Planned Ignoring

Have you been in conversation with a behaviorist or professional working with your child and heard the term “planned ignoring”? It sounds like a fairly simple concept, so often we let the statements about planned ignoring go by without asking for further clarification about what this intervention entails. Does this essentially give the behaviorist a term for doing nothing when a behavioral challenges arises? In many ways, the simple answer is yes. But there should be clarity behind the intent and execution of this intervention. If used correctly, it can be a powerful parent tool for helping to stop a child’s undesirable behavior.

So what exactly is planned ignoring? In order to use this intervention effectively, we put emphasis on the “planned” aspect. While it may sound enticing to begin ignoring all challenging behavior at once, this intervention is most effective when the individuals involved, environment in which it occurs and function of the behavior have all been determined in advance.
To give an example, let’s consider a child who is repetitively using inappropriate language. Often times this behavior was at some point reinforced by a reaction that the child found exciting (whether because they enjoyed the laugh they received or the heightened negative attention) and you will see that the child is continuing to look for a reaction when he uses such language. In behavioral terms, we would label the function of this behavior to be access to attention. As such, in order to stop this behavior, we need to make sure that the child recognizes that they will no longer access attention for using such language. If this behavior occurs fairly consistently when the child enters his classroom or meets with a new individual, planned ignoring may involve both your conscientious ignoring of his language, but also a call ahead to other individuals who may be present to ensure that they are prepared not to give an exciting response to such behavior. Planned ignoring takes significant effort and attention to both your verbal and non-verbal reactions to a behavior, so prepare your best poker face and plan to move on quickly from the situation if possible.

Additionally, planned ignoring works best when paired with positive reinforcement for the behavior you DO want to see. That reinforcement can be given directly to the child (Thank you for smiling at Teacher Lisa when you walked in the room! That was great expected behavior!) or vicariously by praising the appropriate behaviors of others around them (I love the way Danny walked in a greeted Teacher Lisa politely! Great job Danny!)

We also have to consider which behaviors we can effectively and safely ignore. If self-harm or harm to another may occur, planned ignoring is likely not an appropriate reaction.

It’s important to note that planned ignoring is not always for the faint of heart. Often times, when a child begins seeing behavior that once elicited strong reactions being ignored, they will increase the behavior before it stops. A common example of this can be seen by parents who have attempted to ignore a child throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. If the previous reaction was that the parent would buy them an item to stop the tantrum, their tantrum may get louder and more pronounced the first, second and even third time such behavior is ignored. But with persistence, and positive reinforcement for NOT engaging in the tantrum, such behavior should gradually stop as it no longer gets the desired response.

Our last note on this intervention is the importance of communication when it comes to planned ignoring. If you are utilizing planned ignoring to stop a specific behavior, it is crucial that you communicate this with others who are spending time with your child so that they do not inadvertently reinforce the undesirable behavior. If you are doing a great job of holding the line with tantrums in the grocery story, but a grandparent or babysitter is quick to give them a treat to stop tantrums, that behavior may have just gotten stronger and more difficult to extinguish in the future. It’s also helpful to communicate the intervention you are using so that you can feel supported and encouraged by those around you, rather than concerned about their judgement.

Children who struggle to communicate effectively will find many different means to communicate and connect with those around them…and some of these methods may be more acceptable than others! By actively and consistently ignoring the less acceptable behaviors and positively reinforcing the types of communication we want to see, we take one step closer to helping our children to get their needs met in a more desirable manner.