May 09, 2017

Hopefully, you read the first blog in our series on praise: ‘Making Praise Work – In Schools and At Home’, where we introduced the ‘Attention Rule’.  This explains how children strive for attention, stating ‘What you give attention to is what you will get more of!’ It is vital we pay attention to positive behaviour, so children don’t resort to negative behaviour; because, after all, negative attention is better than no attention.

As teachers or parents, we may find ourselves giving children attention for inappropriate behaviour; spending time talking to the children who are calling out in class, or telling children off for messing with their food at the dining table.  By giving our attention to this unwanted behaviour, we may inadvertently be encouraging it. Instead, we need to remove attention from them (tactically ignore), whilst remembering to praise as soon as we see appropriate behaviour.


We must never ignore behaviours that will harm others, themselves or damage property, or behaviour that contradicts the school rules.  Neither should we ignore children who are very distressed – ignoring this can be damaging – as these children may not have the emotional regulation skills they need to deal with their feelings.

Before ignoring, it is important that you look behind the behaviour and consider the needs of the child.  For some children, ignoring could make the situation worse.  Children with attachment difficulties, those who have experienced trauma, or who suffer from anxiety may need attention.  Whilst some children may be attention seeking, others may be attention needing – a crucial difference.  So, teachers, it’s vital you get to know your children and be responsive to their individual needs.

What we can ignore is the low-level, attention-seeking behaviour and the secondary behaviours.  Teachers report the low-level, persistent behaviour as the most problematic; ignoring it may be the best way to eliminate it.  What do we mean by ‘secondary behaviours’?  These are when you’ve asked the child to do something and they respond with a grunt, rolling of eyes, tutting or dragging of feet, perhaps with the occasional kicking of bins! Yes, it’s frustrating, but if the child is following your instruction and doing what you’ve asked, then go with that: Entering into a discussion about the secondary behaviours will only fire up the situation and make things worse.


Ignoring is a powerful way to change low-level problem behaviour, but it is certainly not easy!

To start with, choose one or two behaviours to ignore.  You will need to start by reminding the child of the behaviour you want and then tactically ignore any unwanted behaviour.  So, if it is calling out in class, you would start off with “Hands up if you can tell me…….”  Then you would ignore those calling out and take answers from those with hands up and reinforce it by praising those children “Thank you for putting your hand up, Kaya, what do think it is?”  As soon as the child you are tactically ignoring puts their hand up, make sure you acknowledge it and praise them.

The best example I have of ignoring in the home was during one of our parenting courses: A mum said the ice-cream van would come every day around tea-time and every day her son would ask for an ice-cream. If they’d already had their tea, she would let him have one, but if they hadn’t she would say, “No, you haven’t had your tea yet.” But her son would continue to ask until she gave in: The perfect scenario to ignore. So, armed, with the strategies and feeling empowered, she decided to try it.  The following week she reported back: On the first day, after being told “No.” her son continued to ask and whine (she estimated over 20 times).  However, she maintained her cool, didn’t argue and ignored all his pleas.  The second day was the same, but the next day and the next he pleaded a lot less and by the fifth or sixth day he didn’t even bother to ask.  By her effectively ignoring, she had eliminated the behaviour in just a few days.

So, how to do it: it is important not to make any eye contact, and stop any conversation or negotiation; don’t enter into an argument, move away from the child (if at home, remain in the same room if possible) do not engage whatsoever with the child – no tutting, rolling eyes, sighing; whilst you may not consider this interaction, it is still attention and it shows the child he is pushing your buttons. Carry on with what you are doing, or distract yourself by doing something, until the child complies.  Remain calm on the outside; even if inside you’re feeling angry – you may need to use calm-down strategies, or use positive ‘self-talk’ to lower your own stress levels!  For younger children, you may need to redirect them.  Once the child shows the appropriate behaviour, it is important to find something to praise them for.  They need positive attention.


When you first start ignoring, the behaviour is likely to get worse before it gets better.  This is the child testing your limits; looking for the point at which you will give in.  Make sure you do not give in, as this gives a clear signal to the child that if they just push hard enough, they will get your attention in the end.  You must keep ignoring until the behaviour stops.

Remember, behaviour does not change overnight but, if you are consistent with the ignoring, the behaviour will change as the child learns that there is no “pay-off” for continuing.  Whereas appropriate behaviour does get attention.  Consistency is key!

It is vital that you have a good relationship with the child; if you don’t have a good relationship, then they won’t really care that you are ignoring them. Don’t forget the power of praise – remember to catch those times when you’re getting the behaviour you want and praise, praise, praise!


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