Just ignore the child because otherwise you’ll inadvertently reinforce bad behaviors.
The child is seeking your attention…don’t give in.
It’s just attention seeking behavior…it’s best to ignore and not let them get what they want.
Have you heard statements like these?
Maybe you are like me, and you’ve either said variations of them or engaged in practices where with very good intention, you purposely ignored a child’s behavior.
As I’ve continued to study and learn directly from children and teams all over the world…the more I find I’m questioning the practice of ignoring, even planned ignoring, which is often cited as having a strong evidence-base.
In a Pre-K Teach & Play podcast episode, “The Plan Was To Ignore, So Why Are We Learning To Connect?“, I dive deep into my concerns with ignoring (as a broad construct).
Here are a few of my biggest concerns:
- We may say “ignore the behavior”, but in reality, we end up ignoring the child’s needs and their efforts to communicate
- Ignoring is in direction opposition to our calling as brain architects, which is to connect and form secure attachments
- Planned ignoring in particular, and by definition, is a form of punishment
And if that weren’t enough…I also take issue with justifying planned ignoring as an evidence-based practice.
Lack of Clarity
It’s not clear (or maybe it’s better to say, it’s not consistent) in the literature I’ve read as to whom the strategy is effective for. Some say use it across the life-span, others say not to use the strategy if the child is non-verbal, or if the child has poor motor abilities or executive functioning skills. I also didn’t see distinctions or cautions in using the strategy with young children whose brains are still mapping, integrating, and developing, those who have experienced trauma, and/or those who are neurodiverse. Each of these populations require careful consideration, particularly as behavioral teams and experts with K-12 experience are invited to the ECE conversation.
Lack of Fidelity
Many strategies that are said to have an evidence-base (including planned ignoring) require adherence to certain things in order to achieve desired outcomes. In other words, to get the same results as researchers, certain steps have to be followed. Things like how to implement the strategy and replicating the conditions when it’s appropriate to use the strategy. In the case of planned ignoring, even a cursory review of the primary research shows variability in how one goes about planned ignoring (e.g., looking away, not talking, turning your back, even leaving the room) and which behaviors are “ok” to ignore and which aren’t. For example, most say use the strategy only if the intention behind the behavior is “attention-seeking misbehavior” and not to use the strategy if the behavior is related to things like noncompliance, swearing, or when safety is a concern. But again, lists vary from author to author in terms of which behaviors can be and shouldn’t be ignored. With such variability, how are those working the trenches (parents, teachers, paraprofessionals, speech therapists) able to achieve the positive results promoted in the behavior analysis literature?
Lack of Attention
Again, from my perspective, not enough attention is devoted to the conditions under which the strategy has been found to be ineffective and/or when it lacks ethical intelligence. I’m concerned that more conversations aren’t had around the potential harm/downside of ignoring, particularly given that the literature is full of cautions that “the behavior is likely to get worse before it gets better“, and in some cases, “the child may become aggressive” when the strategy is used. For me…educational strategies and interventions shouldn’t come with warning labels. I also didn’t find that the research to support planned ignoring takes into consideration the impact on the developing brain, or the possible consequences in forming insecure attachments with a caregiver. I was left wondering (worrying actually) about the consequences for children as they strive to form secure attachments and communicate to get their needs met. How can a child learn self-regulation through co-regulation if their efforts to communicate are ignored by a trusted caregiver?
Bottom line for me?
From what I’ve explored, it seems to me that research from neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology, and the science of early childhood development, provide counter evidence to the use of ignoring, planned or otherwise.
Check out my podcast on ignoring here.
In the episode you’ll learn:
- Five reasons ignoring (broadly defined) is problematic
- Three solutions for what to do instead of ignoring
- Three take aways
- Links to tons of practical solutions (see show notes at the end of the post)