Planned Ignoring

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Children and adults with disabilities often behave inappropriately in social settings because of the effect their behavior has on family members, teachers, and/or peers. Indeed, most people – whether or not they are disabled – choose to behave in certain ways because of the effect their behavior has on others. Behavior analysts describe this phenomenon as “operant learning.”

Understanding problematic behavior from this viewpoint can be difficult. Care providers, for example, often do not think about how their own behavior affects the challenging behavior of individuals in their care. Parents and teachers may also fail to see how their behavior is likely to encourage or reinforce the problem behavior of their children and students.

When behavior analysts work with care providers, parents, and teachers, they start by considering the context in which a problem behavior occurs. Through interviews and direct observation, they try to understand the relationship between the problem behavior and the behavior of others. The goal is to identify the factors that reinforce the challenging behavior.

Attention – whether it is positive or negative – can often reinforce or maintain problem behavior. For example, a student disrupts the class and his classmates laugh. If the student is disruptive again, the laughter – social attention from peers –would be identified as a positive reinforcer.

One method for reducing or stopping challenging behavior maintained by social attention is a technique called “planned ignoring.” It can be difficult for a number of reasons. First, the behavior may have a long history of getting attention from a variety of people in different settings. The attention-getting behavior may have also been reinforced only every once in a while (vs. regularly). In these situations, the effects of withholding attention may not be immediate, and may lead people to wrongly conclude that planned ignoring is not effective.

It is important to note that, when a person’s previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced, that person may dramatically increase the problem behavior in order to get the attention he or she craves. Behavior analysts refer to this phenomenon as an “extinction burst.” In some cases, a rather mild inappropriate behavior may escalate into a much more problematic or unsafe behavior, one that ultimately cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, if the person with the problem behavior gets attention in this situation, a more intense problem behavior has been reinforced. But when safety is involved, this may be unavoidable.

In most cases, parents, teachers, and care providers will need to ignore problematic behavior that appears to be reinforced through social attention. They must be prepared to stick to the plan and realize that the behavior may get much worse before it gets better. Most importantly, they should understand that this learning process will be most successful if they combine positive reinforcement with planned ignoring. In this way, they can reinforce more appropriate behaviors while ignoring inappropriate behaviors. When caregivers, teachers, and parents use this approach, the individuals in their care are likely to learn that they will not get the social attention they want if they are engaging in problem behaviors.

By Patrick F. Heick, Ph.D., BCBA-D​