The Hidden Costs of Planned Ignoring

June 15th, 2015 | Mona Delahooke, Ph. D.

** Updated September 2020

Not long ago, at an  autism treatment forum, I heard about a painful and frustrating episode a teenager recalled from his childhood. At five years old, the boy was 45 minutes into an autism treatment session when he ran to the window, pressed his nose against it, and stared intently at the family car. Unable to use spoken language or even point or gesture, he was simply trying to express to his behavior therapist and his mother that he was weary of the incessant drills 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.

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About S. R. Zelenz 119 Articles
S.R. Zelenz has worked in education for 20 years. Working with students from all walks of life, cultures, races, and social diversity, Zelenz’s research in Educational Leadership led to finding a better way to approach learning for students with trauma histories. Many were juvenile offenders, gang members, diagnosed with varying behavioral disorders, or had family histories of violence, murder, or narcissistic parenting. This research could not be effectively accomplished without further understanding: how epigenetic trauma inheritance may be impacting these students; how brain development from trauma may be impacting their behavioral and emotional development; as well as deep understanding of psychology and its varying classifications for behavioral and personality disorders. The goal is to find solutions for changing the conversation and making a real difference for these students. She has also worked with nonprofits of varying focus areas for the last 25 years. Her undergraduate degree in Arts Administration and Music prepared her for managing nonprofits of any size as well as procuring funding so that they can achieve their goals. Pairing her nonprofit background with her education background, she has been able to make a difference for over 200 nonprofits worldwide, written curriculum for schools across the globe, and assisted many arts organizations through performance and management.