Last time we explored ‘ignoring’ and ‘paying attention’ to further our understanding of reinforcement theory. Remember, any behavior you ignore will diminish and any behavior you pay attention to will increase. Let’s see how this works with a challenging behavior.
Robbie is a four year old who has been a pretty good little kid, happy and smart. Recently, like many four year olds he has become very interested in using ‘bathroom talk’. He says things like “poopy” and “pee-pee” and then laugh hysterically at his own joke. This is very disconcerting to his mother, especially when they are out in public. His mother tries to shush him and bribe him – “If you don’t say any naughty words you can have some gum.” Sometimes she takes him by the shoulder and says, “Robbie, STOP that! I mean it,” and for a little while it seems to help, but only for a moment. She is becoming concerned that he is learning those words at preschool. The other children must be very bad examples for her good little boy, she thinks.
Robbie’s preschool teacher is undaunted by the bathroom talk of the four year olds. She knows that this is a phase, a fascination with the forbidden and she pays no attention to it. “Can’t you do something to stop this?” Robbie’s mother, like so many mothers of four year olds ask.
Robbie’s teacher is doing something about it. She is using a powerful tool, ignoring inappropriate behavior. She actively notices and spends time with the children who are behaving well. They are the ones who pass out the cookies and are dismissed for outdoor time first. She might give them a compliment; “I really like the way you are talking with each other about all the fun times you had today.”
And when Robbie is behaving appropriately, she notices him, asks him about the tower he is building, and gives him a turn to pass out milk and cookies to his friends. Slowly Robbie’s behavior at school changes and we hear less and less of the bathroom talk—because she is ignoring it.
The same thing can happen at home. Our challenge as parents is to find a way of ignoring behavior that is not harmful, but just irritating or embarrassing.