behavior, education, school psychology

Stop saying they are doing it for attention.

Maybe it’s the frantic testing season here in May in public schools or maybe I’m just tired at the tail end of a very busy school year, but I am SO tired of hearing the function of a student’s behavioral errors is attention. The function of behavior is the “WHY”. Why is this child throwing materials across the room? Why is this child saying inappropriate things to peers?Why is this child refusing to follow directions? It seems like every time I sit in a meeting where we are reviewing behavior, the function of the behavior is. . . drum roll. . . ATTENTION!

I call B.S. We need to stop oversimplifying the emotional responses of children when they present themselves as “problem behavior.”

Let me preface this by saying, we all want attention. We want to be seen and heard and have that be a reflection back to us that we exist and we matter. That is part of the human condition and who better than children to ask the question, “Do you see me?” One of my favorite writers, BrenĂ©  Brown asserts that we are “hard wired for connection” as human beings. Why would this be any different for children? I think that sometimes in education, maybe because our job is inherently to lead and teach, we assume we know all and minimize the contributions and knowledge of children in our schools. So, yes, they want attention. However; that may or may not be why Johnny shoves a peer every time he lines up to leave the classroom.

I have been a school psychologist for almost ten years now, and what I have learned from working with children is the value of offering respect without conditions.

When we immediately meet a child with respect, talking to them with the level of courtesy we would a colleague, the whole game changes. We tell them, right from the start, that we see them, that they matter, and their voice will be heard no matter what. The “no matter what” part is huge. A colleague once told me she has a post it on her bathroom mirror that says, “You can’t love unconditionally when you have conditions.” I think we forget this all too often in both our personal and professional lives. You might not love all of your students, but you can certainly respect them. You can respect the fact that they did not get asked to be in the home or environment in which they live. You can meet them where they are and offer respect, no matter what. We can make generous assumptions (another B. Brown concept) and assume they didn’t show up to school that day with the intention of frustrating the living daylights out of you! Isn’t that what you expect from your supervisor?

What if we thought about how we communicate with children and flip that to how we would expect a colleague or supervisor to communicate with us. Would you feel respected by your supervisor if she pointed out your errors in front of all of your colleagues at a staff meeting? What if she corrected your behavior in the hallway in front of anyone who happen to be there? Wouldn’t you prefer if she started with a generous assumption that maybe you were dealing with something hard or you didn’t understand the expectations or procedures before she jumped to the conclusion that you were deliberately being insubordinate to get on her nerves or to, perhaps, get attention?

If it truly is all about attention, let’s tackle it by giving them ALL the attention. Notice when they walk in and comment on the design on their shirt or hair style that day. Give feedback that is helpful, and if it needs to be corrective, try to make it private and supportive. Ask yourself, what is the intention of this feedback? How would I want someone to let me know that I am not doing it right? I’m going to venture a guess that the goal is to stop the undesired behavior and increase the likelihood they will do the right thing the next time. You are tired, they are tired. No one likes to be constantly told that they are doing it wrong every day. If you are feeling exhausted, think about they must feel. And, if you can do that very thing – pause for a minute and put yourself in the mind of that child – you have already made huge strides in building connection through empathy. We get frustrated when children don’t show empathy to others, but how often are we modeling that behavior? This applies to how we treat children we work with in education and how we parent. We can set limits respectfully by simply remembering that problem behavior is often an emotional response that the child is struggling to communicate. It may be they are letting you know that the boundaries are unclear to them and they need you to be more clear with your expectations. Setting clear and consistent boundaries is paramount to a respectful relationship.

You can’t love unconditionally if you have conditions. Conditions are not the same as respectful, consistent boundaries. You will care about them no matter what they do because you know they are more than their behavior. The more intense the behaviors, the louder they are crying to be seen and heard. See them, hear them, be there for them, unconditionally.