“Ignore him… he’s just attention seeking.”
When I first started teaching 3 and 4 year olds I used the ‘ignore technique’ religiously as a classroom management tool.
Ignoring negative behaviours and heaping on praise for positive behaviour works pretty well in a classroom setting if your goal is to have compliant, ‘well behaved’ kids. But there is always a handful of kids that it doesn’t work for, and it was one of those kinds of kids that helped me learn better.
Ignoring his negative behaviour just made it escalate. He wanted my attention, and he’d throw a chair at the window if that was what it took to make me notice him. Still I tried to disengage, to walk away, and to limit my attention when he wasn’t behaving how I would have liked him to.
Of course I also heaped on the praise when he did something I wanted to encourage. I went out of my way to find tiny, little, ridiculous, things that I could praise. He lapped up the encouragement and praise, but as soon as I stopped he would do something not so great to get more of it.
What he wanted, what he needed, was my attention. Not my manufactured praise when he managed to conform, but my genuine attention, to him. He needed me to look at him, to hear him, to talk to him, to play with him, to know him.
After a few months where things had gone from chair throwing, to kicking a hole in the wall, to smashing a window, and others around me started talking about ‘problem behaviour’ and ‘something wrong’ I happened to read a line in an article. I don’t know the name or the article or the author, or even what it was about, but I remember that one line –
“What is so bad about a child wanting attention?”
Suddenly I realised that I had been seeing this child’s need for my attention as something bad. Something I should squash, ignore and try to get rid of… but why?? What was so terrible about him wanting me to be part of his life?
Sure, some of his behaviours were pretty terrible, and I’d rather he didn’t throw chairs, or kick walls, but if attention seeking was at the root of these behaviours and if there was nothing wrong with him wanting my attention, then why did I keep trying to ignore him?
Surely giving him my attention would be the one, surefire, way to lessen the negative behaviour?
So I turned everything on it’s head. Instead of ignoring him when he was difficult, or only praising him when he did something ‘good’, I gave him my attention, as much as I could, whenever I could, regardless of what he was doing.
I listened to him, I talked to him, I asked him what things he liked to play with and went out of my way to set up those activities right then and there.
I gave him my physical attention. I pushed him on the swing, I kicked a ball, I let him curl up in a ball on my lap after he had had a tantrum. I didn’t walk away when he lost it, and I realised how much I had missed about this tough little kid by trying to ignore him so often.
Yes, there were other kids in my class so who needed me, and in beginning they got less of me than they were used to, but as the chair throwing turned into yelling and foot stamping and there were less violent tantrums to deal with, we had a calmer environment with calmer teachers and I decided the initial cost was worth it.
In the long term this boy learned to wait for my attention, sometimes not patiently, but he waited none the less, because he knew I would be there for him, regardless of whether he’d lost it or not.
I often wonder what happened to that little boy, who was always difficult, regardless of how much attention I gave him, but so full of love and wonder and life. I wonder how he has gone at school, I wonder if he has grown out of his big tantrums. More than ten years later I remember I still remember him with much affection and I remember the lesson he taught me.
Now, when my own kids act out, or loose it, that little boy is there to remind me that my kids need my attention, even when they are being difficult, and that giving them attention is not rewarding bad behaviour but fulfilling a need, and a need that is fulfilled is need that no longer needs to be acted upon.
Seeking attention is a message to me. It is a wake up call that my child is not getting what he needs from me, right in that moment. And no, I can’t always drop everything and ignore everyone else to give him what he wants right then and there, sometimes I can never give him what he wants (anyone else have a three year old who asks for the impossible?) but needing my attention is not a behaviour that I want to squash any more.
Seeing attention seeking in a different light means I try harder to give my children my attention. And those times when I can’t stop, I can make a mental note, that the next time they asks for something I can do, I will do it. And next time I have a moment, even if they aren’t asking for me, I will offer my attention.
Because seeking attention is a cue, a hint that they need a little more of me right now. I need to fill their cup as often as I can so that they have a good stock pile from which to work. So that they know what a full cup feels like, that they know attention is forthcoming and fun, and that even if right now they can’t have it, they know that eventually they will.
Please Note: This post has taken five hours to write… because I needed to stop what I was doing to cheer on a bike race, and to pick up the puzzles my boy had thrown all over the floor without asking him to help, and to make a cubby house, and to google for new knock knock jokes, and to cuddle that grumpy kid, and to play that damn shopping game six more times.
Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:
Bingo! Love it. I was trying to get some work done the other day and realised I’d said ‘in a second’ four times in a row. 3yo was getting angry about it, and fair enough! Computer off, play time. I get annoyed when I want attention and am being ignored, too – I’m just old enough to know how to act about it. Great post.
I say ‘in a second’ waaaay to often too! It’s a great cue to remind me that if I stop and give my kids my attention, even just for a little while, I’ll probably get more uninterrupted time later!
The more time I spend with those who seek and need attention, the more I am trying to do it your way! Thank you for putting it into words for me.
do you know of the Circle of Security parenting program (based attachment theory/attachment styles) It is BEAUTIFUL!
It looks at getting needs met – sees “attention” as more broadly as needs to be “watched over” “delighted in” etc
V much like what you described with this little guy,
I want to say too that as well as wanting/needing “attention” (ie to be SEEN and ATTENDED TO) this kid (and others displaying similar behaviours) ***may**** indeed have ‘big problems’ going on that need to be assessed evaluated and treated such as family dysfunction, abuse, attachment disorders, ADD/ADHD, ASD and so on and while forming a r’ship and bond with them and giving them care and love and attending to their needs is vital there may need to be a lot more done also beyond this it may just be a piece of the puzzle albeit a huge one.
Thank you for giving this little guy what he needed and learning a huge lesson from your time with him and now passing that lesson on.
I have not heard of The Circle of Security… off to google it now, thanks for the suggestion.
And you are right, this little boy did indeed have other things going on, which is not my story to tell. :)
Jay @ Learning to play and playing to learn says
I have a little boy in my class like this, and discussions of suspension have been mentioned. I started to second guess what I was thinking and doing. Thank you for this blog post because now I feel good about sticking to my guns and giving him the attention while he learns to manage his emotions.
It can be so hard to manage such BIG emotions and behaviour while you sort through what is going on and how best to help, but this little boy is lucky to have someone like you who is not giving up on him and excluding him, but rather trying to find a connection. Good luck!
Love this post… and hate that statement… your kids just do “whatever” for attention. Why do they make it sound like such a failure… I demand attention and hope to get it, and yet when kids do that it is “wrong.” I have my kids for such a short blink of time, surely I want to spend as much time with them as I can… When my kids sleep in my bed, “because they need attention” I am all for it… I don’t know many older kids (and I have a few) that actually want to sleep in their parent’s bed – that time will pass and they will want other attention. I am all for filling up their attention buckets… it is better for all of us, in the short term and the long term.
It really is made out to be a failing, or worse that our kids are trying to manipulate us like some evil genius… when all they want is a little of our love and time…
Amanda Kendle says
Beautiful post Kate and it certainly rings true for me. At nearly 4 my son is very rarely properly “naughty” (and at school now he is utterly exhausted by the end of the day by trying so hard to be “very good” all day) and when his behaviour at home is off it is virtually always related to needing some attention – so slowly I am learning to give him more of that when he needs it rather than “disciplining” him. And it really seems to work. And of course he needs a reasonable amount of attention, firstly because he’s just a kid and secondly because he’s an only child, I think. Lovely thoughts as always Kate, thank you!
Grandma Jill says
Absolutely right Kate. Even as kids get older I found taking the one needing attention on a one on one excursion was the best way of satisfying their needs.
I need a “like” button on your emails so that I can quickly and easily let you know that I like a particular post and that I appreciate what you share. So consider this a “like” and a thank you….for this one, and a few other recent ones that I just didn’t get a chance to swing over to your actual blog to say so. Thanks. :-)
An instant like/reply button would be cool! I wonder when the internet will invent that!?!?
Thanks for taking the time to pop over, it’s made my day!
I am right there with you on replaying and replaying and replaying that blessed shopping list game :) My two-and-a-half year old thinks it’s the best game EVER! Love reading your posts! x
It’s been on constant repeat here for the last year or so, but it is slowly being replaced by Connect 4… except he doesn’t really understand the rules of that one, so it makes the Shopping Game a better option.. never thought I would say that! LOL
Thank you, thank you, thank you x
Thanks, I’m a mother and a child care provider and I was stuck with a beautiful and sweet girl who gives a fist and tantrums the size of the world… in 13 years it’s the first time that I can’t handle a child. But this post reminded me why I’m still here… thanks and share the love
I’m glad you’ve learned and shared that lesson, I don’t think I would have taken the same knowledge from that situation.
Earlier today, I read something that said babies will not cry until they have been hungry or tired for a while. The same rule applies here, but I didn’t make that connection until just now. The greatest gift you can give your children, or anyone, is your time and consideration.
I looked up the Circle of Security and found an interesting video: http://vimeo.com/74938698
Now I need to go wake up my daughter from her nap and give some attention.
Will this work with 8 year olds too do you think?
sorry I am late to reply to this but YES!
I have two ten year olds and I find that they act out and are far less objectionable and cranky when I have filled up their ‘attention’ cups :)
Hmmmm…agree with the article in principle but not necessarily in the title’s wording. That is, bad behavior for attention getting is bad- throwing chairs is never a good idea (which I’m sure is not what you meant). But the child’s message is not bad at all, it is an important message, and I quite agree that ‘ignore bad, praise good’ is not a good tactic. Rather, I would deal with the bad behavior when it happens in whatever appropriate method is your norm. AND heed the message, not by excessive praise but just exactly as you describe- meet his need for attention by giving it for just being himself, by interacting in his world, rather than focussing on praisable behaviors. Wording can make a difference. I remember when most parents were just learning that it is common behavior for toddlers to bite. I’d see one do it and a parent not react at all, saying ‘oh, I’ve heard that’s normal’! Thinking it through I came to this conclusion: Yes, it’s normal (don’t freak out, it’s not a reflection on your parenting skills, don’t expect to stop it forever in one shot- like by biting back). No, it is not okay (do take developmentally appropriate action, do apologize, do make every effort to teach your child that it hurts and is not allowed).
Kellie B says
Absolutely LOVE every word in this article! It is 100% the case with my little boy who is not quite 3. His worst behaviour (when seeking attention) is hurting his little brother which upsets me so much but I understand it’s because he is missing me and seeing so much of my time and affection and smiles at what his little brother is doing. I try to ask him random questions etc before anything happens so he’s getting some engagement from me to hopefully prevent any hurtful behaviour. It’s been so extremely tough but I think we’re on the path to happier times.
Anita Matta says
Bang on.. I so needed this.. And keep needing this! I have twin boys.. And one if them always needs my my attention more than the other.. I needed to hear a fellow mommy say all if this.. Thank you!!!
Your article really hit home, I am the great aunt of a 4 year old I have had custody of for a year now and she is going thur this right now. I am going to print this for her school to read hopefully it will help, she is a lost little soul who can’t get enough attention and I definetly need to acquire more patients with her too. My only daughter is 13 and she was an amazing little girl who was never anything like this but then again she never had to endure what this little one has, her mommy and daddy are both out of the picture so she is really insecure and always saying I love you and do you love me? I am trying my best but feel so lost at times, thanks for these tips and I will look forward to more…
Sounds like you are doing it tough right now… but what a lucky girl to have someone so strong and loving in her corner from now on!
Just came across your post on pinterest and i couldn’t have put this into better words.
I am a nursery manager in the UK and will share this with my staff at the staff meeting – appreciating children for who they are is so important.