What is attention-seeking behaviour?
Attention-seeking can be surprisingly difficult to spot.
Sometimes it’s really obvious. If you have a young student who keeps asking you to check their work, asking you to help them out, dobbing on the other students or expecting you to solve all of their problems, this can undoubtedly be attention-seeking behaviour. Poor or disruptive behaviour can have the very same root cause.
Attention-seeking behaviour is designed to get attention. Many students want that to be positive attention, whether it’s through answering the most questions correctly, winning awards, or pleasing you as their teacher in some way. Others find this kind of attention unattainable, so they settle for negative attention.
Everyone needs attention regardless of their age, but young people are still learning how to best ask for it. This coupled with the fact that young people often biologically need more attention and the social stigma around explicitly asking for it means that much of the behaviour that your students exhibit is to get attention in some form.
A lot of risk-taking behaviour can also be attributed to attention-seeking. People naturally want to feel like they are a part of the group. Social status and relationships are inherently important, especially for teenagers who are trying to find their place in the world. We all know that teenagers sometimes do some really dumb things to try and fit in and impress their friends; the need for attention runs deep and they need to have safe outlets.
Strategies for managing attention-seeking behaviour.
Attention-seeking behaviour of all types needs, well, attention.
Whether your students are seeking positive attention or are acting up to get a rise out of you, there are strategies that you can use in both the long- and short-term:
Give students multiple outlets.
High-achievers and gifted students struggle after school. I’ve seen it in my own friends as they transitioned out of school, and there is growing evidence to support this. When I say that it isn’t only the students who misbehave who need your support, I mean it.
High-achievers start to develop a fixed mindset. They lose the concept of getting better, or getting worse for that matter as well. If you’re a straight-A student, then any kind of deviation from that is scary.
If you build your social status and perception of yourself around this, then anything that changes that is a threat. Students who are high-achievers are less likely to take risks, even in a different context outside of school. If you are getting fantastic positive attention for being good at everything, then what do you do if you find something that you’re not good at?
Giving students who are struggling plenty of opportunities to be successful is just as important as giving high-achievers opportunities to fail. Having an uncertain outcome is key to learning and developing a growth mindset. This can be done through having high expectations and challenging extension tasks, as well as more free-form tasks that cater to students’ strengths as well as their weaknesses.
Praise your students, and make it genuine.
Consistent process praise is one of the most effective tools that you can use as a teacher. It is essential that you maintain positive regard for all of your students, which can be a challenge if they are constantly craving your attention in one way or another.
This technique works especially well for those students who are seeking negative attention. All of these students just want attention, but in their experience, negative attention is easier for them to get. If you make it easier or more reliable to get positive attention, they are likely to improve their behaviour.
A word of caution though; these students are experts at sniffing out when you don’t mean it. If you come across as condescending or insincere, your praise will have the opposite effect and you will lose their trust. The easiest way to present this is to do some work yourself on genuinely seeing the best in them. This can be difficult to do depending on how your own needs are being met, but developing genuine and unconditional positive regard is the best way to win these students over and give them what they need.
Help your students find people to look up to.
Role models are essential for every young person. If you don’t give them one that will be a good influence, they will find one that will be a negative influence.
Teachers can very quickly become role models for their students, are if this is the case they’re going to be positive ones. Very few students look up to their teachers because they’re controlling, ambitious, arrogant and get what they want. If they’re going to find a role model with those qualities, they will look elsewhere. What you want to do is make yourself as inviting of a role model as possible.
Having someone who they can have a more personal connection with, even if it is more on-sided (because you are their teacher after all), can do wonders for a student who is not getting the attention that they need. Simply having someone who they feel “gets” them can help support their engagement and learning, as well as give them an outlet that isn’t poor behaviour.
Build their language.
A lot of the strategies that I’ve mentioned already work well in the short- to mid-term, but what about long-term? What about when your young students get to high school, or your high schoolers enter the world of uni and work? You have a great opportunity to teach them some life skills here that will help them for the rest of their lives.
If you have attention-seeking students, they are really asking for attention. Giving them the language and confidence to actually verbally ask for this attention can be a real game-changer.
I’m the kind of person who needs a lot of attention. I like to run around and chat with people all day and really struggle to spend a lot of time on my own. I’m lucky that I have a mum who is very similar.
From when I was a little kid, she taught me that if I want attention, I should just ask. If I want to hang out with her and she’s busy or brushing me off, it’s probably that she just hasn’t understood what I need. I was taught to go up to her and say “hey mum, can we sit and talk for a bit? I need some attention right now.”
My sister also has ASD, so this was really useful for her. If I kept barging into her room (as I often did), she would get very upset. A lot of our arguments as kids were about me needing someone around and her needing some alone time. In this case, I would just ask “I need someone around right now, do you want to play some video games for 30 mins? We don’t need to talk, I just need someone to be with”.
This may sound odd and foreign, but it’s served me really well. In my work and relationships as an adult I’ve kept up the same habit, and it’s encouraged others to do the same. I’ve seen the real benefit of not just pushing and acting out until I get desperate, but to just ask. This does of course also mean that you need to be able to accept when people say “no”, but then at least you’ll also often know why.
Shift the culture in your classroom.
If you create a culture of communication in your classroom, it can do wonders for your students’ behaviour and wellbeing. Creating a space where people actually express what they want without fear can be incredibly empowering and supportive of every student and their needs.
This can be really difficult with teenagers who are not used to this, so it is best to start small. Model some first, and let your students know how you feel in certain situations. Encourage them to do the same so that you can better understand them, their actions and their needs, and build up to getting them to express what they need before an incident occurs.
This takes some time and a lot of consistency, but the effect will compound and benefit you and your students well into the future.