How to Manage Attention-Seeking Behavior

We’ve all been there. A child acts out just to get your attention. What do you do?

By Laura Vogel, Ph.D. Director of Early Childhood Therapy | Oct 30, 2015
Attention Seeking Behavior

We’ve all been there. A child acts out just to get your attention. He’s disrupting the class, so of course, you have to give him attention to get him to stop. But then you find yourself faced with the fact that you actually helped his “strategy” work. He acted up, you paid attention to it, he learned that acting up gets attention, and the vicious cycle continues. This can be a frustrating experience for everyone. But what can you do about it?  

First, a caveat. You have to be certain that the behavior is purely attention-seeking before trying this strategy. If there’s something else at play for the child, you want to address that first. Maybe he didn’t sleep well last night, or he’s struggling with school work because he needs additional assistance. Perhaps something happened at home that is now showing up in your classroom. It can be tricky to tell if a child is reacting to something in his environment or just seeking attention. But you can usually tell by his ability to turn the behavior on and off quickly. If he’s struggling with something, his actions and emotions might be difficult for him to control, but if he’s just trying to get attention, he can usually stop the behavior just as fast as he started it. Bottom line – not all behaviors are created equal. Context is critical. What may be attention-seeking for one child may be a signal for help from another.
 
Now that that’s out of the way – back to the question. How do we stop this behavior? It’s really two parts, and both parts are equally important. You cannot do one without the other and expect results.
 
First – ignore the negative behavior. Second – reinforce positive behavior.
 
I know this sounds overly simplified, but let me expand on it. Ignoring negative behavior can be difficult. If a child is not following directions or is being disruptive, our natural instinct is to stop and address that behavior. But as adults, we do an awful lot of talking during discipline. And guess what – the child is not hearing us. Here’s what I suggest. Imagine that a child is not lining up with his classmates. We might be inclined to say, “John, I asked you to line up. Do you see how everyone else is lined up nicely? Why is it important that we all line up when I ask you to?” and engage in a conversation about the need for lining up. But instead, you might try walking up to John, gently placing him in line without saying anything, and then move on.
 
Another scenario – let’s say Brianna is playing with her tablet after you’ve asked the class to turn them off and place them face down on their desk. Instead of stopping the class to say, “It looks like not everyone has turned off their tablet. I’m still waiting on Brianna. Brianna, I asked everyone to please turn their tablets off and place them face down. I need you to follow directions. We can wait.” Instead, you might just quietly walk up to Brianna, gently get down to her level and whisper, “We’ll talk about this later” and quietly pick up her tablet and walk away from her.

In John’s case, you might be thinking, “But now he just got away with it!” Ignoring negative behavior is not the same thing as being dismissive. In John’s case, it’s a minor infraction that is purely for the purpose of getting your attention. Instead of giving him what he wants – attention – you’re just helping show him the correct behavior. Every time that you quietly and gently help him line up, you’re creating that experience of lining up correctly. Eventually, he will know that acting out does not get him what he wants, and he’ll be prepared to line up the right way, because you’ve shown him how to do it.

In Brianna’s case, you’re still addressing the behavior, but not right in the moment. Here’s what “We’ll talk about this later” does. Now Brianna is thinking, “Okay, she’s going to talk to me about this later. What’s she going to ask? She’s going to ask why I didn’t follow directions. What should I say? She’s going to ask why that’s important. She’s going to ask how my actions affect the other people in the class. How did my actions affect the others in the class?” Now Brianna is doing half the work for you. She’s thinking through her actions and she’s doing that very important empathy-building work. She’s having to stop and reflect on how her actions affected other people and why her actions made you upset. But she’s not getting defensive or angry. She’s got time to stop, think, and calm down before engaging in a conversation about it.
 
That’s step one – ignoring. I suggest that the only behavior that necessitates a full class interruption is something really big or dangerous. If it’s one child acting out, and no one’s safety is at risk, a great way to handle it is to quietly and very quickly redirect and then walk away.
 
I mentioned before that this is a two-step approach. This second step is just as important. It’s positive reinforcement of the behavior that you’d like to see. Every time John refuses to line up, he gets your attention. But when he follows directions, nothing happens. Well, that’s not fun for John who is craving your attention, so what do you think he’s going to choose? Instead, you need to make an intentional effort to give attention for positive behavior. If you see John line up nicely, make eye contact and give him a quiet thumbs up. Or place your hand on his back and say, “I saw that. Great job, John.” You don’t need to bring attention to the whole class, but you can make it a special thing between the two of you. You make good eye contact and let him know that you saw what he did and you’re proud of him.
 
If John really never lines up correctly, you might find it hard to find anything to reinforce. So break it down into smaller steps. For example, you see that John put his books away correctly before heading toward the line and bumping into his friends. After quietly guiding him back to line up, you might say, “I noticed you followed directions when you put your books up. Nice job.” Or maybe he was standing in line quietly for a second and then got distracted. You can say, “I saw you try to line up quietly. I know you didn’t get it all the way, but you tried. We’ll keep practicing. Thank you for trying.”
 
During these moments of positive behavior, reinforce like crazy. A child who craves attention is going to eat that up, and when faced with a choice – doing the wrong thing and not getting attention, or following directions and getting acknowledged by the teacher – now which one do you think she’ll choose?

Both aspects of this are super important. This takes time and you have to be consistent – even if the behavior appears to temporarily get worse. This is actually not uncommon. A child needs to understand that what has previously worked is no longer effective. If you are implementing both aspects with fidelity; if you calmly redirect and move on, and then focus on the positive efforts of the child, you should see results.

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