You’ve got a student who has been experiencing really difficult behaviours. You’ve contacted the parents, met with your special education and admin team and discussed next steps for dealing with the situation. You’ve designed a behaviour plan, and tailored it to the child’s needs based on your observations and the feedback you have collected. You put the plan into place, but then… what happens? Instead of getting better, the behaviours start to get worse! What do you do now?
Don’t panic! What’s happened is called the Extinction Burst, and it’s good news, not bad. Though you may be tempted to change your plan and try something else, the most beneficial strategy is to stay the course.
The Extinction Burst occurs when you change the usual result or “reward” of a behaviour. For example, difficult behaviour that occurs in a classroom may have the reward of receiving (negative) attention from the teacher or peers or task avoidance. If, with the application of your behaviour plan, you change the consequences of the inappropriate acts (e.g., students and teacher ignore the behaviour; or, the student is asked to go to a quiet location), the individual will continue to attempt to gain the desired reward, increasing that behaviour initially in order to achieve his/her goal.
By staying the course, and continuing to apply your behaviour plan, the student will come to understand that the reward he/she is looking for will no longer be achieved*. Including rewards for the behaviour you do desire to see (e.g., following classroom rules), will help to further reinforce appropriate conduct.
Have you experienced the Extinction Burst when dealing with difficult behaviours? Please share your experiences and successes…
*In all but very few, special cases
Thérèse McNamara is a school administrator, special education resource teacher and mother. In her 30+ years as an educator, she has worked as a classroom teacher, computer/curriculum consultant, and education officer. She holds a Masters of Education degree with a focus on Literacy and has taught additional qualification courses for 3 universities. She has reviewed and written a number of professional learning resources and supports the application of evidence-based, best practices to support all students.