Resurgence: Problem Behavior Occurs When Appropriate Behavior Was Taught


Submitted by: Lindsey Knopf, BCBA

Resurgence has not been a term that has been frequently used in ABA, but it is very important because it occurs frequently. Resurgence describes the recurrence of a previously reinforced behavior following the extinction of the subsequently reinforced alternative behavior. This means that an appropriate behavior that used to be reinforced is no longer getting any reinforcement (i.e. it is being put on extinction).

For example, a problem behavior such as whining used to get a child access to something preferred, such as candy. But then the child is taught to ask appropriately for what he or she wants by saying “candy” without whining. Asking for candy appropriately now always gets the child candy, rather than the whining. However, in school the candy is not always available and when asking appropriately is no longer reinforced frequently enough, problem behaviors such as whining will come back again or reoccur given that these behaviors have gotten the child candy in the past.

Here is another example of resurgence and how it can be broken down into 3 phases:

  • Phase 1: A problem behavior is reinforced (e.g. shouting out an answer in class always gets attention from the teacher).
  • Phase 2: An alternate behavior is reinforced while the target behavior is put on extinction (e.g. raising hand is given attention and shouting out the answer is ignored).
  • Phase 3: The alternate behavior is not reinforced as often so the problem behavior begins to RESURGE or reoccur given its reinforcement history (e.g. raising hand is no longer reinforced every time due to a substitute teacher who does not know to call on the student who is now raising his/her hand instead of shouting/other kids are getting called on so the child shouts out the answer since this behavior has gotten attention in the past).

This concept is important because when placing problem behavior on extinction (i.e. no longer allowing the behavior to contact reinforcement) and teaching replacement/alternate behaviors, we need to make sure that we continue to reinforce the replacement behavior so that the problem behavior does not reoccur. A fixed time schedule of reinforcement refers to when a fixed amount of time is required to earn a reinforcer (e.g. providing reinforcement every minute that problem behavior does not occur). Using a fixed time schedule of reinforcement can also help maintain the alternate/appropriate behavior. This shows the child that he or she does not need to engage in the problem behavior to access reinforcement.

When teaching an alternate behavior, we need to start with a dense schedule of reinforcement (e.g. providing reinforcement every time the behavior occurs) and then gradually fade the schedule (e.g. providing reinforcement every other time the behavior occurs, then about every few times the behavior occurs, then about every 5 times, etc.) to the point where it is manageable for caregivers to provide reinforcement in the natural environment. The fact that the child can perform the alternative behavior does not necessarily indicate that natural occurring schedules of reinforcement will maintain it. We should let all treatment team members and caregivers know what behavior(s) we are placing on extinction and what behavior(s) we are reinforcing. Our goal is to reduce problem behavior and increase appropriate behaviors, so it is very important to be aware of resurgence and actively prevent it from occurring.

Talk to your child’s ABA instructor about the function of your child’s problem behavior and the replacement behaviors that are being worked on. Work on increasing and maintaining replacement behaviors by:

  • Having the ABA instructor come into your home or community setting to model how to reinforce the replacement behavior and place the problem behavior (s) on extinction.
  • Asking for more center-based parent training.
  • Providing extra reinforcement for more independent responding (differential reinforcement).
  • Providing reinforcement immediately after your child engages in the replacement behavior (between 0-5 seconds).
  • Providing reinforcement that serves the same function as the problem behavior (allowing escape or a break from a difficult or aversive task, providing attention to the child, giving the child access to a preferred item or activity, or allowing the child to engage in a sensory activity).
  • Providing reinforcement every time the replacement behavior occurs, then gradually fading reinforcement for the replacement behavior.
  • Making sure problem behavior never contacts reinforcement.
  • Reinforcing the absence of problem behavior.