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Vol. 1, No. 1 • Spring 1997

Ignoring: An Effective Way
to Change Some Behaviors

by Charles Kronberg

Ignoring can be a very powerful discipline technique, but it must be used correctly and consistently because if it is not, it can actually serve to increase the behavior you are trying to eliminate. In general, ignoring works best where the child's primary motive is to have attention focused on him or herself, even if that means resorting to disturbing, annoying, or otherwise negative behavior.

The basic principle behind ignoring is: "To stop a child from acting in a particular way, arrange conditions so that the child will receive no attention following the undesired act." That means when the behavior starts, do nothing--no yelling, no commenting, no lecturing, no eye contact, no grimacing, etc. The effect is that the undesired behavior has no impact and elicits no response from significant people in the environment.

Ignoring alone frequently will not work unless it is used in conjunction with paying attention to the appropriate behavior when it starts occurring. For example, if a child starts whining and you ignore him, it is important that you attend to the child as soon as he or she starts to use an appropriate tone; and it can be helpful at times to comment on it..."Oh, I'm glad you're using your regular voice; that makes me want to listen to your question."

Ignoring is an art that can be very difficult to put into effect--because it does not come naturally. It means resisting the "pull" of the natural response to the behavior. For example, if a child has a temper tantrum, the natural response is to do something active: yell, spank, hug, etc. When you ignore, you resist your natural inclination to respond.

A second difficult aspect of using ignoring is that initially, in about 75 percent of the cases, the child's behavior will escalate or intensify before it stops. That is, it will get worse before it gets better. For example, if a child has a problem with whining and you choose to ignore whining, the child will probably whine louder and longer before he or she stops. You must be prepared to stick it through and keep ignoring until the child stops on his or her own. If you give in while the child is increasing the negative behavior, you will actually end up reinforcing that behavior or habit--making it stronger and harder to break. What the child learns is: "If I just keep up the behavior and make it even more annoying, Mom or Dad will end up giving in."

When you introduce ignoring, it is helpful to have one discussion letting the child know what you are doing and why. For example, you might tell the child "When you scream in the house, it hurts my ears and makes me angry. So from now on when you need me, I'm going to expect you to come to me and ask for what you need in a regular voice. If you don't do that, I just won't answer you. I'll ignore you." After that initial explanation and perhaps one brief reminder, no more discussion. Proceed with the plan of action--ignore.

Once you begin ignoring, do it consistently every time the behavior occurs. But remember, when the child starts behaving appropriately, give appropriate, positive attention. This does not mean a lecture on how much better the child is doing or global praise, but rather a natural, matter-of-fact, positive response like the one described above.

The third important factor in using ignoring is that all important sources of attention must agree to use it. For example, if Johnny whines to Mom and she ignores it and then he goes to Dad and he answers the whining questions, Johnny's whining will probably persist.

The kind of behaviors that are most amenable to change by ignoring are irritating, disturbing, annoying, attention-getting, or irrelevant behaviors that are not dangerous to the cild or others. Specific behaviors include: crying, whining, sassing, name-calling, "bad" language, interrupting, dawdling, "horseplay", funny noises, and certain types of temper tantrums.

Do not use ignoring for behaviors that can be dangerous to the child or to someone else. For example, playing with a light socket, hitting a much younger sibling, using dangerous objects, or very violent temper tantrums. Also, do not use ignoring if the behavior is so irritating that you won't be able to see it through when the behavior intensifies. Time out might be a better measure in such instances.

For a summary of how to effectively eliminate behaviors through ignoring, see "Effective Ignoring."

1981 Project Enlightenment, Wake County Public School System. 501 S. Boylan Avenue, Raleigh, NC 27603. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright 2000 Jordan Institute for Families