Why Does Behaviour Sometimes Go Up Before It Goes Down?

We talk a lot about the importance of reinforcing behaviours we want to see occur in the future. Reinforcement is critical in learning new behaviours as we know that when someone receives reinforcement, if the value of that reinforcement is meaningful to that person their behaviour should increase. Consider a parent who might be trying to teach their child to make their bed. When the child engages in this target behaviour and makes their bed the parent provides social praise and says “wow – great job making your bed Johnny I am so proud of you!”. Assuming making his mom proud is meaningful to Johnny it is likely that he will make his bed again as he knows there is the potential for reinforcement from his mom.

Sometimes we get trapped by reinforcing behaviours we might NOT want to see occur in the future. For example, many parents’ express challenges with bed time routines in that their child asks for another song or another book over and over again and when the parent says no more the child gets quite upset and so to avoid that upset behaviour mom or dad read one more book or sing one more song. This has positively reinforced continued demands for more books and songs as it was effective!

So, what happens when a parent decides – ok enough is enough I need to change this cycle that we’re in and they decide when they say one more book, they mean it and lights go out!? Well, it is highly likely that the child will get quite upset and perhaps even more upset than normal. In behavioral terms we call this an EXTINCTION BURST.

An extinction burst is a temporary increase in behaviour that occurs when a previously reinforced behaviour no longer receives the reinforcement it used to. So, in the sleep example, when Mom or Dad says no more books, Johnny gets very upset and throws a tantrum because in the past when Johnny has asked for more books it was effective and now, he’s left wondering “why is this not working for me anymore!?”. When a behaviour that was previously reinforced is no longer reinforced the child might begin to try whatever they can to access that reinforcement again. There is good news – if mom and dad stay consistent the burst in behaviour should be temporary and come back down when Johnny learns – this no longer works.

Let’s look at one more example. Who doesn’t love a vending machine filled with delicious treats? Say you decide you want a bag of chips and so you take out your toonie and you place it in the vending machine and select the button to access your chips. This is behaviour that has worked to gain you chips from a vending machine in the past. Money + button pushing has resulted in chips falling down and you have a delicious snack. However, this time when you put your money in and push the button the chips get stuck. You panic – why is this not working? It has always worked in the past? Perhaps you bang on the machine and when that doesn’t work you shake the machine. This is your extinction burst – a brief burst of behaviour to try whatever you can to get this machine to do what it has done for you in the past!

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