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How to Manage Extinction Bursts During ABA Therapy

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Extinction Burst ABA

As BCBA or RBT, you’re probably no stranger to the term “extinction burst”.  An extinction burst in ABA refers to an increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of an undesired behavior when reinforcement is withheld. For example, if a toddler usually cries to get their way, but crying doesn’t work anymore, they may escalate to a tantrum in hopes of obtaining their desired reinforcement.

So, why does this happen? When we eliminate the reinforcement that previously encouraged a behavior, our students may feel a sense of urgency to obtain that reinforcement. The increase in behavior during an extinction burst is a sign that our student is recognizing that their usual strategies are not working, and they’re exploring more variations in an attempt to regain access to the desired reinforcement.

Managing Extinction Bursts in ABA

Now that we’re familiar with what an extinction burst is and why it happens, let’s explore some strategies for effectively managing and navigating through it. In ABA therapy, it’s crucial to keep these tips in mind when working with students going through an extinction burst:

Stay Calm and Consistent

During an extinction burst, remember to remain calm and avoid giving in. Although it can be difficult, consistency is key. Stick to the extinction procedure without wavering, as even sporadic reinforcement can prolong the extinction burst and lead to confusion for the student.

Example: Imagine working with a child who is seeking attention by engaging in disruptive behaviors. During the extinction burst, they may intensify their disruptive behaviors to get your attention. If, as part of the intervention plan, you have decided not to provide attention for non-compliance, it is important to remain consistent. Even during the burst, consistently reiterate the expectation and redirect the student towards the desired behavior rather than giving in to their demands.

Assess Environmental Factors

Assess any environmental factors that may be contributing to or reinforcing the undesired behavior during an extinction burst. Identifying and modifying these factors can reduce the occurrence and intensity of the burst. This is known as an antecedent intervention.

Example: If you notice your student engages in more problem behavior when they are hungry, ensuring they are well-fed before beginning a session can reduce the likelihood of an intense extinction burst.

Monitor and Record Progress

Carefully track the frequency, intensity, and duration of the behavior during the burst. By doing so, you can objectively measure progress, fine-tune your intervention, and persevere knowing that change is happening.

Consider using data collection tools or recording systems to track the frequency, duration, or intensity of the behavior throughout the extinction process. This allows you to analyze patterns and adjust your intervention as needed.


Get a free demo of Catalyst’s Electronic Data Collection Software, designed by and for BCBAs.


Decreasing Extinction Bursts in ABA Therapy

Learning to manage extinction bursts as they happen is crucial for minimizing disruptions during sessions. However, the ultimate goal is to prevent them altogether. So, let’s explore some ways we can achieve this.

Conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)

To address and manage extinction bursts effectively, conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is crucial. An FBA involves identifying the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences that contribute to the challenging behaviors.

By understanding the function of the behavior, you can implement interventions tailored to meet the student’s needs. The FBA provides invaluable insight into the reasons behind the extinction bursts and guides the development of appropriate intervention strategies.

Teach Functional Communication Skills

One of the most effective ways to decrease challenging behaviors during extinction bursts is by teaching functional communication skills. By providing students with alternative ways to communicate their needs and wants, you can reduce their reliance on challenging behaviors.

For example, if a student typically engages in aggressive behaviors to gain attention, teaching them to use a simple sign or a picture exchange system to request attention can significantly decrease the occurrence of extinction bursts. These alternative communication methods provide individuals with a more appropriate and socially acceptable way to express themselves.

Create a Predictable Environment

A predictable environment can help students feel more secure and decrease the likelihood of extinction bursts. Consistent routines, clear expectations, and visual schedules go a long way in providing predictability during ABA sessions.

By minimizing surprises and uncertainties, you provide your students with a sense of control and stability. When they know what to expect, they are less likely to engage in challenging behaviors as a result of unexpected changes.

Provide Visual and Environmental Supports

Visual supports, such as visual schedules, social stories, or visual prompts, can greatly assist in managing bursts. These supports provide students with clear and explicit information about their environment and expected behaviors.

For example, a visual schedule can help students anticipate and understand what will happen during the session, reducing anxiety and potentially challenging behaviors. Visual prompts can also be used to remind students of appropriate behaviors during challenging situations, providing them with the guidance and support they may need.

Conduct Social Skills Training

Social skills training is crucial for ensuring your students can effectively communicate, interact, and manage their emotions in different social situations. By targeting specific social skills deficits, you can decrease the occurrence of extinction bursts caused by difficulties in navigating social interactions.

Through role-playing, social stories, and structured social skill-building activities, students can learn and practice appropriate behavior in various situations. As learners become more proficient in their social skills, they are likely to exhibit fewer challenging behaviors during ABA sessions.

Monitoring Progress with Catalyst

By following the strategies outlined in this article, you can better navigate through the challenges presented by extinction bursts, and create a positive and supportive environment for your students. As you implement these strategies, consider using tools such as Catalyst to aid in tracking and analyzing your students’ progress. By using Catalyst, you can gain valuable insights into the effectiveness of your interventions, make data-driven decisions, and ultimately maximize positive outcomes. To learn more about Catalyst’s industry-leading ABA electronic data collection software, schedule a demo with one of our experts.

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