Dr. K's Corner

The Art of Active Ignoring


You made it to March! While March Madness typically refers to the NCAA basketball tournament playoffs, at schools it can feel a bit like March Madness in the sense that academic and social highlights and challenges come to a head and can very much feel a bit maddening for everyone. Add on top of that, change after change we have all had to adapt to this year because this pandemic is still ongoing. Moreover, with spring break around the corner there will yet again be more changes to schedules and habits to adjust to! 

Earlier this school year I touched on the power and skill of positive attention. When there are ongoing changes or inconsistencies in schedules, positive attention is incredibly useful to help provide stability and consistency for children (and ourselves). In addition, active ignoring, also referred to as selective attention, is another useful tool to counteract any minor defiant or oppositional behaviors (from whining to tantruming and throwing things) you might be seeing in your child as we continue with never-ending changes as a result of this pandemic. 

What is Active Ignoring

Sometimes children do things to get attention, or get out of or avoid doing things they don’t like, or even get some sort of reaction (good or bad) out of others (e.g., refusing to share toys, poking or calling your name while you’re on a phone or zoom call). Such misbehaviors can increase during times of inconsistent or unpredictable schedules or response patterns from others. As humans, we are also naturally inclined to notice or give attention to when things go wrong and, therefore, when these kinds of undesired behaviors occur. So as to not increase the frequency of these misbehaviors, this is where the practice of active ignoring comes into play. 

Active ignoring is purposely not paying attention to behaviors that are minor, irritating, and/or inappropriate in order to make them go away. You can strategically use this technique to decrease and even stop specific minor misbehaviors (Note: this technique is not appropriate for aggressive or very destructive behaviors).

Example Misbehaviors to ‘Actively’ Ignore

To help bring this to life further, below are example behaviors that you can practice using this technique with:

  • Whining; pouting; grumpiness; talking back; mild arguing; complaining

  • Asking the same question over and over; repeating things

  • Grabbing toys; refusing to comply, play, share, sit, or talk

  • Making noises or interrupting

  • Doing things to get your attention (e.g., shouting your name repeatedly while you’re busy, such as on the phone or in another room)

How to Practice Active Ignoring

When the disruptive, undesired, and/or defiant behavior happens:

  1. Shift your reactions. 

    • Ignore the behavior by actively finding something else to pay attention to--such as reading a book or continuing your phone conversation. 

    • Remain silent--any reaction provides attention to this behavior, which, in turn, serves as a reward and reinforcer for that behavior to therefore continue. 

    • Turn your eyes away from your child by turning your head or body.

    • Keep your expression blank. A smile, frown, or laugh, for example, provides even the smallest reaction to your child, which reinforces the behavior and the child will make the association that if they behave like that again, they will get a similar reaction from you again, too.

  2. Don’t explain. 

    • Don’t argue, scold, or even talk to your child while they are misbehaving. This is not the time to communicate a teachable moment to them. 

  3. Catch your child being good. 

    • Compliment or praise appropriate behavior you or others are engaging in. As soon as your child’s misbehavior stops (e.g., interrupting you while you’re on the phone), provide positive attention or praise to them right away (e.g., “thank you for being quiet as I finish this call!”). 

    • This is an excellent way to use positive attention and active ignoring together!

  4. Stick with it. 

    • Consistency is key! When a child cannot get attention using the behaviors that used to be successful for them, they might not give up right away, but instead might try even harder. This. Is. Normal. 

    • Children soon learn alternative, and more appropriate, behaviors and strategies to get attention, what they want, etc., but it will only come if you provide attention and reinforcement towards what you want to see more of.

What to Look Out For

Like with positive attention, being consistent with active ignoring can be tricky. As highlighted in my previous post, The Power of Positive Attention, life would be way too easy if we could do this once and have an automatic increase in desired behaviors. It usually takes a bit more effort and mindfulness from us, at least at the outset, for such desired behaviors to increase in frequency. This is because children tend to revert back to the behaviors or strategies they’re used to using before doing something different. 

Therefore, if you’re child has learned that screeching and whining worked wonders in the past to get extra screen time or their favorite dessert, they’ll likely first increase their use of that sort of behavior (called extinction bursts) before realizing it won’t work anymore and they have to try something else instead, like using a calm, indoor voice or being kind to others at the dinner table. Eventually, with your consistency, they’ll come to understand it and the acting out or less desired behaviors will decrease in frequency as well.

This is where our patience and perseverance comes into play. Whether we realize it or not (or want to admit it or not), adapting to changes over and over again during this pandemic has been taking its toll on all of us. Therefore, it’s even more important to slow down, check in with yourself, and determine if now is the right time to try out anything new and/or seek additional help. Along those lines, the articles below might serve as another resource to understanding and managing behaviors at home: