Your children need attention from you and will work hard to get that attention. In the early stages of your child’s development you will be the most important person in their world and they need your time and guidance. If they don’t get your attention when they are behaving well, then they will behave inappropriately to ensure they get attention from you. After all getting groaned at by mum for climbing up on the table is attention and, although it is negative attention, children perceive negative attention to be better than no attention at all. Receiving positive attention, such as play, physical warmth and praise for achievements from their parents will help children develop into confident, well rounded people. The more positive attention children receive the less likely they will be to misbehave in order to gain attention from you.
Have you ever stopped to think about the behaviours you give your children attention for? It is very easy when we are busy to ignore our children when they are behaving well, using the time to get on with things we need to get done. Do you ever find yourself returning your attention to your children the minute they start to do something they shouldn’t be doing, when all the time they were sitting playing quietly you didn’t notice them?
Children learn which behaviours get them attention and display more of these behaviours. If children learn that they get attention from you for behaving well and working hard to achieve things then their positive behaviour will increase. If they learn that when they are behaving well they are ignored and that to get your attention they need to behave inappropriately then they will misbehave more often. For example; if you give your child lots of attention for bashing the t.v. screen with a toy car but ignore them when they are calmly making the car drive around on the floor, then they will be more likely to see bashing the t.v. screen as a successful way of getting your attention and this behaviour may increase. The more positive attention children receive for their good behaviour, the less negative behaviour they will display to seek your attention.
Positive attention is a wonderful thing. It makes both us and our children feel great and can be used to increase the behaviours we want to encourage. So give it a go. If there is something you would like to see your child do more often try stepping up the positive attention you give when you see them behaving in this way. For example, if they are constantly squabbling over toys with their sibling or peers, try and notice the times when they are sharing well with others and give this much more attention than when they are not sharing. When they are not sharing use distraction rather than giving them lots of attention to the ‘not sharing’ behaviour. Praise them for choosing this behaviour using descriptive praise: ‘Henry that is really good sharing you are doing with Emily’. Make sure that the praise you give is about the positive behaviour they are displaying and NOT about the fact that you are pleased that they are behaving that way. We want our children to be internally motivated to behave well because they learn that it is good to behave well and not because they want to please us. For example, in this case we want the praise to encourage Henry to share because it is good to share, not because they want our approval for sharing. Over use of praise that expresses how pleased we are with the behaviour creates children who are motivated to behave in order to please others. This can mean they become reliant on praise and need it to feel motivated rather than being able to motivate themselves.
Take a 24-hour period to notice the behaviours you are giving your children attention for. What happened? How did you respond to your child’s behaviours? How did your child respond to you in return? How did this make you feel? How do you think this made your child feel? Did you praise your child during this period and if so did the praise describe the behaviour? What would you do the same and what would you do differently if you had the same 24-hour period again?