Tips for Managing an Attention Seeking Child: A Character Case Study of No, David!

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My two year old son’s favorite bedtime stories this summer are from the No, David! series by David Shannon. David is the rambunctious main character in the set whose interests are primarily of the ultra-naughty variety. Evan loves these short stories, and for the sake of full disclosure, he has his share of David-esque behaviors. As a school psychologist, I found it impossible when flipping through No, David! and Shannon’s other books not to ask, “What is driving David’s behavior?” In-depth, scholarly analysis of the picture books led me to a clear conclusion: David craves attention. Need proof? Here are some of his behaviors and what I would imagine a candidly introspective David might explain:

David’s Attention Seeking Behaviors

  • Walking to school in his underpants (“Sure is fun to have Mom playing chase while the kids in the neighborhood laugh with me!”)
  • Eating dog treats (“They don’t taste that bad, and Dad paused the Eagles game to make sure I don’t do it again.”)
  • Releasing a gratuitous, loud burp at the dinner table (“Mom and Dad took a break from talking to each other to speak to me. Plus, I noticed them kinda snickering to each other when they were done giving me the business.”)
  • Making faces during the class photo (“Feels good to make an audience giggle! We’ll get to laugh some more in a few weeks when the pics are developed. Talk about a win win!”)
  • Drawing on his desk at school (“When I draw on my desk, Ms. Nelson always has me stay after school to scrub my desk clean. One-on-one time with the boss! And when I am done cleaning, she gives me a sticker and tells me what a good job I did. Love my sweet teacher!”)

That is just a small sampling of David’s attention seeking exploits. All of us parents or teachers know a “David,” whether he or she is in your class or is your very own offspring (author’s note: I involuntarily raised my hand meekly after typing those last four words.). Here are a few tips to curb those attention seeking behaviors:

Strategies to Curb Attention Seeking Behaviors

  • Practice planned ignoring of the negative behaviors. For instance, if David calls out in class, resist the temptation to scold or shoosh him, as that will only strengthen those behaviors. If his comments are not acknowledged after a few tries, you will see him resort to raising his hand to be heard which leads us to the next strategy…
  • Catch him doing the right thing. When David calls out ten times and you have been strong in not acknowledging that, once his hand goes up, call on him. Add specific praise (i.e., “Thank you for raising your hand.”) so he knows why you gave him that desired attention. At home, it may be a matter of catching and praising David for eating his dinner without turning it into a potato man with string bean arms and chicken legs. This is simply (psychologist-babble alert) differentiating your reinforcement.
  • Provide specific expectations for behaviors and practice them. One of my favorite illustrations in, “No, David!” is David in the bathtub splashing wildly, making a soggy mess of the bathroom. A practice session, done at a time that is not bath time, would help curb this behavior. Start by providing the bath expectations (i.e., always sit in the tub, play and have fun, but keep the water in the tub, etc.). Then practice them with some role-play in a dry tub. When real bath time arrives, remind David of the expectations, and praise him as they are met.
  • Give responsibilities that redirect the negative behaviors into a positive direction. For instance, if David is frequently holding up the class as the last student in from recess, create a position for future play times where David serves to call his classmates in to line up when the period is done. Adding a whistle or bell for David to make that call makes this an even more enticing way to get some attention while complying with the teacher.

And finally…

  • Continue to love your child unconditionally. And make sure he or she knows it! Even when our children, at home or school, drive us to our wits’ end, assuring them that our love and caring never wains goes an immeasurable length towards raising our kids to be secure and confident adults.

Why Kids Act Out for Attention

All children crave attention in one form or another. It is their way of being reassured that they matter and are important to their moms and dads and teachers. And if they do not get that reassurance, our little ones are great at finding devious ways to trigger a reaction from their most loved adults. After all, while being scolded may not feel as good as a hug, it sure beats feeling ignored. But I should stress that having an attention seeking child is not an indictment on (insert your “David’s” name here) parents. Having a new baby in the home, professional demands, or various home stresses can make it difficult to completely fill that cup of desired attention. Our teachers would add that large class sizes or needy rosters contribute to that half-full cup. So when your “David” cranks up his naughtiness to 11, take a deep breath (or a gulp of wine) and remind yourself that it is because your attention is so coveted.

Matthew Wiggins, Ed.S
Licensed School Psychologist

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