Behavior Improvement Plans and Extinction Burst

Submitted by Tim on Fri, 01/18/2013 - 11:57 AM

Sometimes school district’s lack of expertise can hurt your child. For example, when your child with behavior problems is going through what experts call an extinction burst. Let me explain:  

As I discussed last week, it is possible to figure out the function of a child’s problem behavior – in non-technical language: the reason why this problem behavior is happening. Sometimes an expert, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, determines that the function of the behavior is causing the caregiver or teacher to give extra attention to the child. In other words, receiving attention is rewarding the problem behavior and maintaining the frequency of the behavior.    

In those circumstances, the expert is likely to recommend that caregivers or teachers ignore or stop giving attention to the child in response to the behavior. Experts call this “putting the behavior on extinction.” What that means in practice often depends on that the problem behavior is. When a behavior is no longer rewarded with attention, what occasionally happens is a dynamic that experts call an “extinction burst.”    

What is an extinction burst?  

Imagine you are at work and complete some task that arises from time to time. When you report this to your boss, your boss immediately gives you a reward – maybe something like a bonus on a gift card. Then, every time you complete that task and tell your boss, you get another reward. In this metaphor, the task at work is the behavior from your child, and the boss is you, the caregiver, or the teacher.     Continuing the metaphor, if the next time you completed the task, your boss acknowledges you but does not give you the bonus – without any explanation. Assuming the task is still necessary, you might have thoughts like “I've been rewarded before for completing this task. Maybe I am not being rewarded now because I did the task incorrectly in some way.” Thus, you might go back to the task, but put even more effort into it, in the hopes that this will cause your boss to resume giving you the reward. Only after that doesn’t work would you would just give up and decide to avoid doing that task in the future if possible.     This is same dynamic happens with problem behavior from your child. The problem behavior is getting rewarded with attention and when the attention stops, the child might act as if doing the behavior more intensely will cause the reward to return. Thus, one predictable effect of implementing extinction of a problem behavior is that the intensity or frequency of the behavior will get worse before it gets better. If this intensity increase really is an extinction burst, then it should pass quickly. But when the school district does not understand the implication of scientific concepts like the extinction burst, the school district could think that the brief increase in behavior problems is evidence that the behavior improvement plan is not working, and therefore pressure you to accept a new, more restrictive placement for your child.     Federal law requires a behavioral improvement plan after a disciplinary infraction is determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability. Further, federal laws strongly prefers that the child remain in the same placement after a behavior problem leads to consideration of serious school discipline, with the school district implementing a behavioral improvement plan to provide support for the child in that placement. But when the school district believes the behavioral improvement plan is not working, you risk losing your child’s placement just because the school district does not sufficiently understand what is going on.     In short, if there is a problem with the implementation of the behavioral improvement plan, that means the school district should involve a behavioral expert at the school district’s expense to reexamine the problem by observing the behavior as it occurs. The goal is for the school district to create and implement a successful plan that allows the child to remain in the same, less restrictive placement, if possible.   ***   Upcoming Events: I will be giving a free presentation on the basics of special education law tomorrow, January 19 at 10 am at the Art It Out Therapy Center. Please call 770-726-9489 to RSVP. If you can’t make that meeting, Talk About Curing Autism is hosting a similar presentation by Christy Calbos, another special needs attorney here in Georgia. More information here. January 27: Kids Enabled Resource Fair. Register here. February 1-2: 23rd Annual “Dimensions of Dyslexia” Convention. Info here.   February 27-28: “Across the Spectrum” Autism / Asperger Conference and Expo. Info here. Have your own event for children with special needs? Submit it here for inclusion in future events lists.

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