Managing misbehavior when working with youth – Part 3: Attention-seeking behavior

There are many ways that youth misbehave while in our care. Learn more about some of the reasons for misbehavior and different ways to manage or avoid it completely.

Children and adolescents are fantastic and fascinating to work with. Watching them interact with their environment and each other is one of the great benefits of working for youth-serving organizations. Unfortunately, there is always at least one person who chooses to misbehave and disrupt others. Sometimes, these are major disruptions and sometimes minor but, in either case, they can be extremely frustrating.

Children and adolescents misbehave for a number of different reasons. Behavioral expert, Linda Albert, PhD, has theorized in her book, “Cooperative Discipline,” that children misbehave to meet various emotional needs. They may be acting out to get attention or to avoid looking like a failure. They may be acting out in order to show you – or the rest of the group – that they are the ones in charge, or they could even be acting out of feelings of revenge toward you, the adult.

Finding yourself in a situation with a child who is misbehaving can be extremely unpleasant and sometimes a little intimidating, but it doesn’t have to ruin your day. With a little planning, patience and practice, you can navigate these disruptions, or in some cases, avoid them altogether.

Attention seekers are particularly troubling because often they disrupt in small, seemingly insignificant ways. They may poke or bother those around them or do something as simple as rattle a piece of jewelry excessively. They often talk out of turn or try to monopolize your time. These aren't major problems, but they occur constantly and, for the adult in the situation, all of these little things can add up to major frustration.

An easy way to tell if a child is misbehaving simply for attention is whether or not they stop when you address their behavior. If the behavior stops immediately, the child has gotten some attention from you. Their need is met and they are satisfied – at least until they misbehave again. If the behavior stops immediately, even if they do it again five minutes later, it is most likely attention seeking.

There are many strategies for addressing and preventing attention seeking behavior. One of the easiest is to simply catch them being good. A little praise can go a long way towards reinforcing appropriate behavior. So give them two, three, even ten times more attention for positive behavior.

One common tactic that teachers use is to greet students individually as they walk in to their classrooms. This validates each child individually and is a great tool to use if you have the time. Another strategy that works very well is to simply teach children to ask for attention when they need it. We don’t begrudge children asking for food if they are hungry or a drink if they are thirsty. Let the youth know that it’s ok to ask if they can stand with you, be your helper, or even lead an activity they may be familiar with. These are all positive ways for them to get the attention that they need.

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