Extinction Burst – What Is It?
Extinction burst is simply explained as the increase in negative behaviour shortly after extinction procedures are implemented in an attempt to diminish a targeted (usually unwanted) behaviour. During the extinction burst period, caretakers can potentially be manipulated into reinforcing the negative behaviour because they fail to “ride it out”.
During an extinction burst, temporary increase in frequency, duration, and/ or intensity of a previously reinforced behaviour will be observed, when the reinforcer has been removed. This escalation is the child’s attempt to regain the reinforcer, and in the absence of the said reinforcer, the behaviour will eventually diminish to lower levels and towards cessation (extinction).
Besides the temporary increase in behaviour frequency, duration and/ or intensity, other common behavioural observations during an extinction burst includes:
1. novel behaviour that the child has not displayed in the past while engaging in the target behaviour
2. emotional responses and/ or aggressive behaviour
Case study: Suzy fusses loudly (negative behavior) because she does not want to eat her food (targeted behavior). Her mother responds by sending her to her ‘time out’ corner (reinforcer); and because Suzy was able to avoid eating the food that she did not want to eat; it is likely she will engage in the same negative behavior (crying loudly) during future mealtimes.
Within an extinction procedure, when Suzy’s mother lets Suzy fuss (regardless of how long it takes), while insisting that she eats her food, an extinction burst will be triggered during which the fussing behavior will increase in duration and/ or intensity and may be accompanied by novel behavior (kicking/ screaming) and perhaps even aggression. However, as long as Suzy’s mother perseveres and the reinforcer (letting her leave the table and not eating her food) is not provided, the behavior of fussing and not eating her food, along with other novel negative behaviors will eventually subside and extinct.
The above scenario is common to many; however, it takes staying calm, being patient and following a Logical Consequence Process (LCP) to ride out the extinction burst period. Below are 6 steps on how to take control to increase the success rate of riding out extinction bursts before we explain the injection of LCP:
1. DO NOT reinforce – by not responding to the undesired behavior; go to your calm place; do something to distract yourself from the fussing/ screaming and do not succumb to the temptation to react as you normally would. Reinforcing during an escalation will create a new (and higher) baseline for the negative behavior, making it even harder to extinct in the future.
2. Stay consistent – your reaction needs to be consistent every time the negative behavior occurs. If you remain determined and consistent during this phase, you will eventually experience the desired behavior.
3. Be patient – do not expect miracles, many extinction burst phases take many instances, days, even weeks to phase out.
4. Be prepared – think through and be prepared to deal with possible novel behaviors and other negative outputs during extinction bursts.
5. Everyone onboard – if there are other caregivers and/ or persons expected to be around during these periods, prepare them so everyone reacts the same way to the negative behavior. If one person gives in to the child’s outburst, the extinction process will not be successful.
6. Potential harm – consider the potential risks that can occur during the extinction burst and if any of them are potentially harmful and/ or life threatening, you should avoid this approach.
The 6 steps are all part of a LCP, where the process is planned and enforced with direct impact to the negative behavior, without aggression, or negative reactivity from the caregiver. If the child’s cognitive abilities can comprehend the consequence that is to be enforced, they should be communicated prior to the negative behavior happening. Unlike punishments, LCP will teach children accountability and restitution, while removing the element of shame.
Written by: Gina Cai
Although a difficult part of an extinction process, the extinction burst stage can potentially be shortened and be less “suffering” for all parties involved if administered with consistency, grit, calmness and preparedness. Past this stage, caregivers will begin to observe the fruits of their labor as the targeted behavior diminishes and head towards the eventual extinction.
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Walrath R. (2011) Extinction Burst. In: Goldstein S., Naglieri J.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer, Boston, MA. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_1073
Whittingham, K., & Coyne, L. (2019). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy The Clinicians Guide for Supporting Parents. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-814669-9.00007-2