The Hidden Costs of Planned Ignoring

** Updated September 2020

Not long ago,  I heard about a painful and frustrating episode a teenager recalled from his childhood. At five years old, the boy was 45 minutes into a therapy session when he ran to the window, pressed his nose against it, and stared intently at the family car. Unable to effectively use spoken language, he was trying to express to his behavior therapist and his mother that he was weary and ready to go home.

The therapist didn’t get the message, dismissing his attempt to communicate as mere “stimming”—that is, a form of “meaningless” self-stimulation. “He’s fixating on the car,” she told the boy’s mother. “Let’s ignore and try to get him back to the table.” Now 17, the boy recalls his great frustration trying to make himself understood.

The therapist wasn’t being intentionally harsh. She was merely following an approach that uses reinforcement and other strategies such as “planned ignoring” to help children learn and acquire new, “adaptive” behaviors. Over two decades working with children, I have grown increasingly concerned about the use of planned ignoring, also known as tactical ignoring.

Why? It doesn’t build social and emotional development when we ignore a child’s attempts to communicate. Doing so doesn’t help the child, but can fuel frustration, anger and resentment. We must ask ourselves, if behaviors are a form of communication, what message are we giving by ignoring? Just as we wouldn’t ignore a fellow adult’s attempts to communicate, it’s time that we look below the surface and question whether this technique is appropriate for children.

Here are some of the hidden costs of this commonly used tool in behavioral treatment:

  1. Ignoring sends the wrong emotional message to the child. In short, the adult is saying, “I’m not interested in what you’re trying to convey, and I’ll pay attention only when you comply with my demands.”
  2. Ignoring presupposes that a child’s observable behaviors accurately reveal his or her intentions. In fact, many children lack the ability to coordinate movement and/or language to convey their inner thoughts.
  3. Ignoring oversimplifies the child’s behaviors without trying to discern underlying thoughts and feelings.
  4. It is stressful and unnatural for parents to ignore their own child.

What’s a better alternative? Rather than ignoring, it’s best to do the opposite: pay extra attention to behaviors, and ask question: How can we help the child to communicate? When we ignore children, we risk shutting down their attempts to do what we want them to do most: communicate with us.

To reconsider the value of planned ignoring, parents can:

  1. Collaborate with the teachers and professionals working with your child to review your child’s program and discuss the costs of planned ignoring.
  2. Consider relationship- based approaches that consider children’s emotions and relationships as the foundation for treatment.
  3. Get support helping your child to communicate by enlisting specialists who presume competence in your child and can help your child to communicate using the latest knowledge and technology if necessary.
  4. Have compassion for your child and yourself and assume your child wants to please you, but can’t in the moment.
  5. Use strategies that will bring you closer emotionally and increase attunement.

Most importantly, trust your instinct as a parent. If a certain technique doesn’t feel right for your child, speak up. Nobody knows your child as you do.

I share more about new ways to support children’s behavioral challenges in my books, Brain-Body Parenting and Beyond Behaviors. 

We also host a supportive parenting community with many resources for parents and providers.

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Imagine , us normies , if nobody ever listened to us! How would we feel? Frustrated? Angry? Hopeless? Useless ? Sad? Why is it that we have so much difficulty with those of US that are different?

Hi Valerie, Thank you for sharing. We need to challenge the stereotype of “normal” and the legacy of the medical model. And pay attention to those real experts–individuals themselves, like Ido Kedar, who remind us to respect neurodiversity.

I am an autism specialist, and I agree with you and this little boy. There is a place for some ABA in autism instruction, but first we need to learn to understand each child. Without empathy and understanding, ABA can be far too cold and harsh. There’s a technique called Rapid Prompting developed by Soma Mukhopadyhay that anyone can use to help non-verbal children communicate what they are thinking. This is not yet an “approved” autism technique, and is therefore ignored by mainstream education and therapy groups. But it is a tool that non-verbal children can use to tell us what is wrong, right, bad, good, fun, boring, hard, painful, or scary in their world! I use it every day to do body checks on my kids with autism because we can’t even tell when they’re sick or in pain much of the time. About 10 years ago, there was a flurry of lawsuits, children suing parents and ABA providers for the harm their ABA therapies did to them – ignoring or providing negative consequences for tantrums when a child had a broken bone, for example! There were many, many scary stories of ABA punishing kids for trying to communicate something important. Those of us who use ABA have a huge responsibility to use it carefully and judiciously and only as part of a much bigger set of instructional strategies that we use with kids. First communication, then discipline. We would never consider disciplining a neurotypical child without first hearing their side of what we thought we saw. We have to find ways to give this same basic human right to our non-verbal children with autism!

So well said, thank you for commenting Cindy!

So well said. Thank you Cindy!

This article is not research driven and sends the wrong message about the appropriate use of planned ignoring and, in addition, doesn’t even give an accurate description of planned ignoring. The author is giving an oversimplified definition and basically thinks it’s just ignoring the child ( when it should be systematically implemented) and its even more harmful to give the message to the general audience that “we should pay attention to behaviors”. So, we should reinforce inappropriate behaviors by giving attention to problem behaviors maintained by attention? Wrong. Planned ignoring does not ignore the child, it just ignores the inappropriate behavior in which the child should have been previously taught a replacement behavior to communicate their needs AND feelings. I don’t think the author is aware about antecedent and consequent strategies either In which planned ignoring is only a consequent strategy to decrease the behavior, however she mentioned nothing about replacement behaviors and antecedent strategies to teach alternative forms of communicating in accordance to the function. She’s also cueing in to only ONE example that happened between a therapist and student and claiming this was such a traumatic event of the student. It’s an emotional appeal to the audience disguised as theoretical knowledge (basically not based on any sound research) which Is a manipulative tactic that a lot of authors do to convince the readers. It’s unfortunate that this article is not based on any sound research, but rather only from the personal belief of an author who is extremely misinformed. The author should have instead researched what planned ignoring is before spreading negative connotations about this *evidence-based behavioral principle* and applied behavioral analysis in itself (there are many sound articles on the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis). As well, please do not discount the use of ABA just because it has been used incorrectly in the past and perhaps used incorrectly by the therapist n this article. It’s obvious that the therapist described in this article was misinformed about the function and used planned ignoring when it wasn’t supposed to be implemented. A different behavioral principle should have been used to appease the true function of the behavior. Aba has a huge ethics portion and Is heavily emphasized in which we make sure to not harm the child (although parents like to think we are just because the child is tantrumming more when we apply our interventions; look up extinction and extinction burst. We also only use evidence based principles to manipulate and rearrange environmental variables that are maintaining the problem behavior so that we can increase socially significant changes in the independence and success of the individual to its highest potential.
-Veena, BCBA

Dear Veena, Thanks for commenting. I agree, and state in the article that ABA is an evidence based treatment, in fact the most widely used for ASD. This article, however, is about a specific subset of persons– those without spoken language– who have reported to me how painful it was to have this technique used, when they were actually trying to communicate and the behavior was interpreted as undesired or non-compliant. I am not a researcher, I’m a clinician and I have had many persons report this reflection to me over the years. Thank you again for sharing your concerns!

Thank you for replying back to me and your response.

Wow! What a rabid reaction to Dr. Delahooke’s article, by the Radical Behaviorist. This is the tactics they use under the veneer of being scientific to bully intimidate others into accepting their one sided view. The research in JABA is bias and skewed so that their point of view is only addressed. They still see people as experimental animals as their progenitor Watson did I quote ” “Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist’s total scheme of investigation.” The behaviorist talks about extinction and extinction burst , this is the child’s frustration and anxiety of being controlled and broken to be shaped according to the rules of operant conditioning, what socially appropriate behaviors do they want to change and socially appropriate according to whom the behaviorist manifesto ?

if a child does not have the capacity to socially/emotionally interact with their caregivers, families and community, which is the base of physiological/interpersonal realm, how can you then manipulate any thing leave alone the environmental variables to change their behaviors. Maybe a bit of study of neurobiology would do the Radical Behaviorist some good, to show via evidence of how the brain and central and peripheral nervous system interact with the ecology to create perceptions of a situation, task or stimuli in order to create a behavior. Therefore only manipulating external environmental variables will not change the behavior, but create an extinction burst (severe frustration) then on to planned ignoring further( anxiety) and finally breaking down the child’s need to express its self or its needs. This child would be like one of Skinners rats in his in his Skinner box manipulated by deprivation and satiation. Even on of them a ardent behaviorist admits this (
“Evidence-Based Knowledge: The Fool’s Gold standard of behavior analysis.” Please read this article.
John C

I think what Mona is trying to convey is that, we need to look into more child’s psychological and emotional state before we look at the functions of the behavior by soothing them when they are experiencing hightened emotions, so they feel safe with us and think that we always have their back no matter what.