The attention of significant people is often working contrary to the child’s welfare. Where you look and what you notice is worth examining, because so many unfortunate acts are often bathed in laughter, surprise, or even anger, which might be keeping the misbehavior going. Not-giving-attention is a readily available tool: you have it with you all the time.
First, the most important part; often the noticing is a natural response. You look at the source of the crash; your respond quickly to distress. Habits of attention and interest often have to be broken. I recite these two sentences in my head. These are the ignorer’s inner mantra and silent incantation. If you remember this, you can choose ignoring as a new consequence for the misbehavior. Here it is:
There are certain ways you will NOT get my attention.
If you want me to notice you, do something other than what you are doing.
Quick note reminder: when a child is well used to getting attention for refusing to eat and no attention is first tried, the “extinction curve” kicks in. When patterns of reward suddenly disappear, things often get worse. The person tries harder to get the old response. It is like the coins not working in the vending machine, so you bang on it, if still nothing, bang harder; one can get violent. Gradually as nothing happens the effort tapers off. So if you ignore something and it immediately gets worse, ignoring could be working.
I have dealt with some pretty difficult children in my day, but Dennis took the cake. I paid Dennis and his mom a home visit once. The parents had divorced because of how difficult Dennis was as a child, so she had to deal with him alone. A few pieces of furniture remained in the home; the rest had been destroyed. The piano had almost all the ivory missing from the keys; all the wood was banged up or scribbled upon. The walls were marked up, too. No carpeting or rugs. You can imagine what living this way must have been for his mother. She had one pleasure: she liked a particular afternoon soap opera on what was left of the cheap television. She would make herself a cup of coffee, turn on the TV and sit in the one comfortable chair. She told me Dennis would approach her with attentive smiles as if he was wanting to be with her and “accidentally” knock over her coffee cup. Then he would do a dance in front of the TV, so she could not see it. Wow. I would have gone ballistic.
Some behaviors are difficult to ignore, so here are some ideas:
You simply leave. You get a book. You turn on the radio. You write all your angry thoughts in a diary.
Sherry was almost as memorable as Dennis. She destroyed the classroom! She opened every cupboard and swept it out onto the floor. She emptied every drawer. She dumped every container. Luckily some items were too high to reach. Fortunately, I was not alone, so others could take all of the other children outside. We were also fortunate to have a visitors room that allowed people to observe the classroom through one-way glass. From there I could watch this event without her seeing me, a perfect opportunity for ignoring. In between dumps she would lie face down on the floor, pound her fists, and scream as loudly as she could. But as time went by she would pause, look up from here tantrum to see if she had an audience and then begin again. Pretty soon the disruption stopped. Well, “soon” in this case was 30 minutes. When she stopped I went immediately to her smiling as if she were a long-lost friend. I gave her a hug and held her a bit. Then I started restoring things while talking jovially about what I was picking up and where things went. Amazingly she started in helping put things back, too, at her initiative. She didn’t restore the classroom, of course, but putting things back filled the rest of her day. She never disturbed the organization of the classroom again.
Here’s a very, very old video about ignoring. This was from the days when I only had black and white wall-mounted, VHS, B&W cameras in the laboratory classroom at the college. I could remotely control them and switch back and forth as I recorded. The sound is lousy; we hadn’t installed a good system at that point. I wouldn’t put this clunker up on the web if it weren’t worth watching.
The boy is eating styrofoam packing peanuts. The adult did not want him to eat the styrofoam, so he tried ignoring. That seemed a logical consequence to try. We used video recordings almost every day to see what we could learn. We let things go as they naturally went, to allow students to self-discover what worked and what did not. We watched the tape together, we talked, and he got a message about ignoring he would never forget.
Here is the latter portion of the tape for you to review. I wonder if you can identify the mistakes.
Did you see them?
By far the largest, most significant mistake occurs near the end of this sub-clip. Note how he did not immediately turn to the dark shirt boy when he stopped the eating and started to play with the materials appropriately. That was ignored, too. He could have made some kind of remark about a remarkable change happening. A comment could be something like, “Now you have three stuck there.” The very first time the child acted in a constructive way he was ignored in the same way by the very person whom he wanted attention from by eating the packing pieces. If you ignore the desirables, too, you aren’t doing anything. You’re as effective as a telephone pole.
This is the mantra of ignoring to say to yourself in your head. “If you want me to notice you, do something other than what you are doing.”
If you fail to immediately attend to what is more desirable, you have not ignored. If you fail to add that part, ignoring has no effect. When I ignore, I pretend that the child does not exist; he or she is not there for the moment, as unseen as what i can’t see behind my head. Then I keep a hawk eye out for something desirable to respond to and make a big switch in my response.
BTW, you might have noticed that he was chewing gum, which models the chewing behavior he was trying to dissuade. You might be surprised how often adults thoughtlessly model the disturbing behavior they seek to discourage in others. I have lots of video reordings of that! Yelling at a child for screaming. Grabbing a child for grabbing toys. Restraining a child for wrestling another child to the ground. Spanking child for hitting. Hey, this is education. We all make mistakes. We all can fix them, too, especially when we see them for ourselves on videotape. I did those very things myself—well, not spanking, but I’ll get to that issue in a bit.