The best ABA clinicians and the best parents have something in common: they understand that trust is earned.

They take time to get to know a child and establish rapport at the start of any significant learning program.

That said, many children do not take well to instructions and the demands of an ABA therapy support program. As such, clinicians must establish ‘instructional control’ slowly and carefully.  

‘Instructional control’ refers to the time when the child learns how to pay attention to simple requests the clinician makes. It happens when the child begins embracing the program demands. 

It’s vital to establish instructional control with new participants, but it’s also key for established participants who are learning new skills and new ways to behave. 

But what if a child has problem behaviors that get in the way of new learning? Read on to find out. 


What can a parent expect when starting an ABA program with a child? Specifically, what if the child has behavior problems that interfere with learning?


Behaviors can become habits, and habits can be difficult to break. If a child has behavior problems, an extinction burst may arise when we first start managing these behaviors. ‘Extinction burst’ refers to a time when problematic behaviors get a bit worse before they get better. 

This is understandable, given that all children use a certain set of familiar behaviors to get their wants and needs met. While some of these behaviors are not appropriate, they persist because every now and then, they have worked

For example, most of a child’s temper tantrums do not result in extra video time … but once or twice the child’s parents were really tired, and they gave in to the demands. And that intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep a behavior pattern going.

Let’s face it: any parent who has had the experience of a child throwing a major tantrum out in public knows the stress and strain that results. Even the best of parents sometimes give in under that pressure.

Fortunately, what is learned can be unlearned. Children can learn new skills to replace those problematic behaviors. After all, behaviors are just a type of skill. Skills can be taught, so good behavior can be taught, too. 

ABA therapists reinforce new and better ways of getting needs met.For example, say a child wants a toy, or a break away from work. He has learned to ask for what he wants instead of tantruming.

Even so, he will not want to change his long-standing habits right away. As a result, he will revert to his practiced tantrum behavior when he gets tired, frustrated, or stressed.

In fact, he may exhibit such behaviors more often and more forcefully once he’s learned an alternative set – this is the ‘extinction burst’ in action.  

The presence of an extinction burst actually indicates that what we are doing is working. It shows that we have hit the right note, so to speak. 

The good news is that an extinction burst will dissipate more quickly if you handle it calmly and effectively. As the child settles in to the ABA therapy support program, he will get used to doing things in a new way. 

FirstPath Autism provides tools to help you navigate the extinction bursts so that they won’t be as severe or as long-lasting. 

Recommended strategies and ABA reinforcement ideas include:


  • Teaching parents, staff, and support team members not to give in and accidentally reinforce the increase in problematic behaviors (such as tantrums) that occur during an Extinction Burst
  • Learning how to identify the function(s) of the problematic behavior, so that parents and staff can teach the child a new replacement behavior
  • Reinforcing the new replacement behavior as an appropriate way for the child to get wants and needs met. (Common wants and needs include: getting attention, accessing preferred items, participating in preferred activities; taking breaks, and getting sensory needs met.)

The available behavioral videos give a basic overview of certain behavioral patterns, as well as some discussion of Replacement Behaviors. 

Specifically, our library features a video on self-injurious behavior (SIB), in which a child learns to use brushes on her arms to replace self-cutting behavior.

Further management of problem behaviors and instruction in Replacement Behaviors (also known as Functionally Equivalent Replacement Behaviors, or FERBs) is slated for future FirstPath videos.