A lot of the advice you hear about problem behavior is to ignore it and it will magically go away. Even I am guilty of giving this advice to therapists and parents, instructing them to ignore the behavior and redirect the child to another activity. Often, though, when I follow up on these instructions, I’ve found there’s some confusion, and that I need to clarify what it means to ignore as well as why we should redirect the child's behavior.
I want to add a disclaimer here that not all behaviors should be ignored, especially if safety is a concern. One example is elopement. A child slipping through the parking lot and roaming around is a major safety concern. Ignoring is not considered here. However, ignoring elopement in a closed area, such as your home, may be considered if the function of behavior has been determined to be attention-seeking.
Speaking of functions of behavior, it’s worth noting that ignoring a behavior will not be effective if it doesn't match the child's function of behavior. If it does, though, it can be very effective. So, what are functions of behavior? Simply put, it is why a person does what they do.
· Why do you raise your voice? To grab someone's attention.
· Why do you dance your heart out at a basketball game? To get the free t-shirt.
· Why do you play on your phone at the coffee shop? To avoid socialization.
· Why do you fidget in a meeting? To keep yourself focused.
In other words, the person is doing something (behavior) to communicate a desired effect. Functions of behavior fall into four categories: getting attention; access to tangible; escape from demand; and automatic. Figuring out functions of behavior can be a tricky task, so I advise you to consult with a behavior analyst before going through an intervention. A behavior analyst will use an assessment to analyze patterns of behavior through direct observation or testing and through interview questions with you. Once a clear function has been determined, the behavior analyst will create a behavior intervention plan. To learn more about patterns of behavior, also known as the ABCs of behavior, click here to get your free download of the parent guide.
Now, back to our examples of why ignoring may or may not be effective according to function.
Ignoring a person who raises their voice may tell the person that yelling is not effectively getting their attention. Maybe there's another, more effective way to do it, like tapping their shoulder. So, in this case, ignoring was effective because the person is not raising their voice anymore.
Ignoring a person who is playing on their phone will tell the person to continue to play on their phone. They are successfully avoiding (escaping) possible socialization at the coffee shop. In this case, ignoring is not effective because the person continued to play on their phone and is relieved they do not have to engage in small talk.
Let's go back to the phrase "ignore & redirect." When I advise people to ignore, I generally mean you give no reaction. No expression on your face and body, and no verbal remarks. This can be particularly difficult in certain situations. For example, if your child is hitting you, you are very inclined to say "Ow! That really hurt." If your child is looking for attention, however, giving a reaction will reinforce what they did to get that reaction. In other words, if whatever they did got your attention the first time, they will do it again and again because it works! Also, a reaction may reinforce escape behavior as well, because it distracts you from the original task they were supposed to do in the first place.
[Note: There are exceptions to why we should give a reaction (teaching sympathy or empathy), but for this post I explain what I generally mean when I say "ignore."]
Now, ignoring does not happen alone. Thanks to grad school, I have it ingrained in my head that ignoring undesired behavior (also known as putting a behavior on extinction) does not and should not occur alone. This is because if you ignore one behavior, the person still needs to figure out how to achieve the desired effect. Let's go back to the example of the person raising their voice or yelling. If shouting doesn't work (because they are being ignored), they are still trying to figure out how to get the other person’s attention. But what if tapping the shoulder was never taught? If there's no other known way of getting the desired outcome, they may aggress (i.e. become aggressive).
That's where redirection comes in. Redirection can mean teaching a replacement skill, such as tapping on the person's shoulder, or distracting the person to another activity, such as telling the person to go for a walk. My advice for redirection is to follow through with a replacement behavior advised through your child's behavior intervention plan. When it comes to redirecting, I am typically looking for something specific that will go along with function.
I hope I was able to give you more insight into what "ignore and redirect" means, as least from my perspective. Therapists tend to use this term often, so the next time you hear it, ask them to show you what they’re doing so you can do the same. Remember, it's all about consistency!
I'll give you one more example from my personal experience. I was told to "ignore and redirect" by turning my head away from my client when he became aggressive. So, I did. Unfortunately, when I turned my head, my client continued to hit me on the arm. I wasn't sure why ignoring wasn't working, so I asked him, "Do you know what I'm doing?" He told me, "You're trying to ignore me." He knew he was getting a reaction out of me by just turning my head. However, once I got clarification and ignored the behavior by occupying myself with other activities (e.g. writing notes, talking to the parent), we were able to see a behavior change.
It’s also important to keep in mind that a behavior change is our ultimate goal, and to reach that goal, we first must figure out the function of behavior, or motivation. Once we do that, we can redirect the problem behavior until it’s replaced with a more desirable behavior.