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Did You Hear the One About… the Extinction Burst?

by Thérèse McNamara

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.



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  • Kathleen

    For many children key drivers behind behaviours that teachers don’t like are attention and avoidance. If a child misbehaves to gain attention the extinction burst makes a lot of sense. If, (from the child’s perspective) the teacher is “missing” the behaviour, then maybe it just needs to be ramped up and made more obvious, then surely the attention will come again. We need to remember that even negative attention is better than no attention for some/many challenging children. We also need to remember that the children looking for attention are not usually consciously doing this just to bug us. They are reaching for what they need. We need to strive to provide copious amounts of attention for the positive behaviours they manage to display.

    • Janet Lee

      Great point about children exhibiting behaviours to gain attention, Kathleen! Sometimes I have to check myself to be sure I am not taking the behaviours personally. Students are trying to gain attention in whatever way possible.

  • Donna

    We have had first-hand experience with the extinction burst for a few of our students this year. In one case, a kindergarten student was determined to run around the room whenever he felt like it, it seemed to us. However, after analyzing his behavior, we decided to use a visual timer, and give him 7 minutes at an activity and then change it, with a 2 minute warning of the coming transition. We also used a visual schedule to show him 3 different pictures of what would be happening. Examples: sitting on the carpet, table task, sensory room. In the back of the visual schedule was the next 3 and we kept rotating these. Ahead of time, the tasks were set up, and were all things we knew he would do.
    Well, it took a couple of exhausting days, but the timer worked. He started looking at the timer. Then he started checking the visual schedule. And eventually, the running away and going to a different spot on the room stopped. Of course, during the extinction burst, we had to return him to the carpet, point to the clock, the visual schedule, and insist that the timer would start when he went to the new activity. During this time, we did not insist on completion of the task–during the 7 minutes, he had to be sitting down, attempting the task. Once he started to check the clock, and look at the schedule, and go willingly to the next task, we knew the extinction burst was over.
    It gave us hope that we would eventually extend the tasks to 10 minutes, and start putting more expectations on the tasks themselves.
    One thing that was hard for us as highly verbal educators, is to not talk or keep explaining what we were doing. We just pointed to the visuals, to the clock, and drawing the child back to where he had to be. Rewards were built into the program, but the best reward was that we got through the extinction burst, much faster than we thought. And, yes, at one point we thought it would never work!

    • Julia

      Thanks for sharing your experience Donna! It’s great to have first-hand stories to help others deal with similar situations.

    • Janet Lee

      Donna, thank you so much for this detailed description of your experience! I liked how you mention the tendency to use verbal cues. To me this proves the reflective nature of your practice. This student’s behaviour was surely influenced positively by your patience and determination to outlast the extinction burst. Great stuff!