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karen vanderven — from the soapbox

“All he wants ... ”

“All he wants ... is attention! Let's NOT give it to him!” How often in the course of our history as child and youth workers have we heard something like this and perhaps even unwittingly gone along with it? I continue to encounter it and it’s tantamount to hearing “We need to upgrade our point and level system!”

So onto my soapbox I leap ! Let's look first of all at a few examples:

When Jimmy tries to “horn in” on Joey and Jon's game of checkers, they good-naturedly tell him to “get lost”. He scuffs off and sulks in a corner. Soon he starts kicking a chair nearby – doing it more and more loudly and rhythmically so that it is distinctively noticeable. The peer rejection, which many kids could take in their stride – after all checkers is a two person game – evokes deeper and even physically felt emotions of familial rejection and his succession of ‘failed’ foster placements. Hence the escalating physical action. Dave, a staff member, hearing the noise, comes forward and intones to Denny, a co-worker, who is about to go over to Jimmy, “All he wants is attention. Don't give it to him!” Denny stays back, Jimmy continues kicking and finally gets up and skims the chair along the floor towards the innocent checker players. He ends up being restrained.

And, another one, from early childhood:

The head teacher's response (to a child in acute distress) was straight out of the Watson/Skinner behavioral handbook. In order to avoid ‘reinforcing’ the ‘behavior’ (Manny’s tears), she ordered the team not to respond to the crying. In no event were we to “baby him” by picking him up or otherwise comforting him. “It was an approach doomed to failure. Manny continued to cry despite the absence of any reinforcement.” (Mardell, 1999, p. 70-71)

Regrettably scenarios like these seem to be enacted in early childhood, child and youth programs, on a daily basis. What to do? Why, in the most pragmatic sense, if a kid is asking for attention, give it to him or her!

Understanding behaviour
Why? First of all we can take the premise that underlies child and youth work that behavior has meaning. So, if a young person is doing something that yields the comment “All he wants is attention – let's not give it to him” there is some meaning behind that behavior. Perhaps there has been a sudden emotional rush of unhappy memory and he wants to interact with somebody. But he doesn't know how. Or, he knows from past experience that if he makes a gesture it will be either rejected or subject him to ridicule. Perhaps an incident has just occurred – a subtle one that people didn't see – that has reconnected with and brought up, and was felt deeply at the “gut” level, a sense of abandonment, rejection and resultant anxiety. Under such circumstances, without acknowledgement, comfort and support, the child's fragile self regulatory abilities crumble and undesirable, “attention seeking” (really legitimate “attention needing” ) behavior escalates.

The behavior may mean attachment issues. Attachment theory is one of the core informants of child and youth care work. Both needing of attention and seeking of it, inappropriately or not, often reflect problematic attachment dynamics, as pointed out by Mardell in his compelling account, and by “our own” Henry Maier who offers a brilliant and sensitive discussion in his landmark book Developmental Group Care of Children and Youth: Concepts and Practice (1987).

Then, there is the concept of recursion (which I can loosely attribute to Gregory Bateson and to non-linear dynamical systems theory). This means, perhaps oversimplifying a bit, that if we try to overcontrol or oppose a behavior or phenomenon, in the long run we are actually likely to create more of it!

In the case of attention-needing behavior, ignoring it would not only take more of our time, effort and energy, but also involve ourselves in something unpleasant and draining. If we go “towards it” and gratify it, the child or youth becomes satiated and comes gradually to need less of, or a different kind of, attention. In fact the child might then work to disengage very much in the tenor of “exploring from mother as a secure base”, the process by which younger children begin to become independent. Knowing that their parent or caregiver is nearby, they then feel comfortable moving away to explore and interact with the world nearby. Many children and youth in group care, no matter what their age or size, seem never had this “secure base”.

Giving attention is not equivalent to sanctioning the behavior, nor does it mean that the worker condones its continuation. But, by reframing the interpretation of the behavior, and the response, the situation changes from one of escalation, a power struggle and crisis, and an unhappy child, to a calmed child who gradually, with the nurturing and support of the adult, will understand his or her feelings better, and develop more constructive ways of managing them when an external incident evokes unhappy inner states. The result of paying attention thus is simple: the offending behavior usually dies down! Consider these alternative scenarios:

With Jimmy, Denny ignores Dave and goes over to Jimmy. “Hey, Jimmy. What’s going on? Usually if a kid kicks a chair like this, something's bothering him. Want to talk about it?” Jimmy grunts as Denny in a rush of insight spots the furtive glances of the checker players. “Did they tell you you couldn't play with them?” Jimmy's eyes fill with tears. Denny continues the discussion, giving Jimmy the opportunity to discuss what he is really feeling and thinking, and perhaps helping him find a way to get involved in a game with his peers.

Mardell goes on to describe another child in the setting who showed the same kind of distress as Manny. This time, the approach was different. The young child was given special attention in the form of being read to while sitting with her teacher in a rocking chair and holding her when she cried, rather than telling her she'd be attended to after she stopped.

Let's “pay attention” to this non-reflective behavior of saying “He just wants attention – don't give it to him!” Let’s see it as another mis-application of behavioral theory and approaches and instead use the values, knowledge and skills of our field to “read” the meaning of behavior, to offer supportive relationships, and to use such skills as environmental design, life space interviewing, among others, to change it. Let's take another look. It's not about “not giving reinforcement” for a behavior we don't like. It's about attachment.


Maier, H. (1987). Developmental group care of children and youth. Concepts and practice. New York: The Haworth Press

Mardell, B. (1999). From basketball to the Beatles: In search of compelling early childhood curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann