Planned Ignoring

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D                                                              

[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on September 16, 2021.]

When a child with developmental disabilities or autism engages in problematic behavior such as screaming, throwing items, running away from adults, hitting, or kicking, the first step a behavior analyst will take to address this challenge is to determine why the child is engaging in the behavior.

What is the child trying to communicate? Is he or she trying to get the attention of an adult or peer, looking for a specific toy or snack, attempting to stop or get out of a certain activity, or simply doing it because it feels good? 

Those of us who use applied behavior analysis (ABA) to treat individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities classify the things they want to get access to as: 

  • attention from others;
  • escape from demands or other aversive stimuli;
  • access to tangible reinforcers such as a food item or toy; and
  • automatic (simply engaging in the behavior might feel good).

Once we determine the reason why a child is engaging in a problem behavior, we teach the child a more appropriate way to communicate wants and needs and stop providing reinforcement for the problematic behavior. In this way, behavior analysts seek to help the child learn how to replace the problematic behavior with more appropriate behavior. 

This is easier said than done. It is particularly challenging to address child’s attention-seeking problematic behavior. Most people’s natural reaction to inappropriate behavior is to tell the person who is acting out to stop it or give feedback about why the behavior is undesirable. Unfortunately, even giving feedback or a reprimand might provide enough attention to reinforce the problem behavior.

When this is the case, behavior analysts may recommend a technique called “planned ignoring.” With planned ignoring, the adult, caregivers, or peers will ignore the child whenever he or she engages in problem behavior. In conjunction with planned ignoring, it is important to teach the child alternative means of gaining attention and then provide praise and other reinforcement when new skills are demonstrated.

For example, a child might scream to get the attention of a teacher who is working with another student. Instead of responding to the child when he or she screams by telling them to stop, the teacher may teach them to raise their hand to get attention. Whenever the student screams, the teacher would use planned ignoring, and whenever the student raises their hand, the teacher would provide lots of positive attention. 

It is important to note that this technique is only effective if the child is engaging in the behavior to get access to attention. In addition, this technique can be difficult for several reasons. First, it can be difficult to ignore some behavior, especially when it has the potential of becoming dangerous, or is disruptive to others. Also, when treating any problem behavior by no longer providing reinforcement for that behavior, the effects of treatment may not be immediate. In fact, things may get worse before they get better. To minimize these effects, it is crucial that the child has other appropriate ways to gain attention, and that reinforcement (attention) be provided when the child engages in appropriate behavior.

By minimizing the attention we provide for problem behavior and increasing the positive reinforcement we provide for appropriate behavior, we can increase behaviors we want to see more of. For guidance specific to your child, please contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, for consultation.

Brittany Juban, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call  800.778.7601 or visit