Planned Ignoring in the Self-Contained Classroom


In public high schools, the term ‘self-contained’ can be somewhat misleading. In my school, there are two other ‘self-contained’ special education classrooms and some assistants are shared with other classrooms. Typical peers come in and out to earn partial credit as classroom assistants or to volunteer time. Myriad related service staff pushes in to the classroom at various points to provide therapy and support.

All of these comings and goings are ultimately positive for students and, in some circumstances, integral to students’ success. However, fluctuation in people coming in and out of the classroom can make it difficult to implement a planned ignoring strategy.

There are multiple reasons to plan to ignore a student or a specific target behavior.

One reason may be to promote independence in a prompt-dependent student who insists on asking for help rather than moving on with his schedule on his own.

Another reason is to withdraw all attention from a student who is attempting to use inappropriate or negative (but safe) behavior in order to gain attention in order to bring that behavior to extinction.

A third reason may be to compel a student to use an appropriate communication strategy to gain the attention of a staff member or a peer rather than using less sophisticated strategies such as grunting or pointing.

Regardless of the reason, how do we use the planned ignoring strategy if the adults and typical peers in the classroom come in and out?

There certainly isn’t a perfect solution, but I have used several strategies with some success.


If the student has grown prompt dependent and is seeking attention from others in order to get through a routine that he/she is capable of doing on his/her own, I find that the best strategy is to isolate the student COMPLETELY in order to complete that routine independently several times. It is KEY to make sure that the student is capable of completing it independently before you try this strategy.

(Sidenote: To ensure that a student is able to complete things independently, I usually use a blanket response to everything that the student asks me. Depending on the student, this might be a nod, ‘yes,’ ‘I like pizza,’ etc….whatever works! Just a non-directive, non-informational response. If the student is able to complete the routine with this useless feedback, then he is ready for the next step.)

A student is not independent with something unless he can do it with no one else around. It doesn’t matter if a student can complete his grooming routine—but only if you are sitting in the bathroom watching…that means he isn’t independent.

This is why you need to actively separate a student in this case from the rest of the group (other students, other staff members, etc.) in order to complete the routine several times. Some students may only need to complete it independently 2-3 times and others may need many more successful trials before they create a new ‘script’ in their brains and no longer seek those unnecessary prompts.

Think of it like this. Some students with autism learn things in long chains. If a student learns that some links in the chain are asking for help (even if not necessary) or making eye contact with a staff member, then he will find it difficult to move on without completing these links. Isolating the student makes it impossible for him to complete these links, and practicing the routine without these unnecessary links helps him build a new, more efficient and functional chain.

Once the student successfully builds his new ‘chain,’ he can rejoin the group to complete the same routine. Occasional isolation to reestablish the integrity of the chain may be beneficial to avoid creating additional unnecessary links.


If a student has a behavior plan or a communication need that would require organized and consistent ignoring, create a signal that would be obvious to everyone as they enter the room. Remember when your college roommate would leave a scrunchie or a tie hanging on your doorknob so you wouldn’t barge in? It could be similar to that! A code word on a dry erase board on the door, a funny picture projecting on the Smartboard, or anything else that is easily noticeable will work well.

Make sure all staff and typical peers know the signal and what it means. You don’t need to be specific with typical peers if there are concerns of confidentiality, just let everyone know that the signal means you need to ignore that specific student so he can work on independence. As staff or peers enter the room, you can catch their eyes and gesture toward the ‘signal’ to remind them until staff learn to look for the signal when they enter the room.

As you begin to notice positive effects of the planned ignoring, share the data with paraprofessionals and support staff. They will appreciate the information and be more willing to implement behavioral strategies if they believe that the strategies work.


Perhaps a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) indicated that one of your students engages in inappropriate attention-seeking behavior when he has to practice money math. Budgeting, counting, and paying with money are necessary life skill and cannot be avoided if a student is to be as independent as possible as he moves in to adulthood.

Since you know the specific antecedent, you can plan your schedule to introduce the antecedent when it is most possible to ignore the attention-seeking behavior. You can avoid staff that have difficulty implementing a strategy of planned ignoring, avoid periods where a typical peer may be in the classroom, or anything else that may impede your ability to effectively ignore the student’s behavior.

In the classroom, you may want to introduce the money math as the rest of the students are leaving the classroom for lunch or a special class. If possible, keep an assistant back with you for assistance. You can begin work with the student on the non-preferred activity and ignore him when he starts to engage in attention-seeking behavior. Since everyone else is gone, you do not have to worry about others reinforcing the behavior with negative attention.

In this case, the student is certainly also trying to escape or avoid the non-preferred task. For this reason, I would have the assistant (working from behind the student) prompt the student to ask for help or whatever scaffolding he may need either before the student starts with the inappropriate behavior or, if that isn’t possible, as soon as he stops engaging in inappropriate behavior and his attention is diverted. You may also want to introduce teaching the student to ask for a break in order to appropriately escape from the activity for a short period of time.

These are just a few strategies to successfully implement the planned ignoring strategy within your self-contained classroom. It is crucial to make sure you only use planned ignoring for a specific purpose and for as short of a duration as possible. If overused or used inappropriately, it could be harmful and disrespectful to the student.

Additionally, be prepared for the behavior to get much worse before it gets better. After all, the student is trying to gain your attention in negative ways. If putting his feet up on the desk doesn’t get your attention, he may up the ante by putting his feet up while picking his nose. Or jumping up on his chair, taking off his shoes, throwing his schedule, etc…Students are very creative.

If you have a strong behavior plan that addresses the behavior’s function and you have a team that will consistently implement the plan, the student’s behavior will change. After all, students use behavior as a form of communication. A breakdown in behavior is a failure to communicate. If his communication strategy stops working, he will need to adapt. Make sure you are teaching appropriate strategies to gain attention that the student can use to replace his inappropriate repertoire!


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