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

Updated September, 2022

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.

I often 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 a depleted body budget, and 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 depend on us to decipher the meaning of their behaviors and to have compassion with an open mind.

I share more about the paradigm shift in understanding limit testing and behaviors in Brain-Body Parenting and Beyond Behaviors.


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What a tremendous article. Thank you so much for this.

Thank you so much for commenting!

People have no patience. That’s why even though this article is something a normal person would understand, “the child is just tired”. A lazy impatient adult won’t care and just say quit seeking attention and get up. Kids get overlooked and dismissed because there is a no patience factor. I read this and already knew, this is common sense. Observe and learn the child and you’ll understand the catalyst to all their behaviors.

I also love the quote “kids long for connection but will settle for attention” – this also holds space for a shift in perspective 🙂

What a great quote!! Thanks Casey.

I would like to see Teachers,administrators and others to look deeper at my daughter’s behaviors. If you offered more challenging functional hands on courses with relatable material you will see less behaviors and more participation.