Decreasing Attention-Seeking Behavior

Some of the most challenging behaviors to decrease are attention-seeking behaviors.  Many children on the Autism Spectrum engage in specific behaviors designed to get reactions from parents, siblings, teachers, and other caregivers.  The behaviors can range from silly to oppositional and aggressive in nature.   This article will discuss how to identify attention-seeking behaviors, determine why your child is engaging in the behaviors, and strategies for decreasing these behaviors. 
It is not always obvious that children are engaging in attention-seeking behaviors.  There are several ways to determine if your child’s behaviors are designed to get your attention and reaction.  Some indicators are:
1) Your child looks directly at you while engaging in an undesirable behavior. 

2) He gets your attention before engaging in a behavior he knows is not allowed.

3) When you don’t react to a behavior, he engages in it a second time or until he gets your attention.

4) He talks about the undesirable behavior at the same time he’s engaging in it (e.g., “I’m tasting the icing Mom.”).

5) He reports undesirable behaviors to you that you may not have seen (e.g., “I just put your keys in the trash.”).

6) He tries to engage you in a conversation about his behaviors (e.g., “Do I get a star for painting the wall?” or “Remember when I had a tantrum?”).
The main reason children engage in attention seeking-behaviors is to get attention and reactions from adults; however, there can be other reasons for these behaviors.  Attention-seeking behaviors may help your child avoid non-preferred activities or responsibilities.  For example, if your child wants to avoid bath time, he may engage in an attention-seeking behavior because he knows it will result in a “talk” or timeout, which delays bath time even longer.  Alleviating boredom may also be the reason behind attention-seeking behaviors.  It is very important to determine why your child is engaging in the behavior before implementing a strategy to reduce it.
There are a variety of strategies that can effectively decrease attention-seeking behaviors. The key is to choose strategies that provide minimal or no attention to the behavior itself. The goal is not to ignore your child, but to pay as little attention as possible to the behavior.  By reacting to the behavior, you are responding exactly as your child wants you to.  Because your child got the reaction she was looking for, she will repeat that behavior in the future at an increased level.   
There are strategies you can use to prevent some attention-seeking behaviors from occurring in the first place.  These strategies are very useful because they focus on changing the child’s environment before the behavior occurs and do not provide any attention to the behavior itself. Star charts or other reward systems are very useful.  Star charts are a great way to let your child know that they are making good decisions.  Stars or stickers are always given after a good choice. However, creating this type reward system and teaching your child how to earn a sticker are very useful strategies to use before you see attention-seeking behaviors. If your child is earning a valued reward for good behavior, and you regularly remind him of how to earn that reward, he may be motivated enough to stop seeking your attention with undesirable behaviors.  More importantly, he will begin to seek your attention with positive behaviors. (For more information on Star Charts, See our Toolbox Article: How to Use a Reinforcement System.) Another good way to prevent some attention seeking behaviors is to engage your child in other activities. If you can predict when your child may engage in attention-seeking behaviors, you can engage him in activities that will prevent him from doing these behaviors.  For example, if he usually acts up at the grocery store, he may be looking for attention because he’s bored.  Giving him small manageable tasks to complete (e.g., finding the strawberry jam) will keep him from getting bored and acting out. 

There are also helpful strategies to use after attention-seeking behavior has already occurred.  It is important to respond in a way that will not give attention to the behavior.  Reinforcing appropriate behavior can be a very useful tool for these types of behaviors.  Teach your child to get your attention in a positive way.  For example, if your child drew on the wall, you can teach him to draw special paintings (on paper), which can be displayed proudly on the refrigerator.  When you reinforce your child’s good choices with positive attention, he is more likely to make good choices in the future and engage in less attention-seeking behavior. 

One of the most effective responses to an attention-seeking behavior is ignoring the behavior.  For behaviors such as being inappropriately silly, loud or some mild inappropriate language (e.g., potty talk), actively ignoring the behavior can be the very best strategy.  It is important to be aware that when you try to decrease a behavior by ignoring it, your child will often engage in the behavior at a higher rate and intensity at first.  This temporary increase occurs because your child has been accustomed to getting a reaction for certain behaviors.  When you take away the reaction, he will engage in the behavior more frequently or with more intensity in an attempt to get your reaction again.  Before you choose to ignore a behavior, you should decide if you can withstand the temporary increase.  If you anticipate difficulty doing this, you can choose another strategy.  If you can withstand the initial increase, however, the behavior will begin to decrease over time.  When possible, you can also teach siblings to ignore behaviors as well. 

Of course, there are many situations when ignoring the behavior is not appropriate. Dangerous, aggressive, self-injurious, and disruptive behaviors would all constitute situations in which you would not want to ignore the behavior.  Typically, reinforcing positive behaviors is a great strategy for decreasing attention seeking behaviors.  However, for very dangerous behaviors, removing toys or privileges may be useful to decrease the behavior more quickly.  For example, when your child engages in a dangerous attention-seeking behavior (e.g., hitting his sister), you can take away a preferred toy or privilege. Without addressing the hitting, you can calmly, and with few words, tell the child that he’s lost the toy or privilege.  Additionally, timeouts can be used (with caution).  You should not use timeout if it requires significant interaction to get your child into, or keep him in, timeout.  This interaction may be the attention that he was trying to get.  Timeout should also not be used if your child is trying to avoid a non-preferred activity.  Remember, negative attention, such as yelling, is still attention. 

Here are a few tips for successfully decreasing attention-seeking behaviors:
1) Don’t let these behaviors get the better of you!  Attention-seeking behaviors can be bothersome, to say the least. You may feel tempted to react or repeatedly ask your child to stop the behavior.  Remind yourself that he wants your attention, so that should be the last thing you give him.
2) When ignoring a behavior, turning your back or actually leaving the room can be useful (as long as the child is safe by himself).

3) If you are removing toys or privileges to decrease more severe attention-seeking behavior, use as few words as possible to tell your child what he lost (e.g., “You lost your dinosaur for hitting.”)  Don’t engage in any arguments or complaints about the object or activity you removed.

4) Stay as cool, calm and collected as possible.  Even looking or sounding upset can be what some children are looking for!

5) Make sure you give your child a lot of attention and positive responses for good behavior.  We often focus on the undesirable behaviors and forget to praise them for desirable behaviors!
Good luck!

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