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The idea of ignoring dysfunctional behaviour was one of the hardest concepts I had to wrap my head around when I first entered the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis. I remember playing peek-a-boo with a client on my first day working in a clinic. When I paused the game to ask his instructor therapist a question, he smacked me right on the nose. I was told to ignore the behaviour, to be non-reactive, and to redirect the client to a different activity without reprimand. Later, I asked his therapist to explain why I wouldn’t scold or discourage that kind of behaviour.

“He hit you because he wanted your attention,” she said. “Negative attention is still attention.”

We all know children can be attention seeking. Walking through an elementary school playground at recess, you can see many ways children request attention from adults and peers. A little girl yells “Look at me!” as she hangs from a low tree branch upside-down like a bat. A boy screams and cries when a soccer ball unexpectedly hits him square in the back. Two friends wave at the lunch monitor to show her how they blended red chalk with blue chalk to make purple. Students compete to walk off the school property as far as they can before the teachers notice.

Some of these examples are functional ways of accessing attention. To gain positive attention, children engage in actions and behaviours that elicit recognition – asking to be class leader for a day, telling adults or peers to watch them shoot a basketball, and doing good deeds to help others. However, all attention is attention, whether it’s negative or positive.

Attention can be a driving force behind the topical presentation of many behaviours. Attention is a human desire, and unfortunately it can be easier for children to access negative attention. When two kids are sitting in the back seat of a car on the way to school, it’s easier for a parent to pay attention to the one who constantly kicks at the back of the driver’s seat. The kicking child is more likely to receive reprimand than the quiet, well-mannered child is to receive praise. Unfortunately, this is simply reality – we are more likely to scold a child for engaging in behaviours that bother us than we are to praise a child for engaging in appropriate behaviour.

Doing the opposite, however, is a great way to proactively diffuse inappropriate requests for attention. Non-contingent attention is vital to ending problem behaviours that serve attention functions. When a child is receiving enough attention, they’re less likely to seek it in dysfunctional ways. Actively make an effort to give your child or student attention when they’re displaying appropriate behaviour, or asking for your attention in appropriate ways! You can couple social praise with highly reinforcing items, like specific toys or treats, when a child asks for your attention appropriately. Teaching your child that he will be rewarded for saying phrases like “Excuse me, can I show you something?”, “Look at me!”, and “Come play with me!” will show the child they can gain your attention in functional ways.

There are ways to reactively help manage non-functional attention-seeking behaviour when a child is learning better ways to ask for attention. The best way to address an undesirable attention-function behaviour is to simply ignore it. Ignoring a behaviour is a suitable consequence, even if that idea seems a bit absurd at first. It can be hard to look the other way and stay silent when, in an effort to be noticed, your child utters a swear word, engages in property destruction, or flops to the ground in public. Ignoring this behaviour, however, shows the child that whining, screaming, and show-boating will not reward them with attention. Without an audience, many behaviours get boring fast. These behaviours will begin to decrease over time when they aren’t maintained by access to attention.

When the behaviour is put on extinction – that is, when the stimulus reinforcing the behaviour is removed – the child may exhibit “extinction burst.” Essentially, he will wonder why his screaming isn’t working to get your attention anymore, so he will scream louder, for longer. These behaviours have worked before to get him what he wants, so he will engage in them more strongly and may grow frustrated when he still does not get your attention. When the behaviour stops, you can provide praise for the positives your child displays. Praise him for being quiet, for sitting in his chair, and for keeping his hands to himself. This will teach the child that being calm and displaying appropriate behaviour is the way he will access attention.

Ignoring problem behaviour can be extremely difficult and frustrating at times. It is natural to want to put your child in time out when he looks you in the eye, utters a swear word, and giggles. However, it is important to remember that any form of attention is still attention. The best way to manage non-functional attention based behaviours is by praising appropriate ways of asking for attention, and ignoring all inappropriate forms of attention-seeking.

About the Author

Jessica Kohek is an instructor therapist for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. For the past three years she has worked in school and clinical settings, delivering Applied Behaviour Analysis to children of various ages and abilities. She is passionate about creating positive, adaptive changes in the lives of her clients.