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How can you prevent or replace attention-seeking behavior?

If you did an impromptu survey of one hundred classroom teachers, likely all of them would report facing attention-seeking behaviors in the classroom at some point in their career.  Many of those teachers would report feeling confused or frustrated about how to stop attention-seeking behavior and prevent it from starting in the first place. Whether it’s distracting other classmates or repeatedly using problem behavior to divert your focus, attention-seeking behaviors present a problem for even the most well-managed classrooms.

Before teachers begin to address attention-seeking problem behaviors in the classroom, it’s essential to understand what factors contribute to attention-seeking behavior and the science behind how to address it.

What is attention-seeking behavior?

To clarify, attention-seeking behavior in the classroom is any behavior a student engages in—whether it’s positive or negative—that results in an adult or student providing some form of social acknowledgment to the child.  Attention-seeking behaviors are social, meaning they only happen in the context of other people.

Examples of Attention-Seeking Behavior in the Classroom

Attention-seeking problem behaviors in the classroom can come in all forms—including out of seat behavior, blurting out, making noises, bullying or teasing peers, excessive hand-raising, or merely talking when it’s not an appropriate time.

In short, attention-seeking problem behaviors share these qualities:

  • Maintained by social attention from others – When students engage in attention-seeking behavior, they receive what they were looking for—a response from others.
  • May start as mild and easily redirected behavior, but can quickly become a problem.
  • Often does not respond when addressed with a reprimand. Even negative attention in the form of a redirection or reprimand to a student may still be providing notice to the problem behavior. Often students who are seeking attention will accept any attention, even if it’s in the form of an attempt to discipline the student.

 How to Stop Attention-Seeking Behavior in the Classroom

When it comes to decreasing and preventing attention-seeking behaviors in the classroom, it’s essential to understand the function, or “Why?” a student’s behavior is happening in the first place.  The most straightforward answer is to get attention.

But underneath that answer, Applied Behavior Analysis helps us understand that other factors may contribute to attention-seeking problem behaviors.  Many students, especially those with higher needs, may not have the best tools and strategies to engage socially.  Some students may lack opportunities for appropriate adult or peer interaction outside of the classroom and use inappropriate opportunities to see attention.  Depending on the student’s needs, you’ll likely need to develop an individualized strategy of proactive and reactive strategies that work to decrease the problem behavior.

The suggestions below may help in brainstorming tools for students.

Before You Begin

It’s worth noting that before beginning any interventions to reduce problem behavior, carry out two steps.  First, specifically, define the attention-seeking behavior that you intend to address.  Too often, teachers talk about problem behaviors using wishy-washy or emotional terms rather than concrete, observable definitions. Instead of saying, “The student is noisy and blurts out during circle time.” Define the behavior as “Attention-seeking behavior occurs in circle time, any opportunity when the student speaks to an adult or peer without first requesting permission by hand-raising or being directed to share with another by the teacher.”  This definition not only contains a more precise, more objective description of the behavior, but it also includes what actions the student should be doing instead.

Secondly, you’ll want to collect some data.  Finding out when the problem behavior occurs most often and how many times the problem behavior occurs (i.e., per minute, per day, per week) can help you better understand when you do intervene—if that intervention was successful. Collecting data can also help you discover patterns that might help you create an intervention plan. Perhaps problem behavior happens consistently during one daily activity or if individual peers are nearby.  Having data available on these factors better informs the intervention you choose, and if that intervention decreases the problem behavior.

Proactive Strategies

Once you’ve collected data on a student’s attention-seeking behaviors in the classroom,  you’ll want to develop some ideas on what the student should be doing instead.  Focus on the question: What are the replacement behaviors or things this student could be doing instead of attention-seeking? Then focus proactive strategies on teaching and rewarding those replacements.  Some examples might include:

  • Provide attention on a time-based schedule. Once you collect data, you may discover that a student engages in attention-seeking problem behavior on average every 15 minutes throughout the day.  One strategy is to provide social attention to that student before problem behavior occurs—perhaps every 12-14 minutes.  By checking in with that student and giving praise for good behavior, you’re may avoid problem behaviors from happening in the first place.  Over time as the student builds success, slowly increase the time.  If that seems like too many resources dedicated to one student, remember when the problem behavior occurs, you’re likely spending time away dealing with the response anyway.
  • Set clear expectations for all students about attention-seeking. For example, don’t allow some students to blurt out and others.  Don’t permit blurting in some activities but not others.  For some students, inconsistent expectations create confusion.
  • Practice and reward how to appropriately ask for attention. Don’t assume that all students have mastered hand-raising and other social cues for recognition. Practice these skills and provide praise when the student uses them.
  • Teach and reward appropriate waiting. Sometimes the student has the tools to initiate, but not the skills to wait appropriately for attention. Practice waiting for longer durations and provide praise when the student waits for your attention.
  • Teach the student how to initiate to a friend without disruption. Some students lack the skills to know what to say to a peer and instead rely on inappropriate interactions to gain attention. Try out a social skills curriculum in your classroom to help students better engage without disruption.
  • Use a behavioral contract or “if…then…” statements to indicate when it’s okay to gain attention. Sometimes a simple behavioral contract like “if you complete your seat work quietly, then you can have five minutes of free time with a friend” can be a powerful motivator for students to decrease attention-seeking behaviors.
  • Use visuals schedules to indicate when attention can be delivered. Many students with additional needs respond well to visual cues. By indicating when it’s an appropriate time to gain an adult or peer’s attention, you set more apparent and easy to follow expectations.

Reactive Strategies

The above strategies are helpful to reduce or avoid attention-seeking behavior in the classroom, but what are strategies once the problem behavior occurs? The key to addressing attention-seeking behaviors is simple—avoid giving attention.  Depending on the severity of the disruption and the student, this might not always be possible.  Some examples of reactive strategies include:

  • Ignore attention-seeking behaviors. Providing the least amount of attention possible avoids feeding into or maintaining the problem behavior.
  • Have an alternative consequence, but be consistent. If it’s not possible to ignore the behavior altogether, have a set of consequences (redirection, consequence removal, take a break, etc.) that happen each time predictably.  That way, a student understands that despite their behavior, they’ll receive the same consistent attention and nothing more or less.
  • Give positive attention to someone else. Sometimes, merely drawing positive attention to another student’s appropriate behavior can help remind the student of the appropriate expectations. “Did you see how Student A lined up at the door quietly?  Let’s give her a high-five for doing a good job!” can help motivate students to get back on track.
  • Remember, giving a reprimand is still giving attention. Finally, as mentioned above, negative attention still serves as attention for many students. Rely more on proactive strategies than reactive ones when trying to address attention-seeking behavior in the classroom.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

February 2020

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