Attention Seeking for a Purpose: Understanding Behaviors in a New Way

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The little girl had been going strong since 6:30 am. By 3:00 she had engaged in 3 crafts, 2 circle times, 2 recesses, lunchtime, and over 50 transitions, large and small. When I observed her she was lying on the floor, “ignoring” a request from the teacher for the class to gather their belongings to go home. Her classroom aide whispered to me, “here’s where she’s attention seeking”.

A mom reports that her son’s teacher believes that he is scratching his skin excessively “for attention”. Patiently, the mother explained to the teacher that the boy had eczema, as she pointed to the tiny scars left by numerous rashes.

Every day I encounter situations like this in which children’s behaviors are categorized as attention seeking, without going below the surface to understand why children need the attention. Here is where current neuroscience can help parents, teachers and professionals come to a new understanding of “attention seeking” behaviors. An understanding that places the responsibility on adults to understand the messages children are sending through their behaviors. This will lead to a more individualized approach for each special needs child.

Here are three suggestions for going below the surface and analyzing the meaning of attention seeking:

  1. If the child is unable to talk about, analyze or express feelings and thoughts related to the behaviors, then gently explore potential meanings behind the actions. In the first story I described above, the child was exhausted, and needed the proprioceptive input (sensation to her muscles and joints) of lying down in order to comply with the task demand. She was not able to verbally express “I’m tired, I need a break”.
  1. Understand the difference between intentional limit testing and a child meeting a sensory need. The latter would make it an adaptation, something the child needs on a physical level. It is essential to determine if children are reacting to internal needs, as these needs most often have multiple pathways (emotional, sensory, physiological) that show up as behaviors. Behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg.
  1. Shift our mindset to give children the benefit of the doubt. Turn challenging behaviors into a mystery to be solved, providing a wonderful opportunity to get to know the child better from the inside out.

I fully believe that parents, teachers and other professionals do not choose to ignore the meanings of behaviors or want children to suffer in any way. These situations reflect a lack of information and neurodevelopmental training and not the lack of the best intentions. It’s simply that this new way of thinking is not yet mainstream. Children with atypical development depend on us to decipher the meaning of their behaviors and to have compassion with an open mind.

It’s time to shift away from an outmoded understanding of “attention seeking” behaviors. I understand this may be an uncomfortable topic, but I would greatly appreciate any comments, questions and discussion around it here or on my Facebook page.


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