Understanding Ignoring and Refusal

Published On: 13 April 2023

Reading time: 4 minutes

It can be hard when someone refuses to do as we’ve asked, particularly when we feel under pressure, tired, or frustrated. This can often lead to a power struggle and an escalation in behaviours as we seek to control the situation.

However, thinking about why the individual is saying no or ignoring us can help us understand their actions – there’s a reason behind every behaviour after all. Focusing on their emotions and considering prior experiences can help us empathise and find a positive way forward.

Think about why they’re refusing

When we simply expect compliance, we can miss an opportunity to understand the needs that drive behaviours. Perhaps there’s a physical reason behind it, such as they feel tired, hungry, or thirsty. Or could they be enjoying what they’re currently doing and struggle to stop before it’s finished?

Alternatively, it could be that they don’t understand why we’re giving an instruction. We feel this way when we’re told to do something when we don’t understand the purpose of it, and it’s the same for the individuals in our care. Explaining the “why” of what we’re asking them to do gives a reason and a purpose to the request:

  • The table needs to be clear because dinner will be ready in 5 minutes.
  • We need to stop reading because the bell is about to go for break.
  • Let’s finish this now so you can take your medication.

An individual may also ignore or refuse to follow an instruction because they are finding something difficult. For example, a child or young person in a school setting may be finding work challenging. Refusing to do it is a sign they’re struggling, and an opportunity for us to provide support.

And don’t forget, sometimes what appears to be ignoring us can simply be that we haven’t caught the individual’s attention. Starting a sentence with their name, allowing processing time before giving an instruction, and being aware of whether they are focused on something else, can help us understand if we are seeing a behaviour response, or they just didn’t realise we were trying to communicate with them.

Prior Experiences

Our behaviours are driven by our previous experiences. For example, if an individual knows that finishing an activity always results in something they don’t enjoy, it’s not surprising that they don’t want to stop what they’re doing this time.

Cycle of Influence

Understanding the Cycle of Influence gives us an opportunity to change experiences over time by considering the response we give to the behaviour. A different response can lead to changed thoughts, feelings and future behaviours. This means changing our focus from just looking at the behaviour we’re seeing right now, and instead considering the individual’s experiences over time, finding patterns, and looking for opportunities to support them to build different experiences.

Do we need compliance?

There are times when compliant behaviour is required. For example, during a fire alarm, we need everyone to leave the building safely, and when travelling in a vehicle, we need everyone to keep their seatbelts on. Situations where compliance is needed often involve health and safety and a reduction of risk.

However, there are many occasions when we can question whether compliance is needed. We can look for ways to be flexible and make decisions together rather than expect our instructions to be followed automatically. We can also think about whether something needs to be done right now, or if it could wait until later, or not be done at all. We might say, “That’s your choice. I hope you can help me next time,” or, “What would you like to do first?”

Letting individuals feel in control

When we feel in control, we feel safe. Finding opportunities to let the individuals in our care feel in control helps them be the decision-makers in their own lives.

Giving limited choices can be a helpful strategy to build feelings of ownership and autonomy.

For example, we might say:

  • Would you like to complete the worksheet at your desk or in the library where it’s quiet?
  • Shall we put the cutlery or the plates out first?
  • Shall we clean the paint pots or the brushes now?
  • Are you choosing trousers or a skirt?
  • Shall we brush teeth or hair first? You decide.
  • Would you like to work with Harry or Nuko?

Limited choices work best when the individual has just two, or perhaps three, to choose from, and we do have to make sure we are happy with whichever one they choose.

This then that

In some settings and for some individuals, a “this then that” approach can be useful when we do need a task or action to be completed, and it can’t wait until later. For example:

  • Let’s quickly finish this, then we can play a game.
  • When you’ve finished tidying this activity, then you can have free time.
  • Let’s finished getting dressed, then you can go to the garden.

While this approach very much depends on the individual, for some it’s a subtle reminder they can get a necessary task done quickly and then move onto something they enjoy.

Staying positive

It can feel frustrating when an individual in our care doesn’t do as we have asked. This is compounded when we’re under time pressures and juggling multiple responsibilities. However, being creative, flexible and finding opportunities for individuals to have a feeling of control over their own actions can help us find positive solutions rather than escalate situations.

In reality, the only thing we have complete control over is ourselves and our own responses. We can check how we’re feeling and practice self-regulation to help us respond sensitively and evaluate a situation rather than react to it. Behind everything we do, we can keep in mind, “what is this behaviour telling me?”