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Understanding Extinction Bursts in ABA Therapy: A Guide for Parents

Your child has been making amazing progress in their ABA therapy sessions. You’ve been cheering on every little milestone, from improved communication to better self-regulation. But just when you thought things were smooth sailing, you notice a sudden spike in challenging behaviors. Sounds familiar? What’s going on? Welcome to the world of extinction bursts in ABA therapy.  But what exactly does it mean? In this article, we’ll delve into the concept of extinction bursts in ABA therapy, providing you with insights and strategies to better understand and manage them.

What Is an Extinction Burst in ABA?

An extinction burst is a temporary increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of a behavior when it no longer produces the reinforcement that was previously associated with it. In simpler terms, it’s like a last-ditch effort from your child’s behavior when they realize their usual actions aren’t getting the expected response.

Types and Examples of Extinction Bursts

Extinction bursts can manifest in various ways, depending on the behavior being targeted. Let’s explore some examples.


Imagine your child throwing a tantrum when they’re denied access to their favorite toy. If you consistently ignore this behavior during therapy sessions, they might initially intensify their tantrum in hopes of getting your attention.

Attention-Seeking Behaviors

Boy Throwing Tantrum With Therapist In Classroom

Your child might engage in aggressive behaviors like yelling or interrupting to gain your attention. When these behaviors no longer result in the desired attention, they might escalate before eventually decreasing.

Why Do They Happen?

Extinction bursts occur because behaviors that were previously reinforced are no longer effective in producing the desired outcome. Essentially, your child is testing the waters to see if their behavior will eventually lead to the expected reinforcement.

Are Extinction Bursts Common?

Yes, extinction bursts are quite common in ABA therapy, but it’s essential to understand that they’re just a natural part of the learning process for your child. As they adjust to new expectations and reinforcement patterns, these bursts may occur, but they’re simply signs of growth and adaptation.

How Long Do Extinction Bursts Last?

The duration of an extinction burst can vary depending on factors such as the behavior being targeted and the consistency of the intervention. In most cases, extinction bursts tend to be short-lived, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.

Extinction Burst vs Spontaneous Recovery

It’s important to distinguish between extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery. While an extinction burst involves an initial increase in behavior followed by a decrease, spontaneous recovery refers to the reappearance of a previously extinguished behavior after a period of non-exposure to reinforcement.

How Do You Handle an Extinction Burst?

Handling an extinction burst requires patience and consistency. Here are some strategies to help you navigate this challenging phase.

1. Stay Calm and Consistent

Remain composed and avoid giving in to the behavior during an extinction burst. Consistency is key to showing your child that the behavior will no longer be reinforced, and it’s a technique you can use at home as well.

2. Provide Alternative Means of Reinforcement

Offer your child alternative ways to earn reinforcement for desirable behaviors. This can help redirect their focus and reduce the intensity of the extinction burst.

3. Use Positive Reinforcement

Reinforce alternative behaviors that you’d like to see from your child. Praise and reward them for engaging in appropriate actions, which can help accelerate the extinction process.

4. Seek Support From Your ABA Therapist

Your ABA therapist can provide guidance and support tailored to your child’s specific needs. Collaborate with them to develop effective strategies utilzing the best therapies for managing extinction bursts.

How to Prevent Extinction Bursts

While extinction bursts are a natural part of the learning process, there are steps you can take to minimize their occurrence:

Be Proactive

Anticipate potential extinction bursts and prepare emotional regulation strategies to address them proactively.

Foster Communication

Encourage communication skills and language development helping your child with their nonverbal communication so they might express their needs and desires more effectively.

Create a Supportive Environment

Establish a nurturing and predictable environment at home that promotes positive behavior and reduces the likelihood of extinction bursts.

Heartlinks ABA Can Help!

In conclusion, extinction bursts are a common occurrence in ABA therapy, but with understanding, patience and proactive strategies, you can help your child navigate through them successfully.

If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s behavior, don’t hesitate to reach out to your ABA therapy provider. At Heartlinks ABA, we’re here to support you every step of the way. We offer personalized assistance and valuable insights tailored to your child’s unique needs. Together, we can make meaningful progress and create a brighter future for your child.

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