The Art of Ignoring in 5 Steps

Okay, I know I’ll get some feedback for this post, but I still think it is an important one. Occasionally you will run in behavior that is merely attention seeking in nature. I think we have all had the student that does something just to get you going. The behavior that your student displays just to get you to react, so that they can revel in their accomplishment.

Here’s a quick story.

I once had a student that would bite the table, look at me and smile. Anytime I asked him to do work he would look up at me with his baby blue eyes and grin while holding the table between his teeth. This behavior seemed to happen anytime I needed him to do his work. He wouldn’t bite hard enough to hurt himself and he would stop as soon as I looked away. This behavior was clearly for my attention. I didn’t need a Functional Behavior Assessment to determine this one. The function was clear. He wanted to avoid work and he wanted me to react to his outrageous behavior of biting the table.

So what did I do?

I just ignored him. Anytime I asked him to do his work and he decided to bite the table, I ignored him.

And guess what?

The behavior stopped. Amazing right?

Now, you are probably thinking, ignoring is easy. Sure, I can do that. Or I’ve ignored behavior in the past, but nothing worked and the behavior never stopped.

Now what?

Well, before I delve into the 5 steps of ignoring, I want to preface all of this by saying that if your student is engaging in behavior that is dangerous or destructive, you must intervene. You simply cannot ignore behavior of that magnitude.

I also want to mention that not all behavior is that easy to determine. You may have behavior in your classroom that is not so cut and dry. Not so black and white. Here I would definitely suggest determining if the behavior is attention-seeking through a variety of methods including observation, using baseline data or a Functional Behavior Assessment. 

As there are many reasons for student behavior I do not recommend ignoring as a behavior tactic unless all other functions of behavior (besides attention-seeking) have been ruled out. So make sure you observe your student closely, understand what a norm is for them, and conduct an FBA. You may even want to bring in another educator just to check and see if the behavior is directed just at you or every adult. You may even have students that conduct attention-seeking behavior as a method to get peers’ attention. In which case, ignoring may be the best option, followed by removal of either student to decrease the chance of inadvertent attention.

Now, before we talk about the steps we should talk about the types of behavior that we can ignore that MAY be attention-seeking in nature.

  • Pouting
  • Whining
  • Screaming
  • Arguing
  • Demanding that you do something they want
  • Crying
  • Throwing temper tantrums
  • Any other methods of inappropriately demanding attention

These are just to name a few. And as stated before, you cannot ignore behavior that is destructive or dangerous to the student or others. And these behaviors must clearly be correlated with attention seeking.

Please, please, please, err on the side of caution.

Behaviors can be for a variety of reasons including hormonal changes, illness, or injury. (Among many other things!)

Do not assume that your student is engaging in attention-seeking behavior when something underlying could be going on. In the case of students that cannot tell you what is wrong, do not start with assuming that they are just trying to get your attention. They could be sick, hurt, or something else could be going on.

Okay, now let’s talk about the three types of ignoring:

1. No Physical Contact

If possible, do not touch your student or let them touch you. Remember that student I talked about earlier? Well, if I didn’t respond to his behavior he would sometimes try and grab my hands to try and get me to physically remove his face from the table. If you have a student like this, calmly remove your hands from a position where your student can get them. Take a few steps back from the table, desk or area, if you can without your student conducting in other, more amped up, behavior. If you are in close proximity to your student and moving away is not an option, just remove their hands from your body in a calm even keeled manner. Try not to give the student any feedback that could be misconstrued as attention.

2. No Verbal Contact

Do not talk to your student. Now I don’t mean, don’t EVER talk to your student, just don’t repeatedly talk to your student when they are engaging in the attention-seeking behavior. Give your student one (maybe two) verbal directions and that’s it. After that you can show your student any non-verbal cue that they know well. This could be a PEC or sign language.

Do not speak or say another word. Simply point to the PEC or sign until your student complies.

This is where many, many, many teachers fail. It may be tempting to think that your student didn’t hear you, or that they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. So you repeatedly talk to them.

That’s wrong.

If a student is engaging in a behavior and it is truly attention-seeking in nature, and you have given them 2 verbal directions, showed them a non-verbal direction and they still continue to conduct that behavior, they understand. They probably know what you want them to do and they are just refusing. Continue to show the non-verbal cue until they stop the attention-seeking behavior and continue to complete the task at hand.

3. No Eye Contact

Lastly, no eye contact. This can be a tricky one. I don’t necessarily mean, don’t look. I just mean, don’t get caught looking. And as always, you need to keep an eye on your student to ensure safety. Please don’t think I am saying walk out of the room and go get a cup of coffee. You still need to be aware of what your student is doing, just don’t let them know you are still watching.

So know that you know the 3 types of ignoring and depending on your situation, you may need to employ 1 or all 3 in conjunction with these next steps.

Here are the 5 Steps in the Art of Ignoring:

1. Pick a Target Behavior

First start by deciding on the behavior that you want to decrease. Determine the function of the behavior and make sure that the behavior is merely attention-seeking in nature and not due a medical need, a pain, or injury. Use observation, baseline norm data, and an FBA as necessary.

2. Remove any and all Attention when the Behavior Occurs

If and when the behavior occurs, remove any and all attention. This means employing any combination of the above 3 steps to effectively ignore the student.

3. If You Are Going to Ignore, Be Consistent!

This one is probably the hardest. If you are going to ignore, you better follow through. If you decide that you are going to fight a battle and tell a student that their attention-seeking behavior is not okay, you need to follow through. EVERY TIME.  This is tough. And tiring. And it will drain you. If your student is strong-willed, you’ll probably want to give up. But believe me, give it a shot. Finish what you started and you are bound to see the results you wanted.

4. Expect the Extinction Burst

An extinction burst. That’s a fancy word that behavior experts throw around to mean, expect the behavior to occur more often before it occurs less.

Here’s a fun example of an extinction burst.

Say, every day you went to the vending machine to buy a soda. And every day you bought the same soda to go with your lunch. One day you go to the machine to buy your daily soda only to find out that it is sold out. What do you do? You pressed the button and it said, “sold out.” The first thing many would do is hit the button 3 or 4 more times before we realize that that soda is not coming out.

That, my dear, is an extinction burst.

If your student has consistently gotten away with whatever behavior it is that you are trying to decrease, expect them to amp it up before it tones down. It’s a natural response. We all do it. Don’t get discouraged. Just expect it, account for it, work through it, and you can do it!

5. Reward and Attend to the Appropriate Behavior as Soon as it Occurs

Now, eventually, hopefully, your student will realize that their attention-seeking behavior is not assuming to anyone else, and the reward of getting your attention (or anyone else’s) is not going to take place. You have employed a variety of techniques to create an environment of effective ignoring. You have been consistent, waited it out and now your student is displaying appropriate behavior.

Great! That’s what we want right? So the next thing you need to do is praise, praise, praise! Give all the attention in the world for appropriate behavior, and your student is bound to make the connection and continue to make the right choice.

Ignoring should not be used in a vacuum. It is important to note that ignoring on its own without use of positive behavior strategies and interventions is not best practice. It is one part in many strategies that help obtain desired behavior. Please see my post on PBIS Strategies in Students with Autism for more information regarding techniques for increasing desirable behavior.

Take time, be observant, and use ignoring sparingly, as needed and only when the behavior is attention-seeking, but not dangerous or destructive. Use base line data to check in and see if maybe your student is in pain, hurt, injured or in need of some sensory stimulation. Use help from colleagues or conduct a formal FBA if it is a consistent behavior that you think maybe be a bit more complicated. When in doubt, seek help and ask questions.

Until next time,