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Using attention to improve behaviour

1-12 years

The secret to encouraging the behaviour you want from your child is to give your child lots of positive attention when he’s behaving well. Here’s how to use attention to improve behaviour.

Attending and attention

Attending means really tuning into whatever your child is saying and doing. It also involves using eye contact and open body language to let your child know that you’re paying attention.

Along with active listening and descriptive praise, attending is a way for you to strengthen your relationship with your child.

How attending and attention works

Tuning into your child shows her that she’s important and that what she cares about is important. This builds her confidence, and makes her open to exploring new ideas and interests.

Using attention like this also shows children that behaving in a way that you like will get positive interest. This means you can use positive attention to encourage the behaviour you want – for example, by praising your child when he uses good manners at mealtimes.

Positive attention includes:

  • praise – for example,  ‘Good sharing, Kezia’
  • encouragement – for example, ‘Keep trying, Lachlan’
  • physical affection – for example, cuddles, hugs or a high five.

You’ll feel happier about any extra time you can just enjoy together. It’s much better than having to manage difficult behaviour. Once you start, you might be surprised by how often your child already behaves well.

Even on the busiest of days, there are lots of opportunities to quickly tune into what your child is doing and saying. This increases your child’s confidence and strengthens your relationship at the same time.

Using attention to improve behaviour: five steps

1. Follow your child’s lead
Some really important things happen if you let your child choose the game or activity whenever possible and whenever safe. Your child discovers how much you value her company. She gains confidence that her interests are important. She also learns that you’re there if she needs you when she explores the world.

2. Take your time
Try to slow down the feeling that you need to be doing, doing, doing. This will help you recognise and enjoy all sorts of funny and lovely moments with your child. You also show him that he’s valued if you stop and take an interest in things that fascinate him – petals on a flower, ants crisscrossing the pavement, sauce bottles at the supermarket – rather than rushing him on to the next activity.

3. Get close
You can sit on the floor, kneel in the grass, or squat beside your child’s chair. Face your child and move to her side rather than turning from across the room. Look into her eyes, uncross your arms, and smile, smile, smile. All of these things show your child that she’s great company and that you’re deeply interested in what she’s doing. These things also build confidence and trust.

4. Watch your child
If you take your cue from what your child says and does, you’ll see new skills and areas of interest as they emerge. These new interests are great opportunities to build your child’s confidence and help him explore the world.

5. Comment on what your child is doing
Talk about what your child is doing – for example, ‘I see you like the red truck’ or ‘That’s an interesting bug you’re looking at’.  Describing what your child is doing shows that you’re paying attention and are interested. There’s no need to ask questions, although you can answer any questions your child has. This is your child’s time. You build the relationship and her trust and confidence simply by giving attention. Just be there, taking notice of and appreciating what she’s doing.

Some tips for using attention

  • Bite-sized moments work: tuning in even for a minute or two works if you do it often, rather than occasionally. Giving attention is easy even when you’re busy.
  • You can do it anywhere: there are so many opportunities throughout the day to tune into what your child is doing and saying. Try at the supermarket, when you’re eating, doing the dishes or walking to school, and on the bus. Anywhere – whatever you’re doing together.
  • Look through your child’s eyes: trying to see the world through your child’s eyes helps you to understand his feelings. This can also reduce misunderstandings about behaviour. You might see that what seems like misbehaviour to you is just part of how the world looks to your child!
  • Look out for the attention trap: if you pay more attention to difficult behaviour you might fall into the attention trap. Your child might find negative attention such as yelling or scolding powerful. It’s immediate, intense and personal.
The trick is to pay more attention to the behaviour you want, and less to the behaviour you don’t want. For more ways to avoid the attention trap, read our article on systematic ignoring.

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Last updated or reviewed
13-11-2015

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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