Moving Beyond Planned Ignore and Proximity Prase: Strategies to Address Challenging Behaviors

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

I have been in many classrooms where the behavior specialists come in and suggest methods to overcome a persistent challenging behavior in class. I always had to work to keep my mouth shut when I hear these professionals suggest planned ignore, praise around, and behavior charts as a panacea for behavioral problems both in the general and special education classrooms.

There is a lot of baggage associated with these methods that are not commonly discussed. I am use going to point out here that planned ignore and praise around can be useful, but not nearly as often as they are used. The problems with these methods, however, are rarely discussed. I feel a need to take it upon myself to discuss these weaknesses.


Weaknesses of the current approaches

Here we go:

Planned Ignore

For planned ignore, the primary issue is that this is manipulative and can be emotionally damaging to a student. Mona Delahooke hit the nail on the head on her blog (emphasis mine).

Over two decades working with children with autism, however, I have grown increasingly concerned about the use of planned ignoring, also known as tactical ignoring.

Why? It doesn’t build social and emotional development when we ignore a child’s attempts to communicate. Doing so doesn’t help the child, but can fuel frustration, anger and resentment. We must ask ourselves, if behaviors are a form of communication, what message are we giving by ignoring? Just as we wouldn’t ignore a “typical” child’s attempts to communicate, it’s time that we look below the surface and question whether this technique is appropriate for individuals with special needs.

Here are some of the hidden costs of this commonly used tool in autism treatment:

  1. Ignoring sends the wrong emotional message to the child. In short, the adult is saying, “I’m not interested in what you’re trying to convey, and I’ll pay attention only when you comply with my demands.”
  2. Ignoring presupposes that an autistic child’s observable behaviors accurately reveal his or her intentions. In fact, many children lack the ability to coordinate movement and/or language to convey their inner thoughts.
  3. Ignoring oversimplifies the child’s behaviors without trying to discern underlying thoughts and feelings.
  4. It is stressful and unnatural for parents to ignore their own child.

I have nothing more to add beyond what Dr. Delahooke said other than I have experiences wherein using a planned ignore strategy directly results in meltdowns in student populations with emotional or behavioral disorders (E/BD). I can also say that, as soon as students identify planned ignore as manipulation, the teacher is in a bind any time they cannot provide attention to a given student. Some students will be able to use this to their advantage (since by this point there is a teacher-student power struggle going on anyway).

An experience that comes to mind happened quite recently. The classroom staff members were instructed to use planned ignore for a student who was misbehaving. I mentioned in private to the supervisor that this would not work, they exhorted I have faith in this evidence-based technique. Since they were in charge, I said “okay” and immediately grabbed a notebook to take notes as I knew this was going to be an epic display of misbehavior. When I followed the instructions to ignore rather than intervene, the student walked to the teachers, who turned around, the student subsequently climbed on a table and started hitting staff on the back of the head. Then they flipped the table and started throwing chairs.

When this behavior did not garner the desired attention, the student threw off their shirt and started spitting on the teachers and spinning their shirt over their head as they ran around the classroom.

When this did not get a response from the staff, the trousers came off. Then the underwear. At which point the student bolted from the classroom and started running up and down the halls naked as a jaybird, yelling, “look at me, I am naked!”

At this point, I corralled the student into an empty room and stood with my back to them while I waited for their parent to show up and help them get dressed. The student was screaming at me, “look at my penis Mr. Ryan, my penis is out. I am going to pee”. Fortunately, there was no urination, and it did not occur to him to defecate.

Somehow during this adventure, I was able to not snot myself laughing.

This whole situation could have been fixed by some simple, functional communication training. Instead, we had a naked, screaming kid running down the hallways of a public school. And we basically double-dared him to do it.



Proximity Praise  / Praise Around

For proximity praise (also called praise around) as an intervention, the Smart Classroom Management blog explained the weaknesses of this approach.

Setting aside the troubling and bar-lowering message you’re sending to the entire class by offering false praise—which you can read about in Dream Class—the strategy attempts to manipulate or fool the offending student into better behavior.

It’s the classroom management version of a magician’s sleight of hand. But it’s cruel and dishonest and doesn’t help the student actually change their behavior.

It offers no helpful feedback, no meaningful lesson, and no opportunity to reflect on their misbehavior.

Although it may work in the moment—which is why proponents of the strategy are quick to cite its “research based” credentials—it will quickly weaken over time and train every student in the class to become extrinsically motivated.

It will make difficult students less inclined to get back on track in the future and turn your classroom into a petri dish of neediness, dependency, and underachievement.

So what should you do instead?

Well, first imagine yourself on the receiving end of such a strategy. How would it make you feel? How would you feel about a teacher effusively praising everyone around you while you’re being ignored?

Is this someone you would trust or admire? Of course not.

Like your students, you too appreciate a straight shooter. You too appreciate a teacher who tells the truth rather than tries to manipulate you, toy with your emotions, or underhandedly bend you to their will.

Being a leader students look up to and want to behave for isn’t so difficult. Have a classroom management plan that clearly lays out the rules and consequences of the class.

This supports ideas I have blogged about before in which I agree with Alfie Kohn and others that praise, when used inappropriately, serves only to punish students. Using praise as a reward contingency serves to teach students either that you do not like them (if you do not praise them), and that motivation is extrinsic and has to be earned through compliance.

My example of proximity praise causing more problems than it fixes is from an explosive third grader I had in my first classroom. We were doing Adaptive PE in the classroom, and this student did not want to participate. So they sat down. Quietly. Out of the way. I was letting them because I knew the situation would only be made worse if I tried to egg the student on to comply.

The APE teacher sat next to them and started praising the other students that were participating and promising them rewards if they continued participating. She then asked this student how things were going since the student was making a sour face and making a clear point about not moving from the desk they were sitting on.

The student looked her in the eye and said, “Stop fucking manipulating me you fucking bitch” and punched her. She came over and told me what happened so I could deal with the behavior, and I went over and sat between this student and the others—just in case the student decided to cause any issues.

After everything was over, I talked to the student about the situation and asked them how things were going. The response was to tell me, “I am fucking angry at that bitch for fucking manipulating me. I don’t want to run around the room. I hate her”.

Lovely. My student is having a spazz caused by a teacher.

I explained proximity praise to the student, so they knew what it looked like and that teachers were doing it to help, not to control the student necessarily. The student did not believe the teachers were trying to help and called me a liar; I told them it was okay if they did not believe me. I noted in the IEP that teachers were NOT to use praise around strategies with this student because they identified it as manipulative and a power struggle.



Behavior Charts

Finally, the weaknesses of the behavior charts have been covered here on my blog before, extensively. But here we go again. There are a lot of sources in the general media that make a great case against using behavior charts in class: examples from the Washington Post, We Are Teachers, PBS, EdWeek, etc. Actually, here is the google search, have fun!

Most of these rest on the psychology that specific application of punishment and reward is problematical at best for kids, and straight up traumatizing for any student that does not understand what is going on.

My favorite example, however, is from Miss Night Mutters. She posited a thought experiment that is always worth repeating.

Before I say anything else, I want you to do a little imagining with me. As you read each paragraph, I want you to REALLY work to imagine yourself in this situation, really FEEL what it would be like. I’m sure you will catch on to my metaphor pretty quickly, but stay with me. I really couldn’t think of a better way to illustrate my point:

Imagine that you have a new job. You’re VERY excited about this new job, and a little bit nervous. You know there are parts of it that you will be very good at, but there are some things that you are still working on, or that you might need support from your boss to master. It’s okay, though, because you’re pretty sure that your boss is really nice, and will help you work on those things.

You arrive at work and start meeting your new co-workers, who are just as excited and nervous as you. You notice that some of them seem to be VERY good at nearly everything, and others seem to struggle with even more things than you, but altogether they are a nice enough group and you feel like you will be a good team. You start to make some work friends. It feels good.

Then, at some point – maybe right away, maybe after a few days or weeks or months, your boss sits you ALL down together and explains a new performance management system. On the wall of your communal work area, Boss has posted a list of all the employees, by name. Next to each name is a rainbow of colour-coded cards. Boss explains that every employee will start each day on the same colour, but depending on your performance, your name can be moved up the rainbow, or down the rainbow. People who move up the rainbow will get special extras: a small bonus, or an extra long lunch, or a half-day off. People who move down the rainbow will face consequences: a shorter break, a docked paycheck, a note in their file.

The next day starts out badly before you even get to work. Your alarm doesn’t go off, there’s no hot water left for your shower, you’re out of coffee, your cat has peed on your favourite shoes AND it’s raining. You get to work, and within an hour, your name has been moved down to yellow. You get a warning from your boss. Then, your favourite work friend doesn’t want to work next to you because you just got in trouble and she doesn’t want to get in trouble by association. Your hurt feelings make you distracted, and you make a few careless errors in your tasks. Your name gets moved to orange and now you only get 20 minutes for lunch, which is really upsetting because the sun is finally shining and you had been confident that a nice walk in the fresh air with your buddies would help turn your day around.

On your abbreviated lunch break, you try to get online to order some new shoes. Impatient and frustrated, you curse out loud when the site won’t load properly. In front of everyone, your boss moves your name to red. There goes 50 bucks off your pay. Apparently you won’t be buying new shoes, after all. You approach your boss privately, trying to explain and apologise. Boss tells you, kindly-but-firmly, that “No cussing” is an ironclad rule, and that because everyone heard you cuss, she has to give you the same consequence she would give anyone else. Later, you are short-tempered with a customer, and your name gets moved off the rainbow altogether. A note is placed in your file, documenting a reprimand for inappropriate language in the workplace.

The end of the day approaches. A few of your colleagues get to leave 30 minutes early because their names got moved “up” to blue. This leaves you with extra work that has to be done before you can leave. Among these colleagues, one of them had his name moved up to purple, so he is buying a round of drinks for everyone… Everyone who can leave early, that is. It’s always the same people who can leave early, and really, they’ve become quite clique-y. You convince yourself you wouldn’t really WANT to have drinks with them, anyway. You really fit in better with the red and orange card crowd.

How do you feel right now, as an employee? How do you feel about your boss, your colleagues, yourself? How do you feel about having to come back to the same place, the same people, the same chart, tomorrow? What are the chances you will turn things around tomorrow, or ever? What are the chances you will just figure out how to hang at “orange” and deal with the consequences and find ways to enjoy your 20 minute lunch with your orange friends? (I know you are smart enough to stay away from red, but orange is really not so bad, right…?)
 

If my boss were to hang a chart in the staff lounge, showing which teachers were doing an exceptional job each day, as well as those who were having exceptional-in-a-bad-way days, I would be furious. I would be raging about my privacy, my dignity, my right to be respected by my colleagues for the person I am, and to not be publicly labelled based on any given day. My personal growth is between me and my boss. It has no business being a public display. I don’t know any teacher who would disagree with this. My boss and I have private conversations, plans, and systems to foster my progress.

Basically, do not use behavior charts if you can avoid it. Public humiliation is not a good strategy for controlling behavior. Moving down a clip or giving a kid a red Dojo only makes the teacher feel better, it does not help the student understand how to improve themselves.  Calling out the same kids for the same thing every day by moving them down on the chart is not meaningful to the child as a consequence. As stated above, it caused stress and learned helplessness rather than empowering students to improve their behavior. More to the point, behavior charts and Class Dojo only result in the students learning to distrust the teacher and question their own ability to make responsible decisions.

Just teach appropriate behavior and procedures for your class. If you need behavior charts, make it a private one the student controls. That way the student can own it and use it to reflect on their behavior-the only way to effect lasting behavioral change.



This post is set up to give a list of possibilities for addressing problem behaviors in students. Although these strategies work for extreme and dangerous behaviors, I am not advocating using this blog to approach students that are already escalated. Rather, I am advocating the application of these classwide strategies to deal with the problem behaviors seen day to day in resource and general education classrooms.

Here are my options to work with problem behavior

Originally, I thought I would organize options by the function of the behavior. Then I thought further and realized something important. When we as teachers designate (or impose) a function of any given behavior, we remove the child from the decision-making process.

If I see that giving a child attention reduced problem behavior, that does not have a 1:1 relationship with their behavior being attention seeking. Maybe they were anxious. Maybe they were socially awkward and needed me to initiate. Maybe they have selective mutism.

Maybe, just maybe, they just don’t know any better and are just flailing about trying to survive.

Attributing functions to behavior using the methods outlined by ABA practitioners does not work nearly as well as people say. I have always felt this way. The functional analysis is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. The FA methods used by ABA assume the environment controls the behavior, rather than the child interacting with the environment (see here).

I am not willing to make this assumption.

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My honest belief is that kids think. A lot. Autistic kids think. Kids with Down Syndrome think. Deafblind kids think. Etc.

I have decided to focus on methods that engage the child, so they are an equal partner in the intervention and can help themselves understand what the impact of their behavior is and how to replace it with a more functional option.

My goal here is that there be some universal interventions that we should all be doing anyway, but we forget about. Everything is designed to maximize self-esteem for the student. I always make the least dangerous assumption of students: That they can behave appropriately, they just have not yet been taught how. That makes my job clear. And much easier than if I consider my job as being a behavioral manager.

These interventions also empower the kids to control their behavior, rather than rendering the kids powerless to some deified teacher imposing unpleasant consequences.

These options are labeled by type of intervention rather than by behavioral functions


General Classroom Advice

Self Esteem Building

  • Avoid public criticism, punishment or embarrassment. This means that the student is not singled out or chastised in a public setting in front of their peers. The redirection and correction need to happen, just not publicly.
    • Reprimands take place in private. I took students into the hall to chat and to take a break. No other students knew what was said unless the student told them.
    • Avoid strong criticism. This can be difficult when students are challenging, but soften the blow of any critique or feedback. Let the student feel like they have not been attacked. Kids do not know how to deal with criticism and sometimes as teachers we are far too apt to provide brutal feedback or correction.
    • Let students save face. Provide a face-saving “out.” For students that needed it, I gave them an easy script to minimize any social effect of having to come to speak with me 1 on 1. It could be as easy as sending them to the bathroom or to get a drink after we speak so they can use that as an excuse. 
  • Easier tasks should be interspersed with difficult, less preferred tasks. Students need to feel successful. We often push too hard in the name of growth.
  • Consequences should be immediate and emotion-free.
    • Natural consequences are best
    • Any discipline should be provided matter fo factly and without any emotional responses.
    • Once discipline is finished, immediately move on and do not return to the subject.

Teach Perseverance

  • There should be a clear schedule that includes fun. Depending on the age of the student or the disability, you might make a visual schedule so the child can see there is time sandwiched between hard activities for a preferred activity.
  • A Now/Then poster can be posted showing that a short break of a preferred activity would follow the lesson or seat work.
  • Work to a timer. The student will work until the timer goes off, then have a break for so many minutes. This could be done for the whole class.
  • Students can be taught to ask for a short break when they feel the need.
  • Reward effort rather than outcome.
  • Cut the work into parts, so the student only sees one portion at a time and doesn’t get overwhelmed.
  • Choice. Give all the students in the class 30 problems (or more than you want them to do) and give them a choice of doing 15 (or the number of problems you want them to complete).

Ways to Make Students Feel Special/Important

  • The student can earn time to visit another classroom. This is an easy intervention. If the student works hard, they can spend free time (alone or with a peer) in a neighboring classroom. Sometimes I even will let them do their independent practice in the hall or another classroom. Their work gets done, and they do not have to deal with me. Win-win!
  • The student can earn time to visit a preferred adult. This is the same as above, but they are working hard to visit an adult in the school that may not be a teacher. This is often the custodian or PE teacher — not by design, it just works out that way. If these adults are okay with a tag-a-long student, there is no reason the student cannot work to earn time with the adult.
  • The student can earn alone time in the library. I have found this one particularly useful. If the student is trustworthy enough to visit the library alone, they can earn this. I set conditions for what they can do (usually draw or read). Again, they get their work done. So everyone is happy. Often they learn a lot from watching the librarian work setting things up, and they often help out. 
  • Student can earn privilege of staying after school. The reason for this is sometimes students have an intense need to avoid peers on the bus ride home. If the parent agrees to come to pick them up, this can be a reward one day a week or more. Again, I let them just hang out and read or draw. I still have to do my work after school. Many times they just sit and talk while I do my tasks. They do not need an interaction. They just want the time. 

Sensory Needs

These are just strategies to help students that have sensory needs. These are actually accommodations more than strategies. So this list is far from exhaustive. They are just ones I have used.

Sensory Stimulus Most Simple Solution
Another student crying Earphones listening to music or an interactive computer game with music.
Bright lights Sunglasses, visor, baseball cap. Use of light therapy room.
Buzzing lights (fluorescent) Halogen lamps or floor lamps with regular bulbs
Chairs scooting on tile floor Tennis balls cut and inserted over tips of chairs.
Doors opening and closing Hinges that stop doors from slamming.

Well oiled and maintained hinges.

Fire Alarms Advance warning from the administration so a relationship narrative can be read before the actual bell.

Ear protection from the firearm section of outdoors stores works great for this.

Lunchroom noise Social story or warning of the noisy environment before visiting the lunch room.

Access to music with headphones and gradually fading the volume over weeks.

Sitting off to one end of the cafeteria so not in the middle of the noise.

Starting lunch five minutes early so that the majority of the student’s lunch time is during the beginning time while most kids are still eating and not talking as much.

Obnoxious smells Essential oils on a cotton ball and put in the shirt pocket.
People talking near the room Reminders of Quiet Zone outside the classroom. Sometimes it takes little more than a sign on a wall. 
  • Play music in the classroom. This helps mask a myriad of annoying noises in the room – from the fluorescent lights to the computer fan humming. My students learned to love Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dave Brubeck by the end of the year.  They would ask for George Winston if they were stressed and needed to relax.  Some would even ask by humming a tune. 
  • Schedule access to stimulation. Provide a schedule or picture schedule that shows when access to internal stimulation is provided–given work is complete.
    • Stimming
    • Dancing
    • Rocking
    • Pacing
  • Occupational Therapy – give access to compression vests, weighted vests, TheraPutty, etc. that can be used during instruction and allow the student to complete tasks.
  • Fidgeting. Allow movement at their seat.
    • Allow the student to stand at the desk so long as they do not distract others
    • A wiggle fusion or fidget disk can be provided
    • A Pilates Ball Chair allows movement while still in a seated position.

Problem Solving Strategies for Students Feeling Bullied/Wronged

  • Teacher, social worker, or school psychologist interventions
    • Provide support when the student feels he is being bullied.
    • Provide explicit opportunities to vent anger or frustration.
    • Teach anger management or relaxation techniques
    • Teach student “feeling” words so he can express himself.
    • Encourage discussions and dialogue.
      • Teach mediation skills.
      • Teach choice making
      • Teach to negotiate for his/her needs.
    • Teach conflict resolution skills
  • Increase the use of cooperative opportunities
  • Always give choices. They are two things you want them to do, but they decide.
    • Which assignment or activity to do first, but both need to be done
    • If the student is already in trouble, he could have a choice of two consequences.
  • Voice tone. Maintain a firm but a controlled tone of voice with the student.
  • Remove the audience when possible if a student engages in power struggles or starts arguing while struggling to understand the situation they are in.

Conclusions

If these do not work. Remember there is a team you work with at the school. Even for general education students, there are ways we can meet their behavioral and sensory needs without involving the special education department. Mostly it is done by talking to the child and figuring out what they need. If you have a good rapport, they will even tell you!

In short, if you respect the students and realize they want to be treated like small adults, they will behave well. Every time we doubt their ability to control themselves, they do not disappoint us. However, when we have the least dangerous assumption —that they just do not know how to be good, YET — they will rise to meet any challenge they encounter. Our job is to help them on their journey.

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7 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Planned Ignore and Proximity Prase: Strategies to Address Challenging Behaviors

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  3. Thanks for your careful survey. I read it with great interest and agree …… and ….. would suggest something that is a very reliable addition. When you move onto the idea of framing/respecting the student as the expert in themself it engages their agency, and a structured way of going about this is with Solutions Focused Coaching, a pastoral approach, educational (inquiry pedagogy) and in widespread use in many contexts (including as SF Brief Therapy in clinal settings). I’ve been using and testing the approach for 20 years and it seems to be robust. Thanks again Michael – I’d love to talk to you about this if you have a gap. Best wishes, Geoff ( thesolutionsfocusedcoach.com )

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    1. I agree as to the applicability of the approach you are using. Definitely will need to grab more information on it to see how it works in my hands and how easily others can be trained in it.

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