Planned Ignoring Pitfalls (Part 2)

This is part two of our planned ignoring post. Part one is here

Problem one: It shows the child that attention, help, care, and love from adults and those in power is conditional

  • Children learn how the world works from their trusted adults around them. They don’t understand a distinction about behavior vs. themselves as people. 
  • They learn that to get help and attention, they must do whatever the person in power demands. 
  • When used with vulnerable populations this grooms them to suppress their own needs and internal warning signals to do what they must to appease the person unhappy with them and puts them at higher risk for exploitation.
  • They learn that attention and help should be conditional no matter the type of attention

Instead: We should ensure that the child understands our love and care is unconditional 

  • Explain that we understand they are having a hard time and that we want to help them. 
  • Make sure they know that we are there for them if that is what they want and need at the moment.
  • Ensure we communicate that we are not upset with them and make sure we don’t hold grudges
  • The way these things are communicated will vary based on the child, family values and contextual situation.

Problem two: It does nothing to help the person understand the situation

Planned ignoring…requires no discussion of the situation with the person experiencing distress.

  • Children (people in general) tend to see the situation from their point of view. Children will make up reasons a situation happened the way it did, especially when it was something very emotional. 
  • When planned ignoring is used, it is a tool of oppression. It is to suppress something which the person in power does not approve of. It isn’t used to offer rationales, it doesn’t treat the child with respect as a partner in communication nor does it offer learning in a way that is compassionate.
  • Planned ignoring doesn’t include parental guidance because it requires no discussion of the situation with the person experiencing distress.

Instead: We should make sure to talk about what happened after the heat of the moment and explain the (often) unwritten and unspoken rules

  • If the whole point if this procedure is to change the behavior, every effort should be made to communicate the rationale for the expected behavior (tied to the family values and using a communication mode the child best understands)
  • “In the library people expect things to be pretty quiet for studying or just to have a peaceful place to be. Being loud can be scary and startling to them. So when we have big feelings that make us scream, we have to step outside.”
  • We should also talk about what we, as care-sharers, hope to do differently in the future to help the situation to be different and get input from the person impacted.
  • We can explain what we liked or didn’t like about our own reactions

Problem three: It disrespects emotions

…the behavior being targeted for ignoring is often a sign that the person needs help and is in emotional distress

  • It feels awful to be ignored, excluded, given the cold shoulder, etc. There are definitely trauma impacts people have reported from being ignored as children. But because ABA can’t “objectively observe” emotions, those in the field aren’t taught to understand the impact these emotions have on someone.
  • Planned ignoring doesn’t recognize that the behavior being targeted for ignoring is often a sign that the person needs help and is in emotional distress
  • It ignores the emotions and identity of the person being ignored as a valid human and reduces them to undesirable behaviors (according to the perspective of those in power).

Instead: As caregivers, we must guide a child through understanding their emotions

  • Validate the child’s emotions and help the child learn to have those feelings and stay safe
  • This means that you should talk about it, you should explain the situation and maybe help name their feelings. This means talking about your feelings too (without blaming the child for your feelings – own them) and making sure they understand that everyone has hard times sometimes.
  • We should work to understand our personal values and trepidations to work on understanding our own reactions to intentionally parent with compassion.

Problem Four: It exacerbates unhealthy power imbalances that are already unbalanced

  • ABA is often predicated on the ability to manipulate variables to change behavior to what the therapist or others in power (parents, teachers, guardians) deem to be important, the reliance on this power imbalance they hold is omnipresent
  • After those using this tool of oppression determine the behavior they want eliminated, they use their power to remove all possible resources from the oppressed person, including emotional and psychological responding (e.g., love, attention, help, understanding).
  • The oppressed person eventually learns that in order to survive in this manipulative environment they must conform to the dominant person.
  • Children and those with disabilities are recognized as oppressed groups by the UN. When a behavior therapist comes into someone’s home or classroom, they are immediately in enormous positions of power over the child and caregivers.
  • When used in classrooms or group settings, adults use their power of influence to show a child’s peers how to suppress empathy, how to ostracize others and encourage psychological harm.
  • When we use our power to oppress emotions, we may be creating trauma responses of freeze/shut down/fawning. Unfortunately, this looks good on a data sheet and behavior therapists will celebrate this scenario, most of them unaware of the long term mental health consequences. 

Instead: We as professionals and caregivers must recognize the power imbalance and do whatever we can to give power back to those we hold power over

…we should honor a parent’s discomfort with anything we recommend and never teach a parent to ignore their urge to comfort their upset child

  • Children can absolutely be partners in working to remedy a difficult situation and we should meet them at their level, not expect them to come up to our level of communication and understanding.
  • As professionals we should honor a parent’s discomfort with anything we recommend and never teach a parent to ignore their urge to comfort their upset child
  • We must help caregivers and peers to learn to set boundaries and manage self care when they are overwhelmed or upset while the child is upset too. 
  • When someone in power must walk away to self regulate; safety plans, check ins and communication are essential. Tell the child you feel overwhelmed and need to step away. Check in regularly to see if you can help. Get help from others to help keep the situation safe while you step away.
  • Always assume the child has a good reason for reacting the way they do. Come with compassion and a mind open for understanding from the child’s point of view
  • Honor the ways a child uses to emotionally self regulate while offering co-regulation and regulation strategies tied to family values.

Planned ignoring should be written out of ABA’s code of ethics. There are far too many opportunities to harm by using it and many more opportunities to address conflict in more empowering ways. 

Planned Ignoring Pitfalls (Part One)

This is part one of our planned ignoring post. Part two is here

We at Blooming Abilities are trained as behavior therapists. Early in grad school I was trained on two protocols: planned ignoring and manual guidance – two extinction protocols. I was taught to model this and train families with open abuse and neglect cases with the state. Following graduate school, my employers maintained these protocols as main methods for behavior management. 

I’ve realized how much harm I likely did while using these extinction methods.

I’ve learned a lot since then – a lot about child development, emotions and trauma – enough to be horrified that I was first trained to use these things with families obviously dealing with trauma, often generational. I’ve realized how much harm I likely did while using these extinction methods.

At Blooming Abilities, we oppose extinction strategies. Even in extreme cases because we prefer a harm reduction model in those cases. Within ABA (applied behavior analysis), a popular extinction strategy is called Planned Ignoring. This assumes the function of a behavior is to get attention (or sometimes a tangible item/activity). The phrase that often goes with planned ignoring is “ignore the behavior, not the child”. 

There are many problems with using this process that stem from power, control, and oppression.

What that can look like is: giving the child a statement (or none at all) such as: “I will talk to you when you are done screaming” and then the adult will remove all attention: turn away, no eye contact, no hugging/touching. If the child stops whatever the adult doesn’t like that they are doing, the adult will over exaggerate excitement and praise for the child doing what the adult wanted and move on, taking care to not talk about the situation.

There are many problems with using this process that stem from power, control, and oppression. Our next blog post will go in depth with some of these issues and offer alternatives.

Naming emotions: We can do better

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com image description: a photo of two stuffed smiling yellow emojis, one open mouth smile and one closed, inside a tin box covered in emoji symbols sitting on the ground

Emotional Learning and Teaching

Emotional learning has become a popular topic in our culture. Because of this, emotional learning is being more and more integrated into school curricula with school staff teaching these skills to a wide range of students. My field of ABA has also been jumping on this bandwagon. Unfortunately, the tendency in these education and therapy realms is to focus on feelings like mad, sad and happy paired with real or cartoon faces depicting the emotion. With such limiting and vague words, they don’t come close to capturing the complexity and nuance of emotions, especially when the external presentations of emotions can vary greatly within a culture and even more between cultures. Teaching these skills with a focus on contextual understanding is often missed as well.

“We adults see through biased lenses of adult tolerance levels, adult logic and adult experience and can get it wrong”

Adults often focus on emotions they feel most confident at guessing, which tend to be the more activating emotions seen in the child’s behavior. When adults are helping kids label their feelings, they really are just guessing what that emotion is, based on their own experience as an adult as well as what they see going on around the child in the moment. As such, we adults see through biased lenses of adult tolerance levels, adult logic and adult experience and can get it wrong. Sometimes kids get stuck on one emotion label like “mad” or “sad” and use it for all types of emotions that they may feel strongly or maybe they can only notice the strong emotions and gentle ones are missed. This is often because of what they have been taught from well meaning adults guessing at their emotions. Children can learn to name more complex emotions when the adults around them meet a child at their communication level, vary their communication mode (verbal, written, pictures, AAC, etc.) and expand their own understanding of emotions.

Creating Names

Naming has so many important connections to skills like emotional development, problem solving and self care. When we give our emotions names, it helps us better recognize the emotion when it pops up again and to remember what we need to work with that emotion in the moment. I was recently reading a new book with my children called “I’m Happy-Sad Today” which has a nice take on naming emotions aimed towards kids.  The book had some great ideas for doing something I have loved doing with my kids for a few years now: giving personal names to complex emotions. While the book had some focus on basic emotions (happy, sad, mad), it got to the gist of what is important to recognize: emotions can  feel confusing, conflicted and messy at times. 

Image description: a cover of the book: I’m Happy-Sad Today by Lori Briton. There is a brown haired child’s head popping up from the bottom of the cover. Behind them is a rainbow explosion of color with symbols like flowers, dogs, ladybug, sun, white rabbit, stars, clouds and birds

Sometimes in my home we refer to feeling irritable as being “prickly” like a cactus. We still love our family and don’t intentionally prick others, but like a thorny cactus, we would like others to avoid us or approach mindfully until we’re feeling better.

“Emotions can feel confusing, conflicted and messy at times”

Another label we have for an emotional state in our house is known as “Pikachu”. This evolved from situations where my kiddo felt crowded by people looking over their shoulder or others just being too close and they’d have an urge to throw elbows to get everyone away. When we first started recognizing these situations, elbows were usually already thrown and there were reprimands and everyone ended up upset. Once we figured out the context of the situation that led to this, we worked together to name it. When the situation came up, we’d remind kiddos to name it and – the most important piece – we respected it as communication for help, no matter what tone was used.

Image description: a crayon and pencil drawing. In the center is a blue haired person in Pikachu ears and tail and orange pants. Around this person is a green force field and red and yellow bolts that have thrown of four people. The people in pencil are thrown off in all directions looking disoriented. In the upper left part of the picture the words “I need space” are written and “space” is decorated with stars and a rocket.

Culture and Language

The focus on naming emotions seems to be one with an English language, westernized bias to it. There are many different languages that have names for nuanced emotions that don’t quite exist in the English language. In Yiddish the word “kvell” means feeling proud of another’s achievements…because feeling proud of yourself is a similar but a different feeling. For me, being proud of a loved one swells my heart so big it may burst but feeling proud of myself has a little embarrassment and relief at being done with a lot of hard work. I never realized this until I learned this word.

“With knowing how much language and culture influences our perception of emotions, we must make sure were meeting someone with cultural competency and respect when helping teach emotions”

When pressed to think of emotions we have personally experienced beyond the basics, we may struggle to come up with examples. Yet if I described the emotion of nostalgic homesick longing for a place you have never been, imagined or real, you may start nodding. More folks may start nodding when I give examples of longing for places like outer space, Hogwarts, or Spain. Perhaps this is a feeling you’ve never stopped to examine and understand until this description. This is a feeling that the German language has a word for: “fernweh”.

Have you ever seen a video of a baby giggling uncontrollably over something delightful like bubbles? Have you ever found yourself so happy for that baby and perhaps watching with a huge grin on your face? A Sanskrit word of having joy in another’s happiness captures that – “mudita” – and now perhaps you’ll notice it the next time you experience this delight.

This is the power of having a way to talk about feelings. 

Image description: dark image of space with lots of tiny stars that look like white, blue, orange and yellow dots. One large orange-yellow galaxy type glow is in the middle of the photo

Maybe now you have a story related to one of these emotions and will share it with someone or share this newly uncovered emotion with someone when you feel it. By doing this, you are developing a narrative around this emotion and solidifying it into your understanding for when you experience it. This is the power of using language to name something and giving it a story. With knowing how much language and culture influences our perception of emotions, we must make sure were meeting someone with cultural competency and respect when helping teach emotions.

Beyond Words

In fields like mental health, professionals focus on naming emotions as well, but the method of recognizing and naming emotions is far too limiting. We need dance, visual arts, music….ways to feel seen and heard which humans have used since ancient times. Maybe a song can help explain your feelings and needs, maybe a picture or art piece can communicate the sense of a situation. The arts have always been great communicators of emotion and we need to expand the perspectives we have when teaching children how to identify and name emotions along with the story and narrative that accompanies them. 

The above photos probably evoke some emotional reactions that are almost certainly personal. If a child with difficulty verbally communicating used one of these pictures to express their emotional state, we’d probably understand what they were going through, especially if we had a good connection and trust with them which is essential to this kind of teaching and learning.

“As professionals, educators and parents, we can raise the bar and change what is standard”

Let’s shift away from the basics and what is easy for us adults when it comes to helping kids understand their emotions. Let’s open up what recognizing and communicating emotions means and teach children emotions can be nuanced, complex, gentle, strong and that there are a rainbow of ways to communicate them. As professionals, educators and parents, we can raise the bar and change what is standard.