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How to Eliminate Attention Seeking Behaviour

Children need to feel connected to those around them, especially people of importance in their lives such as parents, teachers or support workers. When they do not feel like they are getting that connection, they can turn to attention seeking behaviour to get they attention that they need and want. More often than not, this attention seeking behaviour is negative behaviour as they know that will get an instant reaction, but we do not want to reinforce this. So how can we eliminate attention seeking behaviours?

There isn't a parent or teacher in the world who hasn't experienced a child displaying attention seeking behaviour and, admittedly, it's frustrating to manage. Children often mistakenly believe that they need to have your attention all the time in order for them to know that you see them as important. By seeking to eliminate attention seeking behaviour, you are not only going to hopefully eliminate any challenging behaviour, but also build a strong enough connection with a child for them to feel like they don't need to seek out your attention in negative ways.

What are Attention Seeking Behaviours?

Everyone needs attention. Feeling alone and as if you aren't important to anyone is a lovely place to be. It is okay for children to want and seek attention. It becomes a problem when you aren't able to focus your attention on anything else without the child resorting to misbehaving to regain your attention. Children need to know that they are still important and valued by you even when you're out of the classroom, working with other children or focusing on something else.

Children will find a variety of ways to get your attention;

  • 'Look at me, look at me, look at me!' Children can yell this constantly whilst doing literally anything

  • Saying they're hungry, thirsty, need the toilet, or tired over and over again

  • Asking you to do things for them that you know they can already do

  • Crying or fake crying

  • Putting themselves in dangerous situations

  • Refusing to do work

  • Aggressive behaviour towards you, themselves or others

How do you Know it's Attention Seeking Behaviour?

Sometimes, children will display some of the behaviours above for other reasons, such as being overwhelmed, bored or over-stimulated. We need to be able to differentiate when a child is attention seeking or when they are behaving in a certain way because they are trying to communicate something deeper. The key to being able to do this is actually in how you react.

If you react verbally, by reminding or reprimanding or if you react physically by doing things that you know they can do themselves, then you know that their behaviour has been to get your attention. Also look at how your child responds to your reaction. If they respond to your request, such as to stop kicking their chair, at first but then start up this behaviour again a couple of minutes later, then it was likely attention seeking behaviour. They will go back to kicking their chair or whatever behaviour they were previously doing - the behaviour resumes whenever your attention is directed elsewhere.

How to Eliminate Attention Seeking Behaviour

Children are always going to have the need for attention - it is one of their most basic needs and critical to their social and emotional development. What we are trying to eliminate is negative attention seeking behaviour. There are a few things you can start doing straight away to eliminate behaviours in the short-term but the long-term goal is to develop a child's independence and show the child that they are important and valued, even when your attention is focused elsewhere.

Short-Term Strategies

1. Ignore the behaviour but do not ignore the child.

Does a child do something loud, obnoxious, potentially even dangerous because they know it gets a reaction out of you every time? Well, ignoring this behaviour will help stop it from being effective and eventually they will stop engaging in it to gain attention. Beware, it will most likely get worse before it gets better.

Given that you have always previously reacted to the same behaviour, the child will try harder and harder to get the reaction they want and expect. However, with time, they will see that it isn't going to work and their efforts will fade eventually.

However, you do not want to completely ignore the child - this will make them feel alone and sad. You need to be able to have no reaction to the behaviour but still attend to the child. For example, if they are screaming at you help them do something menial, you can give your attention to them, but do not tell them not to shout or try to shush them. You could attend to them and say something like "I need your help with X, could you come and help me?"

This initiates a positive interaction without acknowledging the misbehaviour.

2. Redirect behaviours.

Redirection is essentially leading the child's attention and focus away from the misbehaviour towards something similar but more appropriate. For example, if a child is biting or attempting to bite you/themselves/other children, then you can give them a chew toy to bite down on instead.

3. Distract the child.

Distraction and redirection may appear similar but there is a slight difference. Instead of offering something similar but appropriate to do (i.e. redirection), distraction aims to offer something completely different to get the child's attention and distract them from the attention seeking behaviour.

Let's say you're finishing a PE lesson, and the child is throwing balls around. You could distract them by saying "Could you help me pick up these cones? I can't do it by myself but we could race!". Not only are you providing a distraction, but you are also paying them attention without drawing attention to their misbehaviour - remember point 1!

4. Warn of Consequences and Offer Choices

Make it clear what the consequences of inappropriate behaviour will be, and make sure they are logical. For example, if a child is throwing blocks in the classroom, tell them "It is not safe to throw blocks. If you throw them again, I will take them off you." and then let the child decide whether they want to continue their behaviour or have the blocks taken off them. If you are forced to take away the blocks in this situation, don't lecture them or nag them, just acknowledge that they have decided to continue throwing blocks and therefore they need to be taken away.

Always follow through on your consequences if they decide to continue engaging in attention seeking behaviour. You never want your warnings to be seen as empty threats. Children need to know that if they do X, Y will happen. For consequences to work effectively, children need to know what to expect every time.

Long-Term Strategies

1. Notice the Good

This may sound really obvious, but giving children lots and lots of positive reinforcement will help with eliminating attention seeing behaviour. When a child is behaving well or does something particularly good, point it out to them and be specific with your praise! This will help build their self-esteem and they will begin to feel connected and valued by you.

After time, they will engage in the positive behaviours to get your attention rather than the negative ones. They may even draw attention to something they are doing well to get you to praise or notice them!

2. Give Full Attention

No one wants to feel like they don't have someone's full attention, so be sure to give children your full focus when you are meant to. Children will pick up on if you are not fully focused on them or not fully listening to them and if they feel that way, they may feel like you don't actually care what they have to say.

It's not possible to give your full attention at all times, so if this is going to be the case, tell them. It is also important they know they won't always have your attention, but that needs to be communicated clearly. For example, if a child is trying to fight for your attention, you could say, "I really want to hear about your day, but I am in the middle of tidying up right now. Could you help me and then we can talk about your day?"

3. Quality Time

This is arguably the most important factor for establishing long-term strategies. By spending quality time together, children will feel loved, cared for, valued and know that they are important to you and you will be able to build a great relationship with them. Quality time may involve doing an activity together, talking about special interests, doing chores/tasks together or just going on a walk around the school/playground.

3. Quiet Time

Children need to know how to spend time on their own, how to play independently and manage boredom by themselves. An easy way to introduce this is with 'Quiet Time'. This could be letting a child spend alone time in the sensory room or in the quiet corner of the classroom where they can occupy themselves with a book, sensory toys or just sit and relax. It's a good time for both of you to decompress, or for you to complete other tasks whilst the child is entertaining themselves.

4. Connect Every Day

This is best done in the morning, and I would recommend making this part of the routine of a child coming into school. Spend just 5 minutes connecting with the child, spending some quality time and reminding them that you are a safe person who values them and sees them as important.

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