The Attention Principle

A key concept in the Incredible Years program is the Attention Principle. Children want attention from their parents, teachers and peers. They will repeat behaviors that get attention. They are less likely to repeat behaviors that are ignored.

Ideally, kids want positive attention: praise, rewards, smiles and snuggles. But, if they’re not getting enough of that, they will settle for any attention, even negative. When you see your child behaving well – being calm, cooperative, kind, taking turns, and sharing, reward that with positive attention. If your child is behaving badly, but in ways that aren’t directly harming anyone or anything, like whining or repeating the same words over and over or making vague demands rather than asking polite questions, ignore it.

I imagine this all sounds obvious and you’re probably thinking “yes, of course, that makes sense.” But I want you to think… is this what you’re actually doing?

When our children are calm, quiet, and well behaved, we often are relieved because it allows us to focus on all the other things we need to do: make dinner, pack a lunch, put the laundry away, or pay the bills. We may not say anything to them, because everything is going fine.

But then, if the siblings start squabbling, or the toddler starts jumping on the couch, or the whining begins, we jump right in with our full attention. “You two stop fighting!” “I told you not to jump on the couch – do I need to come over there?” “How many times do I have to say, no candy before dinner?”

If they’re really lucky, not only will they get your attention, but they might also get a bribe to stop the bad behavior (note that a bribe to stop bad behavior is pretty much the equivalent of a reward for bad behavior….) “If you stop fighting, I’ll get the art supplies out.” “Sit down on the couch, and you can watch YouTube.” “Fine, yes, have a piece of candy, then go play so I can get dinner finished.”

Giving attention (or even rewards) to bad behavior “feeds the monster.” The more that behavior gets attention, the more they will use it.

We do this not just with behavior, but also with emotions. We tend to say “I know you’re mad” or “I can see that makes you sad” a lot more often than we say “you’re calm and content now,” “you enjoy that book”, or “you’re proud of your work.” When noticing and validating difficult emotions, be sure to pair that with a focus on what they’re doing well in the moment. “I know you’re mad, but I saw you resist the urge to hit your brother and try to calm yourself down.” “I can see that makes you sad not to have a turn yet, but you’re doing a good job of playing with another toy while you wait.”

What can you do today to start shifting your attention toward what you want to see more of, and ignoring the behavior you’d like to see less of?

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