We can all identify a child who seems to need an inordinate amount of attention. His teachers are challenged by his needy behavior; his classmates, his friends and his siblings are tolerant, but only up to a point; and his parents are often at wits' end. He is always acting out the adage “negative attention is better than no attention at all.”

Let us examine Yossi H's behavior. Yossi tries to monopolize every discussion. He shows off, often totally inappropriately, and in school he frequently acts like the class clown. His teachers are constantly on alert for “a Yossi outburst”; he seems to shrug off his punishments and that frustrates them even more. They know he wants attention and he is not denied it, but he just can’t seem to get enough. “He is not the only child in the class” his teachers tell the principal. Yossi’s parents admit that they face the same problem at home and they don't know what to do about it; they are tired of coming to school to discuss Yossi’s latest antics.

The most common reason for a child’s misbehavior is his need of attention. The child feels inadequate unless he is constantly at the center of things. He thinks, “I have no place unless people pay attention to me.” His lack of self esteem fuels his craving for attention.

Yossi's manifest behavior is not the only pattern of attention-seeking children, though it is the most obvious. Debbie also needs attention. She is shy, and sometimes appears lazy. Debbi uses her charm to get people to do things for her. If she doesn’t get the attention she seeks she will be overly sensitive; she will pout, cry or withdraw into herself. While it would appear that her behavior is the result of other issues, it is in fact motivated by her need for attention. Her approach is different from Yossi’s. She can be more manipulative, but her objective is the same as Yossi's. Debbie wants attention and she alternates between charm and helplessness to get it.

In order to modify the child’s behavior it is essential to make him part of the solution.

Whether the adults in their life choose to give Yossi and Debbie the inordinate attention they crave just to keep the peace or whether they are constantly becoming annoyed and overreact, their reaction will be counter-productive in either case. The fact is that the children are achieving what they want, and their need and appetite for attention will only grow. So what’s the teacher or the parent to do?

Most child psychologists will agree that in order to modify the child’s behavior it is essential to make him part of the solution. Yossi and Debbie need to understand what motivates their behavior and they need to recognize that in order to be able to generate positive attention they will have to forgo some of the inappropriate attention they are now willing to settle for. It must become worthwhile for them to earn the positive attention they so crave that they will decide to give up the negative attention they normally receive.

Creating a Solution Together

Yossi and Debbi's parents need to develop a solution together with them. The children need to discuss why things aren't working and to start to develop a strategy together. To create a conducive atmosphere, parents should provide a relaxed, non-threatening, opportunity to have a serious talk; for example, a walk in the park, a quiet trip, neither of which is too stimulating so as to preclude a serious discussion nor too confining so as to feel intimidating.

We all need to interact with others and we need the validation of our friends and the approval of our superiors.

They should talk about how everybody needs attention; that we all need to interact with others and we need the validation of our friends and the approval of our superiors. Yet, the better we feel about ourselves and the surer we are about what we are doing, the less we need approval and validation. Because we are all social beings we all have social needs, but when one person overwhelms others with his or her need for recognition and attention, others are frustrated and become unwilling to tolerate it.

The idea is to make an agreement with the child (it works with adolescents just as well) about how much attention-calling behavior you will permit, when and under what circumstances. Here is what should emerge from the talk:

  1. The child must feel that the adult is making a special effort to recognize his needs and his contribution.

  2. The adult will make every effort to show the child approval and appreciation and to call attention to appropriate behavior.

  3. An understanding of a non-intrusive way to make him aware that he is reaching the point of overstepping the agreement.

  4. Inappropriate behavior, calling attention to himself, will be ignored; he will get no attention what so ever if he behaves inappropriately.

  5. The adult will watch for every opportunity to recognize the child's positive behavior and be ready with unexpected compliments; he will look for opportunities to catch him being good.

Helping children learn appropriate and socially acceptable ways to do deal with their world is the responsibility of parents

The consequence of not living up to the agreement is essentially the withdrawal of attention rather than a punitive measure. Shortly, because the child will be constantly recognized for positive behavior, it becomes worthwhile for him to look for positive rather than negative attention. The adult must stick to his side of bargain no matter what and to be sure, it is never as easy as it sounds. In the beginning the child will test the veracity of the agreement and the adult's resolve. He may well increase his bad behavior to test the adult, but it ultimately when followed through faithfully this approach works.

This is the essence of a behavior modification plan, which is at the core of any desired behavior change. In a word, we need to make it worthwhile for Yossi and Debbi to behave as we want and the consequences of noncompliance clear. They will feel so much better getting positive attention that it will no longer be worthwhile to try to get negative attention. In addition their self esteem will increase as they learn to be in better control of their impulses.

When Yossi becomes too loud or when he seems to be unable to stop talking and his father catches his eye and touches his ear as a reminder, Yossi will be expected to tone down. As soon as he does the father will look for an opportunity to complement him.

When Debbi goes into her helpless mode waiting for the attention, she will be ignored. But, her parents will offer a suggestion as to something she might be able to do along with some encouragement. A complement to follow her initiative in doing something she previously sought help for. Her mother will ignore her pouting and give her a signal that its time to do something positive for herself rather than be overly sensitive about someone else. A complement will follow as she takes hold of herself.

Of course if both home and school can be on the same page and coordinate their behavior management plan for Yossi or Debbi then the chance for a successful outcome is greatly enhanced. It is important to remember when things become frustrating, and they will, that helping children learn appropriate and socially acceptable ways to do deal with their world is the responsibility of parents. It is no less an important a part of parenting than helping a child learn to walk and be safe in his environment and it is just as rewarding.