I’m sure you know, possibly even live with, that child who starts roaring the minute you get on the phone, or need to help the sibling with homework. When we notice this pattern, it’s a good chance the child is engaging in these behaviours to get attention. If you haven’t already read our blog on functions of behaviour, you may want to review that. But if you already have, and/or know what I’m talking about and need some real tips to reduce these attention seeking behaviours, keep reading.
Remember that when addressing the functions of (reasons for) problem behaviour, it’s never the reason that is the problem, but the way in which the child is going about accomplishing what they want. It is expected that children will want attention or need assistance throughout the day; however, the aim is that they can access that attention through appropriate means such as asking for a hug, inviting others to play games, or requesting help. Decreasing unwanted attention-seeking behaviours will likely require a range of strategies to both discourage the unwanted behaviours, and increase more appropriate ways to access attention. The following are some of these strategies:
1. Plan brief, frequent, opportunities for attention. Ensure your child has regularly scheduled opportunities throughout the day to access positive attention. This might be accomplished by planning daily special activities (e.g. outing together, playing a game together), or even having your child assist with daily chores such as loading/unloading the dishwasher of doing laundry. Whatever the activity, your child should be accessing quality attention. It is important your child recognize when these special activities will occur. This can be accomplished by either establishing consistent routines (e.g. special time always occurs after dinner and before bed), or place on a visual schedule.
2. “Catch ‘em being good.” We’ve all heard the phrase. While it’s easy to get wrapped up in daily responsibilities and fail to notice all the positive behaviours throughout the day, it’s extremely important that children receive far more praise than corrective feedback. This not only serves to reinforce or encourage those desired behaviours, but also decreases the child’s need to engage in problem behaviours to get attention.
3. Teach other attention-getting behaviours. Identify your child’s preferred form of attention (e.g. tickles, chase, playing games), and teach your child to appropriately request. This might involve merely setting up situations, creating motivation (start and then pause and require communication for continuation), or even use visual aids such as cues cards or social stories.
4. Teach independent engagement skills. Some children are more likely to seek attention from others in part because they have very few interests or limited skills to be able to engage themselves independently. The more children are engaged appropriately, the less likely they will be to act out. For some children, you can reduce unwanted behaviour by explicitly teaching independent engagement. While ideally the aim is to shape leisure skills that the child will enjoy and seek out on their own, it can still serve a purpose to teach independent activity schedules that incorporate less preferred activities, followed by a reinforcer (e.g. special time with parent) at the end. In this sense, you are using attention to reinforce periods of and a tolerance to low attention.
5. Minimize reaction to the unwanted behaviours. It can often be difficult, and even unsafe to ignore problem behaviours. In general, if the behaviour is minor, short in duration, and not interfering with an essential planned activity, you can ignore and if needed, just walk away. Walking away provides a very clear signal that the behaviour is not an effective way to get attention. There will be many behaviours however that can just not be ignored. In these instances, you want to avoid calling attention to the inappropriate behaviour (e.g. eliminate no/stop/don’t), and instead prompt or redirect to a more appropriate behaviour. Very calmly in a neutral tone, tell the child what to do instead (e.g. sit down, get shoes). Basically, you are trying to interrupt the behaviour and label something that you can reinforce. Once the child is then appropriately engaged or redirected, that is the time to provide the positive attention.
6. Consider a planned reinforcement programme. If you feel that that there must be a consequence, make it meaningful. Remember that attention to the negative behaviours will only likely increase those behaviours. Instead, establish a planned system (e.g. DRO, star chart, token economy) to reinforce appropriate behaviours and provide feedback that inappropriate behaviours will result in a delay of, or loss of access to something desired. Many parents create such a programme, with little success and assume their child does not understand. In many of these instances, you can increase effectiveness by making changes to aspects of the programme such as identifying more highly preferred items, adjusting the goal so that it is more achievable and realistic, and/or adjusting the schedule so that the reinforcer is more immediate. For example, some children may be able to work towards earning something at the end of the week, but other children may require multiple ‘trade-in’ periods per day.