What Is an Extinction Burst?

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

December 2, 2022

Extinction burst refers to the temporary increase of an unwanted behavior before the behavior decreases and goes away. When a behavior goes away after reinforcement for the behavior is taken away, it is called extinction. 

Extinction bursts can occur when using the extinction method, which aims to stop or reduce certain behaviors that may have been rewarded in the past.

What Is an Example of an Extinction Burst?

To understand what an extinction burst is, let’s look at an example you may be familiar with. 

To call the elevator, you press the “up” button. In previous experience, you press the button and the elevator comes. There is a history of reinforcement that if you press the button, the elevator will come to your floor. 

One day, if you press the button and the elevator does not come, your reaction might be to frantically press the “up” button over and over again in hopes that the elevator will come. Eventually, you understand that frantically pushing the button will not make the elevator come and stop.

The frantic button pushing is the extinction burst. After the extinction burst, you decrease the amount of button pushing and eventually stop.

A child’s behavioral extinction burst is usually an attempt to get reinforcement after it has been denied. It might look like screaming, hitting, crying, or tantrums. Over time, the child will learn that these behaviors are not rewarded. 

What Is the Extinction Method?

The extinction method is an evidenced-based practice used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. ABA therapy can be used to identify the behaviors during extinction and what the function of those behaviors is, and to develop an intervention plan for the behavior.

Extinction refers to the withholding of reinforcement to reduce interfering behaviors, especially those that are harmful or dangerous. Once the behavior is gone, it is considered extinct. 

Typically, ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to teach children that positive behaviors are rewarded. Negative or interfering behaviors should not be met with negative reinforcement—instead, you can simply not reinforce the behavior, or use inaction. Children learn that these behaviors do not give them the results they wanted, so eventually they stop. Continuing to reinforce positive behaviors during this time also helps the interfering behaviors become extinct. 

Using the extinction method, if the child performs an unwanted behavior, the ABA therapist might do the following:

  • Deny the child an activity or item
  • Remove the child from a situation
  • Ignore a behavior
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Avoid physical contact
  • Avoid any verbal reinforcement

For example, a child may make disruptive comments during class. This behavior may be reinforced by the reaction of their peers and teacher. If the child makes a disruptive comment and the teacher and students withhold reinforcement by ignoring the comment, the child may have an extinction burst. This might look like the child making many more disruptive comments. When the comments continue to get no response, the child stops making disruptive comments. 

When interfering behaviors are identified, they can also be replaced with other, more positive behaviors. When this is done, the child will receive lots of praise to reinforce the better behavior. 

When Should the Extinction Method Be Used?

The extinction method can be used to treat various behaviors, such as:

  • Sleeping problems
  • Eating problems
  • Dangerous behaviors 
  • Functional communication
  • Inappropriate social behaviors 

The extinction method should only be used in conjunction with teaching and reinforcing a new behavior that replaces the interfering behavior. 

Are There Any Possible Side Effects of Extinction?

Extinction bursts are the most common side effect of using the extinction method. 

It is also possible that some desirable behaviors may be accidentally ignored in the course of removing reinforcement for the undesirable behavior. This can result in the child stopping a desirable behavior. 

Sometimes, the unwanted behavior can spontaneously come back for a period of time for no reason. 

5 Tips for Parents

  1. Be patient—changes do not happen overnight. In fact, it may take days to weeks for your child to learn that their interfering behaviors are no longer reinforced. 
  2. Be consistent—try to keep your reaction to the interfering behavior the same every time.
  3. Stand your ground—do not give in to the interfering behavior, or this will reinforce it. You may need to remove yourself from the situation to distract yourself from the interfering behaviors. Interacting with your child will only reinforce that the interfering behaviors make you react.  
  4. Be prepared—you must address the interfering behaviors immediately so they do not continue.
  5. Get everyone on board—Be sure everyone in your team (e.g,. caregivers, teachers, therapists) is participating in the extinction tactics.

Conclusion

Extinction bursts are to be expected during therapy using the extinction method to eliminate an unwanted behavior. It can be difficult for therapists and caregivers to maintain their response (or lack of response) while using this method. It is important for everyone in the child’s life to be consistent to make sure the unwanted behavior is not reinforced. 

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