acquisition of more appropriate behaviors. By removing reinforcement for a behavior, we can reduce its occurrence over time.

Understanding extinction bursts is crucial in ABA therapy because they often occur when implementing an extinction procedure. By anticipating and recognizing extinction bursts, behavior analysts can design intervention plans that effectively address the target behavior.

It is important to remember that extinction alone is not sufficient to bring about lasting behavior change. A comprehensive behavior intervention plan should include strategies, such as functional communication training and differential reinforcement, to teach alternative, more socially appropriate behaviors.

By acknowledging and addressing extinction bursts, behavior analysts and caregivers can work together to implement consistent and effective strategies for behavior change. This collaboration and understanding can lead to positive outcomes and progress in the individual's development.

Causes of Extinction Bursts

When it comes to understanding extinction bursts, it's essential to explore the underlying causes that contribute to this phenomenon. Extinction bursts can be triggered by various factors, including an initial increase in behavior, seeking reinforcement, and experiencing frustration and emotional responses.

Initial Increase in Behavior

During the early stages of implementing extinction, it is not uncommon to observe an initial increase in the targeted behavior. This surge in behavior can be seen as the individual's attempt to regain the previously reinforced response. It's important to be aware that this temporary increase does not mean that the extinction process is ineffective. Rather, it signifies that the individual is testing the boundaries to see if their previous actions will still yield the desired outcome.

For example, if a child used to cry to receive attention, implementing extinction would involve not providing attention when they cry. Initially, they might cry louder or for a longer duration, hoping to receive the attention they were accustomed to in the past. This increase in crying is an extinction burst and should not discourage caregivers from maintaining the extinction procedure.

Seeking Reinforcement

Extinction bursts can also occur when an individual engages in more intense or persistent behaviors in an attempt to seek the reinforcement that was previously associated with the targeted behavior. When the expected reinforcement does not occur, the individual may escalate their efforts, hoping to elicit the desired response.

For instance, if a child used to whine to receive a preferred toy, implementing extinction would involve not providing the toy when they whine. In response, the child might whine more frequently, increase the intensity of their whining, or even attempt different strategies to obtain the toy. These intensified behaviors are part of the extinction burst and should be managed consistently and patiently.

Frustration and Emotional Response

Extinction can evoke feelings of frustration and emotional responses in individuals, especially when they are used to receiving reinforcement for a particular behavior. The absence of expected reinforcement can lead to an increase in emotional reactions, such as tantrums, crying, or even aggression. These emotional responses are a natural part of the extinction process and should be observed with empathy and understanding.

It's important for caregivers and professionals to provide support and guidance during this challenging phase. By maintaining consistency and implementing appropriate strategies, such as functional communication training and differential reinforcement, individuals can learn alternative ways to communicate their needs and desires effectively.

Understanding the causes of extinction bursts is crucial for caregivers and professionals working with individuals who experience them. By recognizing the initial increase in behavior, the seeking of reinforcement, and the emotional responses, they can navigate the extinction process with patience and empathy.

Factors Influencing Extinction Bursts

Several factors can influence the occurrence and intensity of extinction bursts. Understanding these factors is crucial for effectively managing and addressing the behavior changes that may arise during the process of extinction in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.

Reinforcement History

A significant factor that influences extinction bursts is an individual's reinforcement history. The frequency and predictability of reinforcement in the past can impact how someone responds when the expected reinforcement is no longer provided.

If a behavior has been consistently reinforced in the past, the individual may exhibit a more pronounced extinction burst when the reinforcement is withheld. On the other hand, if the behavior has not been consistently reinforced, the extinction burst may be less intense.

Magnitude of Reinforcement

The magnitude of reinforcement that an individual has received previously can also play a role in the intensity of extinction bursts. If the behavior has been reinforced with high-value or highly preferred reinforcers, the individual may experience a stronger extinction burst when those reinforcers are no longer provided. The anticipation of losing a highly valued reinforcer can lead to an increase in the intensity or duration of the behavior during the extinction process.

Frequency and Consistency of Reinforcement

The frequency and consistency of reinforcement also affect the occurrence of extinction bursts. If a behavior has been consistently reinforced in the past, the individual may exhibit a more robust extinction burst when the reinforcement is discontinued. Similarly, if the behavior has been reinforced frequently, the extinction burst may be more pronounced. In contrast, if the behavior has been intermittently reinforced or reinforced with varying frequencies, the extinction burst may be less intense.

Understanding these factors helps ABA therapists and caregivers anticipate and manage extinction bursts effectively. By considering an individual's reinforcement history, the magnitude of reinforcement, and the frequency and consistency of reinforcement, professionals can develop individualized behavior plans that address the unique needs of each individual. Consistency and patience are key when implementing strategies to manage extinction bursts.

By taking these factors into account, ABA therapists and caregivers can develop comprehensive behavior plans that minimize the occurrence and intensity of extinction bursts, promoting positive behavior change and progress in individuals receiving ABA therapy.

Strategies to Manage Extinction Bursts

When dealing with extinction bursts, it's important to have effective strategies in place to manage and minimize the associated behaviors. Here are three strategies commonly used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to address extinction bursts:

Functional Communication Training

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is a strategy aimed at teaching individuals alternative ways to communicate their needs and desires. During an extinction burst, problem behaviors may escalate as the individual tries to regain access to the previously reinforced behavior. FCT focuses on teaching appropriate communication skills, such as using words, gestures, or assistive devices, to replace the problem behavior.

By providing individuals with alternative means to express themselves, FCT helps reduce frustration and increases the likelihood of successful communication. This strategy empowers individuals to effectively communicate their needs, leading to a decrease in the occurrence of extinction bursts.

Differential Reinforcement

Differential Reinforcement is a technique that involves reinforcing desired behaviors while withholding reinforcement for problem behaviors. This strategy is particularly effective during extinction bursts because it focuses on reinforcing alternative, more appropriate behaviors while ignoring or not reinforcing the problem behavior.

For example, if a child engages in tantrums during an extinction burst, the caregiver can actively reinforce calm and appropriate behavior, such as using their words to express their needs or engaging in a preferred activity. By providing reinforcement for the desired behavior, the individual learns that engaging in appropriate alternatives is more effective than engaging in problem behavior. This can help reduce the intensity and duration of extinction bursts.

Consistency and Patience

Consistency and patience are crucial when implementing strategies to manage extinction bursts. It's important to maintain consistency in applying the chosen strategies across different environments and with different caregivers. This helps ensure that the individual receives consistent messages and reinforcement, reducing confusion and the likelihood of regression.

Patience is also key during the process of managing extinction bursts. It's important to recognize that behavior change takes time and that extinction bursts may occur initially as the individual tests whether the previously reinforced behavior will still produce the desired outcome. By remaining patient and committed to the chosen strategies, caregivers and professionals can help individuals navigate through the extinction process and ultimately decrease the occurrence of extinction bursts.

By utilizing strategies such as Functional Communication Training, Differential Reinforcement, and maintaining consistency and patience, individuals and caregivers can effectively manage extinction bursts and promote positive behavior change. Working closely with professionals in the field of ABA, such as ABA therapists, can provide valuable guidance and support throughout this process.

Working with Professionals

When it comes to addressing and managing extinction bursts in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), working with ABA therapists is of utmost importance. These professionals play a crucial role in designing and implementing effective behavior intervention strategies. Let's explore the importance of ABA therapists, collaboration and communication, and the development of individualized behavior plans.

Importance of ABA Therapists

ABA therapists are highly trained professionals who specialize in assessing, analyzing, and treating behaviors in individuals with autism and related disorders. They possess in-depth knowledge of behavior principles and techniques, allowing them to develop tailored intervention plans to address specific needs.

ABA therapists play a critical role in identifying the causes and triggers of extinction bursts. Through careful observation and analysis, they can determine the functions of challenging behaviors and design appropriate interventions to reduce the occurrence of these bursts. Their expertise and guidance are invaluable in navigating through the complexities of behavior change.

Collaboration and Communication

Effective collaboration and communication between ABA therapists, individuals with autism, and their caregivers are key components of successful behavior intervention. ABA therapists work closely with caregivers to gather information about the individual's behavior patterns, preferences, and goals. This collaboration ensures that intervention strategies are aligned with the individual's unique needs and that everyone involved is on the same page.

Open and transparent communication between all parties involved promotes a unified approach to addressing extinction bursts. ABA therapists can provide guidance, support, and feedback to caregivers, empowering them to implement interventions consistently and effectively. Regular communication also allows for adjustments to behavior plans based on progress and challenges encountered along the way.

Individualized Behavior Plans

Every individual with autism is unique, and their behavior intervention plans should reflect this individuality. ABA therapists develop individualized behavior plans that target specific behaviors and address the underlying factors contributing to extinction bursts.

These behavior plans are tailored to the strengths, preferences, and needs of the individual. They include strategies such as functional communication training, where alternative, appropriate communication skills are taught to replace challenging behaviors. Differential reinforcement is another strategy used, which involves reinforcing desired behaviors while ignoring or providing minimal attention to challenging behaviors.

The behavior plans created by ABA therapists are dynamic and adaptable. They are continuously modified based on ongoing assessment and analysis of the individual's progress. This individualized approach ensures that interventions are effective in reducing extinction bursts and promoting positive behavior change.

By collaborating with ABA therapists, caregivers can gain access to their expertise and guidance in managing extinction bursts. Together, they can develop and implement individualized behavior plans that address the unique needs of individuals with autism. Through this collaborative effort, individuals with autism can experience positive behavior change and a reduction in the occurrence of extinction bursts.


In wrapping up our discussion on extinction bursts in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it's essential to view this process through a compassionate lens. Extinction bursts are like stormy moments on the path to positive change, where behaviors might briefly intensify before fading away. It's crucial to remember that behind every behavior is a person with unique needs, emotions, and experiences.

Navigating extinction bursts requires not just strategies and consistency but also a deep well of understanding and patience. It's about recognizing the human aspect of behavior modification, understanding that setbacks are part of the journey, and embracing the individual's effort to adapt and grow.

As we conclude, let's approach ABA with empathy and a commitment to creating environments that support individuals through these challenging moments. By acknowledging the humanity in the process, we can foster positive change and growth, recognizing that everyone is on their own journey toward a more fulfilling and connected life.