Extinction Bursts in ABA Therapy: What They Are & More

One of the key components of ABA is the use of extinction, which is the gradual fading out of reinforcement for an unwanted behavior. However, the process of extinction can sometimes lead to an increase in the behavior, known as an extinction burst.

Published on
June 4, 2024

Extinction Bursts in ABA Therapy: What They Are & More

Understanding Extinction Bursts in Behavior Analysis

In the field of behavior analysis, understanding extinction bursts is crucial for implementing effective behavior management strategies. Extinction bursts refer to a temporary increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of a behavior when it no longer produces the desired outcome. Let's delve into what extinction bursts are and explore the science behind them.

What are Extinction Bursts?

Extinction bursts are behavioral phenomena that occur when a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced.

When a behavior has been consistently reinforced in the past, individuals may exhibit an increase in that behavior when it is suddenly no longer reinforced. This increase in behavior can be seen as a last-ditch effort by the individual to regain the desired outcome or reinforcement.

For example, imagine a child who usually receives a toy every time they cry in a store. If the parent suddenly decides to stop giving in to the crying and no longer provides the toy, the child may initially escalate their crying behavior before eventually realizing that the toy is no longer forthcoming. This initial escalation of crying is an extinction burst.

The Science Behind Extinction Bursts

Extinction bursts can be understood through the principles of operant conditioning. In behavior analysis, operant conditioning explains how behaviors are influenced by their consequences. When a behavior is consistently reinforced, it becomes more likely to occur in the future. However, when the reinforcement is removed, the behavior may initially increase in frequency and intensity before it eventually decreases.

The underlying mechanism behind extinction bursts can be explained by the concept of the extinction burst curve.

This curve illustrates the pattern of behavior change during extinction. Initially, when reinforcement is removed, there is an increase in the behavior. This is the extinction burst. As the individual realizes that the behavior is no longer effective in producing the desired outcome, the behavior decreases over time.

Understanding the science behind extinction bursts helps behavior analysts and caregivers anticipate and manage these temporary increases in behavior during behavior modification programs. By recognizing that an extinction burst is a normal part of the process, individuals can be better prepared to stay consistent in implementing behavior management strategies.

By comprehending the causes and effects of extinction bursts, behavior analysts and caregivers can develop effective strategies for managing and modifying behaviors.

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Behavioral Examples

Extinction bursts are a common phenomenon in behavior analysis that can be observed in various behavioral contexts. Understanding these examples can provide insight into the nature of extinction bursts and their significance in behavior analysis.

Common Examples of Extinction Bursts

Extinction bursts can manifest in a wide range of behaviors and situations. Here are some common examples:

  1. Tantrums in Children: When a child is accustomed to receiving attention or desired items through tantrums, the removal of reinforcement during extinction can lead to an initial increase in the intensity and frequency of tantrums. This is an extinction burst where the child is attempting to regain the previously effective reinforcers.
  2. Persistent Door Knocking: Imagine a scenario where someone has been consistently rewarded for knocking on a door until they receive a response. If the reinforcement is suddenly withheld, the person may exhibit an extinction burst by knocking more frequently or more vigorously in an attempt to elicit the desired response.
  3. Gambling Behavior: In the context of gambling, players may experience an extinction burst when their typical pattern of intermittent reinforcement is disrupted. This can lead to increased betting or more frequent attempts to win, as they seek the reinforcement they have come to expect.

How Extinction Bursts Relate to Behavior Analysis?

Extinction bursts are a fundamental concept in behavior analysis. They occur as part of the process of behavior modification, particularly during the implementation of extinction procedures. By understanding the relationship between extinction bursts and behavior analysis, individuals can gain valuable insights into behavior change.

Behavior analysis focuses on understanding how behavior is influenced by its consequences. Extinction bursts highlight the powerful role of reinforcement in maintaining behavior. When reinforcement is no longer provided, individuals may initially exhibit an increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of the behavior before it decreases.

Behavior analysts utilize extinction bursts as valuable data points to inform their interventions. By carefully observing and analyzing these bursts, behavior analysts can gain a deeper understanding of the function and context of the behavior. This information guides the development of effective behavior modification strategies tailored to the individual's needs.

By recognizing common examples of extinction bursts and their relevance to behavior analysis, individuals can better appreciate the complexity of behavior change and the importance of implementing evidence-based strategies in behavior management.

Why Do Extinction Bursts Occur?

Extinction bursts, a phenomenon observed in behavior analysis, can be attributed to two main factors: reinforcement and past learning experiences. Understanding these underlying mechanisms is crucial in comprehending the occurrence of extinction bursts and their impact on behavior.

The Role of Reinforcement

Reinforcement plays a significant role in the occurrence of extinction bursts. When a behavior has been consistently reinforced in the past, it becomes strongly associated with obtaining a desired outcome. In behavior analysis, reinforcement refers to any consequence that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

During the process of extinction, when the reinforcement for a particular behavior is withheld, it creates a state of uncertainty and frustration. The individual or organism may experience an initial increase in the intensity, frequency, or duration of the behavior in an attempt to obtain the previously reinforced outcome. This intensified response is what is known as an extinction burst.

To further illustrate the role of reinforcement, consider an example of a child throwing a tantrum in a store to obtain a desired toy. If the parent consistently gives in and buys the toy, the child has learned that tantrums lead to getting what they want.

However, if the parent decides to no longer reinforce the tantrum behavior by not buying the toy, the child may initially display an intensified tantrum, hoping for a change in the parent's response. This sudden escalation in the tantrum behavior represents an extinction burst.

The Role of Past Learning

Past learning experiences also contribute to the occurrence of extinction bursts. Every behavior that an individual exhibits is influenced by their prior learning history.

When a behavior has been reinforced in the past, it becomes deeply ingrained in the individual's repertoire. This history of reinforcement makes it more likely that an extinction burst will occur when the reinforcement is no longer provided.

Extinction bursts are a result of the individual's expectation that their previously reinforced behavior will yield the desired outcome. The sudden removal of reinforcement disrupts this expectation, leading to a temporary increase in the intensity of the behavior as the individual tries to restore the reinforcement.

It is important to note that the occurrence of extinction bursts does not necessarily mean that the behavior will persist indefinitely. With consistent implementation of extinction procedures and the absence of reinforcement, the intensity of the behavior typically decreases over time.

Understanding why extinction bursts occur is crucial in behavior analysis, as it allows behavior analysts and caregivers to anticipate and effectively manage these temporary escalations in behavior. By addressing the underlying mechanisms and implementing appropriate strategies, behavior analysts can guide individuals through the process of behavior modification.

Managing Extinction Bursts

Dealing with extinction bursts can be challenging, but with the right strategies and support, it is possible to effectively manage these behavioral phenomena. Behavior analysts play a crucial role in developing comprehensive plans to address extinction bursts and help individuals navigate through this process.

Strategies for Dealing with Extinction Bursts

When facing an extinction burst, it is essential to have a well-thought-out plan in place to minimize the impact and promote positive behavior change. Here are some strategies that can be employed:

  1. Anticipate and plan: Recognizing that an extinction burst may occur is the first step. By anticipating and planning for potential bursts, caregivers and behavior analysts can be better prepared to respond appropriately. This involves understanding the individual's behavior patterns, identifying triggers, and developing proactive strategies to minimize the intensity and duration of the burst.
  2. Stay consistent: Consistency is key during the extinction process. It is crucial to maintain the same response to the behavior, ensuring that the reinforcement previously received is no longer provided. Any unintentional reinforcement, even if it occurs sporadically, can inadvertently strengthen the burst. Consistency helps individuals understand that the previous reinforcement is no longer available, facilitating the extinction process.
  3. Provide alternative behaviors: Encouraging the individual to engage in alternative, more adaptive behaviors can help redirect their focus and provide an outlet for their frustration. Behavior analysts can work with caregivers to identify and reinforce appropriate replacement behaviors that serve the same function as the behavior being extinguished. This can help mitigate the intensity of the extinction burst.
  4. Implement reinforcement schedules: Gradually reducing the frequency and magnitude of reinforcement can facilitate the transition through the extinction burst. Behavior analysts can design reinforcement schedules that gradually fade the reinforcement over time, allowing individuals to adapt to the new expectations. This helps individuals understand that the behavior is no longer effective in producing the desired outcome.

Working with Behavior Analysts

Collaborating with behavior analysts is invaluable when managing extinction bursts. These professionals have the expertise and knowledge to develop individualized behavior intervention plans tailored to the specific needs of the individual. They can provide guidance, support, and ongoing monitoring to ensure the effective implementation of strategies and the overall success of the behavior change process.

Behavior analysts typically conduct functional behavior assessments to identify the underlying causes of the behavior and develop behavior intervention plans that address the function of the behavior.

They work closely with caregivers to provide training and guidance on implementing interventions consistently and effectively. Regular collaboration and communication with behavior analysts can help caregivers navigate through the challenges of extinction bursts and make informed decisions about the best course of action.

By employing these strategies and working with behavior analysts, individuals and caregivers can effectively manage extinction bursts and promote positive behavior change. It is important to remember that the process requires time, patience, and consistency. With the right support and approach, individuals can successfully navigate through extinction bursts and move towards more adaptive behaviors.

The Importance of Consistency

Consistency plays a crucial role in behavior management, especially when dealing with extinction bursts. Maintaining consistency in behavior management strategies is essential for achieving long-term behavior change and reducing the occurrence of extinction bursts. In this section, we will explore the importance of consistency and discuss some challenges that may arise in the process.

Maintaining Consistency in Behavior Management

Consistency in behavior management refers to the regular application of behavior modification techniques and strategies. When working with individuals who display challenging behaviors, consistency provides a predictable environment that promotes learning and helps establish new behavioral patterns.

To maintain consistency, it is important to:

  1. Establish Clear Expectations: Clearly communicate the desired behaviors and expectations to the individual. Consistent expectations help individuals understand what is expected of them and provide a framework for behavior change.
  2. Implement Structured Routines: Establishing structured routines can help individuals know what to expect and create a sense of stability. Consistency in daily routines can also reduce anxiety and increase compliance with desired behaviors.
  3. Use Reinforcement Consistently: Consistency in reinforcement is crucial for behavior change. Reinforce desired behaviors consistently and promptly to increase the likelihood of their repetition. Consistency in reinforcement helps individuals understand which behaviors are valued and encourages the development of new skills.
  4. Utilize Communication Strategies: Consistent communication among caregivers, educators, and behavior analysts is essential for effective behavior management. Regular communication ensures that everyone involved is on the same page and working towards consistent goals.

Addressing Challenges in the Process

While maintaining consistency is key, it can sometimes be challenging. Here are a few common challenges and strategies to address them:

  1. Burnout and Fatigue: Consistency can be demanding, especially for parents and caregivers. It is important to take care of oneself and seek support when needed. Engaging with support groups, seeking respite care, and practicing self-care can help manage burnout and fatigue.
  2. Lack of Resources: Limited resources can make it challenging to maintain consistency. Seek out community resources, support groups, or behavior analysts who can provide guidance and support. Online resources and training materials can also be helpful in implementing consistent behavior management strategies.
  3. Resistance to Change: Individuals may resist behavior management strategies, leading to inconsistencies. It is crucial to address the underlying reasons for resistance and work collaboratively with behavior analysts to develop strategies that address individual needs and motivations.
  4. Lack of Understanding: Inconsistencies can arise due to a lack of understanding of behavior management techniques. Invest time in learning about behavior analysis and seek guidance from professionals who specialize in behavior management.

By maintaining consistency in behavior management, individuals can experience more effective and lasting behavior change, reducing the occurrence of extinction bursts.

It is important to remember that consistency is a process and may require ongoing adjustments and support. Working closely with behavior analysts and implementing evidence-based strategies can help achieve positive outcomes in behavior management.


Are extinction bursts dangerous or harmful?

Extinction bursts are not inherently dangerous or harmful. However, the behavior that is being targeted for reduction may be unsafe or problematic in some way.

For example, if a child engages in self-injurious behavior as a means of seeking attention, an extinction burst may result in an increase in the frequency or intensity of the behavior. In these cases, it is important to have a safety plan in place and to work closely with a qualified therapist.

How long do extinction bursts last?

The duration of an extinction burst can vary depending on the individual and the behavior that is being targeted for reduction. In some cases, an extinction burst may only last a few minutes before the behavior begins to decrease. In other cases, it may take several days or weeks for the behavior to fully extinguish.

Can extinction bursts occur with any type of reinforcement?

Yes, extinction bursts can occur with any type of reinforcement that has been provided for the behavior in the past. This includes attention, access to preferred items or activities, escape from aversive situations, and more.

Is there anything I can do to prevent extinction bursts from occurring?

Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to prevent extinction bursts from occurring. However, there are some steps you can take to minimize their impact.

These include gradually reducing reinforcement rather than stopping it abruptly, reinforcing alternative behaviors before beginning the extinction process, and working closely with a qualified therapist who can help you develop a comprehensive plan for addressing problem behaviors.


Extinction bursts can be a challenging aspect of ABA therapy, but they are a natural part of the extinction process. By remaining calm, consistent, and reinforcing alternative behaviors, you can successfully reduce unwanted behaviors and promote more appropriate and desirable behaviors. Remember, extinction bursts are temporary and a sign that progress is being made.