Behavioral persistence, or when bad behavior continues despite intervention

We have all seen it happen. A child engages in intense tantrums. Parents and teachers are at a loss as to what to do next and they come to us, a behavior analyst, to help with behavior management. We design and successfully implement a behavioral intervention, only to see behavior return once the child goes back home or to school. Was it a failure to adequately implement the treatment in those other environments? Was it instead due to the contextual change that somehow disrupted the intervention? Perhaps, most importantly, is it possible to circumvent this problem the next time around? For those on the front lines of designing and implementing behavior change programs, answering the latter may seem as the most important question to address. But understanding how environmental variables influence the persistence and relapse of problem behavior is vital for adequately addressing challenging behavior long term.

In graduate school, I had the pleasure of meeting and working closely with  John “Tony” Nevin. Tony’s work on behavioral momentum shaped my view of behavioral processes and continues to impact my work. According to this framework, behaviors that have been reinforced at a higher rate (e.g., more frequently, greater magnitude) will be more persistent — they will be more resistant to treatment and will be more likely to return should there be treatment integrity failures. Treatment integrity failures can occur when a caregiver inadvertently reinforces problem behavior (e.g., provides attention when a child tantrums) or withholds reinforcement for replacement behavior (e.g., forgets to provide attention to a child nicely asking for a hug), to name a few. Tony Nevin is an excellent example of a basic behavioral scientist whose work has had and continues to have great impact on our field (see Amy Odum’s description of Tony’s impact on our field or Bud Mace’s description of Tony’s work).

Before moving on, it is important to note that what many applied behavior analysts refer to as behavioral momentum differs from the methods and basic findings described by Tony and colleagues (Nevin-1996-Journal_of_Applied_Behavior_Analysis).

The basic work on behavioral momentum is vast and it is beyond the scope of this post to describe it. Excellent reviews of this literature that can be found in this article or this chapter. You can also watch Tony describe it in this SQAB tutorial:


More recently, behavioral momentum theory inspired the development of models aiming to account for the relapse of problem behavior when the alternative, appropriate behavior is not adequately reinforced (like the caregiver forgetting to provide attention and a hug to a child who nicely asks for it). This framework also has inspired many translational researchers to evaluate variables influencing the relapse of problem behavior and strategies for minimizing said relapse from occurring (another example with social negative reinforcement).

Applied behavioral researchers have borrowed from the behavioral momentum literature to study the treatment of problem behavior. For instance, Wayne Fisher and colleagues recently evaluated strategies derived from behavioral momentum theory to minimize the return of challenging behavior often seen when teaching an individual to appropriately communicate their needs (i.e., functional communication training). This same research group also used predictions of behavioral momentum theory to develop more durable treatments for challenging behavior. There are so many more questions to explore!

Basic behavioral science has much to offer our understanding of behavioral interventions aimed at decreasing challenging behaviors often present in individuals with autism. It behooves applied behavior analysts to be familiar with this literature.


The work of our lab continues to be greatly influenced by Tony Nevin. Thank you, dear friend and mentor. Sail on ⛵️

Nora, Tony, and me at SQAB poster session (2006)



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