Changing Behaviour through Attention and Ignoring

Many children enjoy receiving attention. If they do not receive enough positive attention for their good behaviours, they will often resort to behaviour that results in negative forms of attention (e.g., yelling, nagging, and consequences such as “time out”). Some would prefer to receive this negative attention than to do without attention all together. Children quickly learn what behaviours yield both positive and negative attention.

As a parent, teacher or early childhood professional, how you provide your attention can be a powerful tool in shaping positive behaviour and reducing undesirable behaviour as well. Learning how and when to use your attention can be very effective. Use both positive attention and ignoring at the right moments. In this way, your child learns that acceptable behaviours result in positive attention and inappropriate behaviours result in no attention.

How to Give Positive Attention Effectively:

  • Make eye contact with your child and speak enthusiastically.
  • Be specific about the behaviour that you liked. For example, use “Good being quiet” or “Nice hands to self,” instead of “Good girl.”
  • Keep praise statements simple. For instance, “Good picking up toys” instead of, “That was good picking up your toys so that no one would trip on them.”
  • It is VERY IMPORTANT to give the type of attention that your child enjoys. Make note of the type of attention your child enjoys and that which she may find unpleasant. It is important that the attention you give like a pat on the back, a smile or lots of verbal praise reward appropriate behaviour.
  • Give attention immediately following the behaviour that you liked. It is very important not to delay when you reward a positive behaviour. Delays make it more difficult for your child to understand what she did to receive attention. As well, your child may do another behaviour between the time you praise and the behaviour you wanted to praise. Minimize confusion.
  • Withhold attention for 30 seconds following an inappropriate behaviour. For example, after a negative behaviour, your child should exhibit at least 30 seconds of good behaviour before you provide her with positive attention.
  • Catch your child being good. All gains and appropriate behaviours are important and should result in positive attention. Statements such as, “Nice sitting on the toilet” or “Nice sharing” are important to hear.
  • Provide positive attention for behaviours that cannot occur at the same time as inappropriate behaviours. For example, if your child often tantrums or is disruptive, praise her for playing quietly, sharing and using a normal voice volume during her play. This will teach your child acceptable alternatives to misbehaviours.
  • Provide positive attention at least once every 5 minutes. You will know you are praising your child enough, when you feel you are doing it too much or too often.
  • Be sure that good behaviours receive more attention than inappropriate behaviours.
  • Provide many opportunities for positive attention. It is easier to promote appropriate behaviours when your child is doing something she likes to do and you are both focused on that one activity (e.g., looking at a book, playing a game). The more you arrange the environment to be conducive to appropriate behaviour the better the chance she will learn how to act appropriately.

How to Ignore Effectively

  • Determine what “ignorable behaviour” is. Ignorable behaviour is typically defined as behaviours whose function is to gain the attention of others. It is attention that is the fuel that maintains the behaviour of concern. Generally, these are behaviours that are not harmful to your child, others, or others’ belongings. It is important that all care providers and parents be aware of the definition to be consistent in their response.
  • Ignore as soon as the behaviour occurs. Delaying your response (ignoring) will confuse your child if too much time passes between her action and your response.
  • Ignore consistently. Whenever ignorable behaviours occur, be consistent in your response. This will help your child to learn the limits to her behaviour and to determine which behaviours will result in the desired attention.
  • Make ignoring obvious. To have an impact on behaviour, your child must be aware that attention is being removed because of a specific behaviour she has done. This is particularly challenging for some children with a developmental disability who are less aware of social cues. Therefore, ignoring must be made obvious by:
    • looking away,
    • keeping a neutral facial expression,
    • talking with others in child’s presence,
    • restricting physical contact,
    • tuning the child out, or
    • engaging in other regular tasks.
  • Expect behaviours to escalate. Things often get worse before they get better. This is because your child may increase the frequency of behaviours in an attempt to receive the attention she is accustomed to. This does not mean that ignoring is not working–quite the opposite–she is merely testing the new rules that have changed.
  • Do not allow your child to escape a task due to ignorable behaviours. If you are working on a task, such as putting toys away, continue to follow through with the task even if behaviours you have defined as “ignorable” occur. Ignoring is a very active strategy that requires that you withhold eye contact and make no verbal response to your child. However, it does not mean to stand back and allow destructive or harmful behaviour to occur. It is important at times to prevent and block behaviours as well as removing or diverting your child from an area or situation. It is important to keep everyone and everything safe.

Adapted from: the September/October 1999 issue of Disability
Solutions, Volume 3, Issue 5 & 6

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