So many times, I’ve looked into the eyes of a child who is angry, bewildered, frustrated, or who has given up the fight altogether, and I see myself.
I recognize those feelings, or I remember the anxiety from somewhere deep in my own childhood.
Traditionally, we educators learn to respond to children’s behavior with certain tools or “quick fixes,” as a means of gaining control. But this doesn’t always address the core of the issue. We’ve got to recognize that “bad behavior,” or attention-seeking behavior, is an important way for children to communicate their needs.
My work is based on understanding our own emotions and biases regarding discipline in general, and more specifically, how we react to children needing our attention. In other words, we can’t help children manage their feelings and behaviors without understanding our own.
In this article, I’ll challenge us to reflect on how we perceive children’s need for attention, and how that connects with how we remember being treated as children ourselves. You’ll come away with new ideas on how to respond to children in ways that support their emotional health and development.
Reframing attention seeking behavior in children
Instead of us saying, “She is just doing it for attention – ignore her,” we might say, “She is just doing it for relationship.” Then, would we still have the option to ignore her?
In many cases, it’s not so much that a child really has behavior problems. More often, it has to do with how we perceive those behaviors, because we connect them with being punished for expressing the same things when we were little. It’s only natural that we choose responses that fit our comfort level and personal experiences — but we can also rethink this.
It takes courage to face how some of the ways we were treated as children can affect our disciplinary interactions, or our relationships in general with young children.
But our responses in emotional situations are crucial in helping children develop a healthy emotional identity. We’ve got to support them at every turn — and of course, this is much easier said than done. But if we’re not aware of our own emotional limitations, we might not be as supportive as we would like. We might unintentionally humiliate a child, echoing the way a parent or educator shamed us as children.
Even if we know what the right response is, our personal emotions can sometimes be overwhelming, and make us act in an inappropriate way. This happens to all of us, and there are things all of us can do to grow and improve.
Getting attention is a complex issue in our relationships with young children. How well can we deal with children’s natural need for it, when we developed all kinds of weird ways of seeking attention ourselves? What makes us uncomfortable about desiring attention? Why do we sometimes feel guilty or ashamed for even wanting it in the first place?
That we still carry this stigma about attention-getting suggests our own disciplinary experiences as children still affect us. Some of us might choose to echo how our own parents and caregivers responded to us, because we think it works — and we end up frustrated, because discipline policies ask for different responses. Or, we might decide to make changes in how we set boundaries for children in the future.
Once, while I was giving a presentation, a woman described how she sought negative attention from her parents when she was a child. Jealous of her newborn younger sister, she would take away her sister’s toys, prompting a scolding from her parents.
I described to her an ideal scenario where her parents, instead of admonishing her about taking away the toy, they might rather hold her in their arms and tell her how much they loved her and understood her pain about her younger sister.
I described them saying something like; “We don’t expect you to love your sister until you are ready. We love her and you, and one day we are sure you will love your sister too – when you are more used to her being in our lives. We can’t allow you to take away her toys because that hurts her, but we love you nevertheless and understand why you are doing this.”
The woman who had shared her story was very struck by this. She told me she realized that she always thought she sought out negative attention, when in fact she just needed to have her feelings validated.
In this, we see both sides of this complex issue — the importance of reframing children’s behavior in a more positive way, and the risk of letting our own childhood experiences go unchecked, potentially leading to us repeating the same inappropriate responses.
As educators and caregivers, we need to understand why we respond to children in the way that we do. And when it comes to emotions, this starts with reflecting on our own experiences as children.
The more we understand ourselves, the easier it is to validate and accept young children’s emotions.
Here are some ideas that can help you get in touch with your own emotional experiences, and the influence they might have on your teaching and caregiving:
Teaching young children is the most powerful profession I know, and it comes with an awesome responsibility. It’s up to us to model new ideas for children, new ways to solve problems, and how to show kindness and compassion. These Early Years relationships lay the cornerstone for children’s emotional identity — and how they share those emotions the rest of their lives.
Us teachers are not only dealing with curriculum items like mathematics, literacy or social studies. We’re teaching social and emotional skills, and we need to build that framework with young children moment by moment. Tamar Jacobson is an early childhood development and education consultant for early childhood programs, organizations, and families. Her book on this subject, Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive, is available via Redleaf Press.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.