Attention-seeking as part of normal development
Attention is a basic human need. Children of all ages seek out attention by saying or doing something that results in one or more adults and/or children providing some form of interaction. For example, a baby cries to signal to the parent that they are hungry, a child who walks up to the teacher and says ‘I need help with this’ or an upset teenager who walks up to her friend for a hug.
The attention given by others – whether positive (e.g. looking, talking, playing, helping, laughing and comforting) or negative (e.g. scolding, yelling, criticising, shaming, lecturing) or none at all in response to the child’s behaviour plays an important role in their survival, development and well-being.
Forms of attention-seeking behaviour
Attention-seeking behaviour can take many forms. It can be a child talking, seeking validation, making noises, raising a hand, clowning around, blurting out the need for someone to help, teach or watch them do something; tattling, provoking a confrontation, incessantly questioning, bullying or teasing, and telling fantastical stories or exaggerated unrealistic experiences.
Attention-seeking behaviour of concern
Some children consistently exhibit attention-seeking behaviour. Attention-seeking behaviour becomes a concern when the following occur:
- the frequency (i.e. how often a child exhibits attention-seeking behaviour) becomes excessive,
- the duration (i.e. how long each incident of the attention-seeking behaviour lasts) becomes excessive,
- the intensity (i.e. the strength of the attention-seeking behaviour) escalates from minor behaviours into extreme behaviours, and
- the attention-seeking behaviour negatively impacts the child’s participation in activities, interaction with others, their day-to-day functioning and development.
Impact of attention-seeking behaviour
When a child begins to persistently exhibit attention-seeking behaviour of concern, the climate of the context (e.g. childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary school, disability support and youth services) can change dramatically. A considerable amount of time and energy can be spent on the child showing the attention-seeking behaviour, which can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the learning experience for all the children. Research consistently shows that managing behaviour is linked to staff experiencing high levels of stress, burnout and job dissatisfaction.
Hence, attention-seeking behaviour affects everyone involved and the child who is seeking attention requires necessary help to learn positive ways of behaving and managing their emotions.
Positive behaviour support resources for attention seeking behaviour
Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) focuses on evidence-based strategies and person-centred supports that address the needs of the individual and the underlying causes of behaviours of concern, to enhance the quality of life for both the individual and those that support them.
PBS recognises that there is no single cause for attention-seeking behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.
Attention-seeking behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem. To understand attention-seeking behaviour we need to firstly, experience the situation from the child's point of view. Secondly, consider the underlying emotion behind the attention-seeking behaviour (e.g. anxiety, jealousy, boredom, sadness, confusion, frustration or feeling insecure) and thirdly, recognise that the child may have difficulties with controlling and regulating their behaviour in the moment due to feeling overwhelmed by their emotions.
Behaviour Help resources are at hand: