Child Behaviour Tools: Planned Ignoring


Planned ignoring is when you take your attention away from your child for a little while when your child behaves badly. This can be a useful child behaviour tool and needn’t feel like rejection.

What is planned ignoring?

Planned ignoring is paying no attention to a child when she’s misbehaving. It means not looking at her and not talking to her while she behaves that way.

For example, if you’re having a family meal and your child is bouncing up and down on his seat, you could leave him out of the conversation and not look at him until he stops. When he stops, you could say, ‘I love it when you sit still on your chair at dinner. Why don’t you tell us what you did at pre-school today?’.

The key is to reward your child with lots of attention when she’s behaving well – but don’t give her any attention when she behaves badly. By consistently paying and withholding attention like this, you can help shape your child’s behaviour.

Why does planned ignoring work?

Planned ignoring works because your attention is a big reward for your child.

If your child behaves in a particular way and gets your attention, he’s likely to behave that way again. But if you ignore the behaviour, it’s less likely to happen again. So attention for good behaviour usually leads to more good behaviour, and no attention for bad behaviour usually leads to less bad behaviour.

Because your attention is such a big reward for your child, sometimes it doesn’t matter what kind of attention you give her. A reaction to bad behaviour is better than no attention at all, so even criticism or disciplining could feel like a reward to your child – and can actually lead to more bad behaviour.

Some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) avoid interaction with others. For these children, it’s best not to use planned ignoring. Talk with your child’s doctor or therapist about other ways to manage your child’s behaviour.

Should you tell your child you’re ignoring him? It depends on whether telling your child might reward him with attention. For minor bad behaviour, you might not say anything. Or you could explain once that you won’t respond when your child behaves in a particular way. Then ignore the behaviour whenever it happens after that, without saying anything else.

Planned ignoring: tips

Here are some tips for using planned ignoring.

  • Completely ignore. Don’t look at your child or say anything while she’s misbehaving. Glances, smiles or even frowns can be rewarding. Saying ‘I am ignoring you!’ is not ignoring. Where it’s safe and practical, walk away from your child while she’s behaving badly.
  • Start ignoring when the behaviour starts. Stop ignoring when the behaviour has been stopped for a while. This might mean 20 seconds of ignoring for a toddler and a few minutes of ignoring for older children. You can respond again when your child stops misbehaving.
  • Plan some ways of distracting yourself if you think you’ll find it hard to ignore your child. You could put on some music, count in your head or plan your shopping list. Some simple breathing exercises can also help you feel in control and stay calm.
  • Consistently pay attention to the behaviour you want to see instead of the behaviour you’re ignoring. This makes planned ignoring work better.

Sometimes children behave in challenging ways to express big feelings. When this happens it’s good to try talking with your child about his feelings – or you can talk afterwards when he’s calm. When you help your child to understand his feelings, it helps him to manage his feelings and behaviour.

Deciding to use planned ignoring

Ignoring isn’t always the best option. Before deciding to ignore behaviour, it’s a good idea to check a few things.

Is the behaviour rewarded by someone else’s attention?

If the behaviour is rewarded by someone else’s attention – for example, siblings or friends – it won’t make any difference if you ignore it. In this case, you might need to look at another behaviour tool – for example, changing your child’s environment.

Should you ignore the behaviour?

Some behaviour might be rewarded by your attention, but you might not be able or willing to ignore it. You can’t ignore dangerous behaviour or behaviour that hurts others or damages property – for example, biting, hitting, pulling on the curtains or throwing things. In this case, a behaviour tool like consequences or time-out might be appropriate.

Can you ignore the behaviour if it gets worse?

Sometimes you might start ignoring behaviour, but it gets worse and you end up giving it attention. For example, your child is tapping a block on a wooden floor, which you ignore. But then your child starts banging the block. If you criticise your child for banging the block, you run the risk of rewarding that behaviour. This makes it more likely to happen again.

In this situation, you could try simple breathing exercises while the banging is happening. But if you feel that you can’t ignore the behaviour if it gets worse, it’s better not to try ignoring it in the first place.

Can you ignore the behaviour wherever it happens?

If you ignore the behaviour in one place but not another, you’ll get more of the behaviour in the place you don’t want it. For example, if you ignore your child yelling at home but not at the supermarket, you might get more yelling at the supermarket. You could try planning ahead for the behaviour at the supermarket.

Can you ignore the behaviour whenever it happens?

This is crucial. If you ignore sometimes and not at other times, you can make it harder to change your child’s behaviour. Rewarding your child’s behaviour some of the time strengthens the behaviour more than if the behaviour is rewarded every time it happens. Planning ahead for your child’s behaviour and stress management for you can help.

Will other people ignore the behaviour?

If you have managed to successfully ignore a behaviour, but your spouse, friend or relative suddenly comes in and pays attention, your good work will be undone. Backing each other up is an important part of managing your children’s behaviour, so it’s good if you and your spouse can talk and agree on what behaviour you’ll ignore.

Sometimes others will find it difficult to understand your use of planned ignoring and might not be able to do it. If you’re in this situation it’s better not to use ignoring.

Be prepared – behaviour that’s ignored often gets worse before it gets better. Children might complain or nag more, hoping you’ll respond. You should consider this when deciding whether to use planned ignoring as a behaviour too.

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