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Can extinguishing and ignoring behavior always be effective in modifying it?
Educational Therapy

Imagine someone knocking on the door of a house...


What do you think will happen if no one opens the door initially?


Most likely, they will continue knocking on the door, perhaps in a more persistent manner. If they are convinced someone is inside, their knocking will intensify. However, what if the door remains closed despite their efforts? In this case, they may try a different approach, and maybe even a third one, attempting to prompt someone inside to open the door. Ultimately, one of two things will happen: either the person inside will give in and open the door, leading the individual outside to believe that their method was successful, or the homeowner will persistently ignore the knocking, prompting the person outside to cease their attempts and consider their approach ineffective for future use.


This scenario closely resembles the dynamics at play when choosing to ignore or dismiss undesirable behavior in children. Such behavior is often an attempt to gain attention or recognition from others.


Ignoring or dismissing is one of the most effective behavior modification techniques in this context. It is based on the fundamental idea that any behavior not reinforced or rewarded tends to fade away. It's important to note that ignoring doesn't mean responding with stubbornness, which is generally discouraged. It also doesn't endorse absolute indifference that disregards the child's feelings, as this could lead to the development of hostile emotions. Instead, it simply conveys a message that positive communication receives positive responses, while negative behavior does not receive reinforcement or attention.


However, not all behaviors can be ignored. Behaviors posing a danger to the child or others cannot be disregarded. This technique should only be employed if one is confident in its ability to bring about the desired end result. If the child perceives the increase in negative behavior as reinforcement when the ignoring strategy is abandoned, they may become more persistent in the future. Conversely, certain behaviors, such as a child crying in the street for attention or a student shouting to disrupt a class, may be effectively addressed through ignoring.


As the famous saying goes, "If a fool speaks, do not answer; for better than silence is silence."


Can we expect negative behavior to cease immediately upon ignoring?


No, in most cases, there is an initial increase in negative behavior, known as the "behavioral burst," which indicates the effectiveness of the ignoring strategy. Consistency in ignoring and the complete absence of any form of reinforcement is crucial.


Does ignoring lead only to the extinguishing of negative behavior?


No, ignoring can lead to the extinguishing of both positive and negative behavior. For instance, a child who tidies their room to gain parental attention and praise may stop doing so if their efforts are consistently ignored. Thus, appropriate and timely reinforcement is vital for a child's development.


Can ignoring be applied to all negative behaviors exhibited by a child?


Certainly not. Ignoring should not be used if we are unaware of the child's reinforcements sought through the behavior or the goals they aim to achieve. Ignoring a child's crying, which they use as an unacceptable method to attract attention, may be ineffective if the child cries louder to avoid disturbing neighbors or to receive comfort after others request it. Additionally, applying ignoring incorrectly, such as with a very young child who can only express needs through crying, can create a sense of insecurity and distrust.


Can ignoring or dismissing be used alone, and is it sufficient?


Since the goal of using ignoring is to modify undesirable behavior in children, it is natural to employ other positive techniques when the child ceases this behavior or engages in alternative acceptable behaviors. This approach, known as differential reinforcement, is essential for the child to understand that reinforcement is provided only for positive behavior, and there is a brief time gap between the cessation of negative behavior and our attention.


In conclusion, the technique of ignoring or dismissing is highly effective when employed judiciously and with a clear understanding of when and with which behaviors it should be used.


Psychologist and Special Education Behavior Modification Specialist

Bassam Alhourani