How Can We Rethink Children’s
Attention Seeking Behavior?

Oftentimes, our response traces back to how adults responded to us as children.

So many times, I’ve looked into the eyes of a child who is angry, bewildered, frustrated, or who has given up the fight altogether, and I see myself.

I recognize those feelings, or I remember the anxiety from somewhere deep in my own childhood.

Traditionally, we educators learn to respond to children’s behavior with certain tools or “quick fixes,” as a means of gaining control. But this doesn’t always address the core of the issue. We’ve got to recognize that “bad behavior,” or attention-seeking behavior, is an important way for children to communicate their needs.

My work is based on understanding our own emotions and biases regarding discipline in general, and more specifically, how we react to children needing our attention. In other words, we can’t help children manage their feelings and behaviors without understanding our own.

In this article, I’ll challenge us to reflect on how we perceive children’s need for attention, and how that connects with how we remember being treated as children ourselves. You’ll come away with new ideas on how to respond to children in ways that support their emotional health and development.

Reframing attention seeking behavior in children
Instead of us saying, “She is just doing it for attention – ignore her,” we might say, “She is just doing it for relationship.” Then, would we still have the option to ignore her?

Know your own emotions first

In many cases, it’s not so much that a child really has behavior problems. More often, it has to do with how we perceive those behaviors, because we connect them with being punished for expressing the same things when we were little. It’s only natural that we choose responses that fit our comfort level and personal experiences — but we can also rethink this.

It takes courage to face how some of the ways we were treated as children can affect our disciplinary interactions, or our relationships in general with young children.

But our responses in emotional situations are crucial in helping children develop a healthy emotional identity. We’ve got to support them at every turn — and of course, this is much easier said than done. But if we’re not aware of our own emotional limitations, we might not be as supportive as we would like. We might unintentionally humiliate a child, echoing the way a parent or educator shamed us as children.

Even if we know what the right response is, our personal emotions can sometimes be overwhelming, and make us act in an inappropriate way. This happens to all of us, and there are things all of us can do to grow and improve.

What causes attention seeking behavior in children?

Getting attention is a complex issue in our relationships with young children. How well can we deal with children’s natural need for it, when we developed all kinds of weird ways of seeking attention ourselves? What makes us uncomfortable about desiring attention? Why do we sometimes feel guilty or ashamed for even wanting it in the first place?

That we still carry this stigma about attention-getting suggests our own disciplinary experiences as children still affect us. Some of us might choose to echo how our own parents and caregivers responded to us, because we think it works — and we end up frustrated, because discipline policies ask for different responses. Or, we might decide to make changes in how we set boundaries for children in the future.

Thinking of new responses to attention seeking behavior

Once, while I was giving a presentation, a woman described how she sought negative attention from her parents when she was a child. Jealous of her newborn younger sister, she would take away her sister’s toys, prompting a scolding from her parents.

I described to her an ideal scenario where her parents, instead of admonishing her about taking away the toy, they might rather hold her in their arms and tell her how much they loved her and understood her pain about her younger sister.

I described them saying something like; “We don’t expect you to love your sister until you are ready. We love her and you, and one day we are sure you will love your sister too – when you are more used to her being in our lives. We can’t allow you to take away her toys because that hurts her, but we love you nevertheless and understand why you are doing this.”

The woman who had shared her story was very struck by this. She told me she realized that she always thought she sought out negative attention, when in fact she just needed to have her feelings validated.

In this, we see both sides of this complex issue — the importance of reframing children’s behavior in a more positive way, and the risk of letting our own childhood experiences go unchecked, potentially leading to us repeating the same inappropriate responses.

Self-reflection tools for attention seeking behavior in children

As educators and caregivers, we need to understand why we respond to children in the way that we do. And when it comes to emotions, this starts with reflecting on our own experiences as children.

The more we understand ourselves, the easier it is to validate and accept young children’s emotions.

Here are some ideas that can help you get in touch with your own emotional experiences, and the influence they might have on your teaching and caregiving:

  • You can read books to learn more about discipline strategies. One of the best books about discipline strategies that I have read is: No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. I, too, have written two books that share some suggestions for discipline strategies: Don’t Get So Upset! Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own, and Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive.
  • When you’re frustrated with a child’s behavior, take some time to be still and reflect. For example, you might discover that a child reminds you of someone. If you hold still you can ask yourself, “I wonder why this or that child presses my buttons. Who might this child remind me of?” Consider keeping a journal to record and reflect on how you feel. You can consider the following questions:
    • How do your childhood experiences influence you?
    • What buttons is this behavior pushing?
    • How have you faced your discomfort about what angered and hurt you as a child about being ignored, rejected?
    • How did you feel when someone noticed your effort and shared that with you when you were a child?
    • How did it feel to be excluded, or when something seemed unfair?
    • In what ways have you validated your own experience?
  • You can interview family members to understand how it was when you were very young. Ask them questions about what was happening in your family when you were born. How was your parents’ relationship at that time, how many siblings were already born, and how were their relationships with your parents or guardians?
     
    I was curious to find out how my parents perceived me as a young child, and how they disciplined me. What was their socio-economic status at the time, and what kind of support were they receiving, emotional or financial? Of course, if you are anything like me, once you start asking questions, the responses you receive will inevitably raise more questions for you.
  • Attend workshops on the subject. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has two annual conferences each year which are attended by thousands of all types of early childhood educators. The Child Care Exchange is also an excellent resource for articles and suggestions.
  • Support groups can be helpful in sharing ideas and feelings about disciplinary issues. This is something you could create within your own child care center, with your team. If you’re not the only one looking to rethink your approach to attention seeking behavior in children, talking it through with your colleagues is a good place to start.
Moving forward with attention seeking behavior

Teaching young children is the most powerful profession I know, and it comes with an awesome responsibility. It’s up to us to model new ideas for children, new ways to solve problems, and how to show kindness and compassion. These Early Years relationships lay the cornerstone for children’s emotional identity — and how they share those emotions the rest of their lives.

Us teachers are not only dealing with curriculum items like mathematics, literacy or social studies. We’re teaching social and emotional skills, and we need to build that framework with young children moment by moment.

Tamar Jacobson is an early childhood development and education consultant for early childhood programs, organizations, and families. Her book on this subject, Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive, is available via Redleaf Press.

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