Attention-seeking in children and young people is something that you will hear about, especially if you choose to become a parent or a teacher.
Attention-seeking behaviour can be difficult to manage because the way to manage effectively may be counter to your first reaction. It’s tempting to use your usual behaviour management techniques to combat this behaviour, but this can actually reinforce attention-seeking behaviour and turn it into a real problem that becomes difficult to fix.
What is attention-seeking?
If you want my honest opinion, calling someone an attention-seeker is a cop out.
What most people mean when they call someone an attention-seeker or they describe attention-seeking behaviour is exactly what it says on the tin; it is someone trying to get attention.
This spans from young children who just want to please. If you’ve never been in a junior primary classroom before, a lot of the behaviour management involved is just getting the students to stop touching you or each other. They are all constantly vying for your attention, whether it’s pulling on your shirt, showing you their cool creation or trick, or dobbing on each other.
In older students, attention-seeking can present quite differently. Many teenagers start to feel like the world is against them, especially those adults in their lives who are trying to tell them what to do. They are far more likely to seek most of their attention from their peers which can lead to some risky behaviour to ensure that they belong. They do also need attention from adults and role-models as well, and may act out or exhibit strong emotions to get feedback from their teachers or parents.
Why do your students seek attention?
I call the term ‘attention-seeking’ a cop out because it doesn’t usefully describe what is going on in someone’s mind when they are exhibiting these behaviours. Sure, attention-seeking may be what they are doing. They are literally seeking attention. But the way that many parents and teachers use it is to dismiss this kind of behaviour.
You’ll often hear (and may have even said yourself) that a child throwing a tantrum is “just attention-seeking”. What this fails to recognise is that children, young people, and even adults actually NEED attention. They are not “just” seeking it, they are telling you that they are not getting something that they need.
Looking for attention has become stigmatised in our culture, particularly in Australia. Many people seek attention in different ways whether it’s impressing people that they look up to or who they aspire to be (often affectionately called brown-nosing) or by posting pictures and comments on various social media platforms (often affectionately called a range of things that I cannot quote on a family-friendly blog).
The fact is that children and young people in particular need attention. They need to find the support that they need, their place in the world, and just plain old connection and community. They want to feel like they belong, and if you are not going to supply that then they will find it somewhere else. If they can’t find it somewhere else, it can lead to a host of mental and physical health issues down the line.
Because of our social stigma against attention-seekers, many people will resist asking for what they need. Children especially are very good at just asking, but they learn by the time that they are teenagers that it is something shameful to admit to.
How to frame your students’ behaviour more positively.
Because of the stigma surrounding attention-seeking, it is unlikely that your students will be up-front about what they actually want. Most of what is actually attention-seeking behaviour may just look like your typical disruptive behaviour.
Simply being aware of the fact that attention and connection are basic human needs will help you understand your students and help support them better. It will also help you a lot with your enjoyment of your work; it’s far easier to manage behaviour that is asking for a basic need as opposed to behaviour intent on hurting or lashing out at you or others.
Language can be a powerful tool for this. Do not brush off your students’ behaviour as “just attention-seeking”. Attention is something that people need and so should be treated as such.
Because the term itself has a lot of negative connotations, it’s worth trying to shift your thinking and calling it “attention-needing” or “connection-seeking” behaviour. This goes for within your own thoughts as well as when talking to your colleagues. If you start using a more useful term, it can start to shift the narrative in a direction that is more supportive of your students.
The ultimate goal is of course to have your students understand when they are seeking attention and find a safe and supportive place where they can get it. It can be difficult to have this dialogue without a culture of understanding at your school, and even then, you don’t know what the narrative is at home. Building your students’ language to ask when they need attention can be a powerful strategy that will support them into their adult lives. This is truly something that can have an impact beyond your classroom.