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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 pay attention to your child’s behaviour and give him lots of positive attention when he’s behaving well. Here’s how to use attention to improve behaviour.

Attention and your child’s behaviour

Your attention is a big reward for your child. If your child behaves in a particular way and gets your attention, she’s likely to behave that way again.

When you give attention for good behaviour, it shows your child that behaving in a way that you like will get positive interest. This means you can use attention to encourage the behaviour you want.

When you start paying attention to good behaviour, you might realise how often your child already behaves well. You might also find you start to feel more positive because you’re more focused on your child’s good behaviour than on his difficult behaviour. And as your child responds more and more to your positive attention, there might be less difficult behaviour for you to manage.

Positive attention is also about showing delight in your child and warmth in your relationship. It helps your child feel secure and loved, which is important for her overall development.

Using attention to improve behaviour

Positive attention for behaviour means catching your child being good. It means tuning in to what your child is doing and letting him know that you’ve noticed he’s doing the right thing and that you’re pleased.

There are lots of ways you can give this kind of attention:

  • praise – for example, ‘Good sharing, Kezia’
  • encouragement – for example, ‘Keep trying, Lachlan’
  • physical affection or gestures – for example, hugs and cuddles, or a ‘thumbs up’ when your child plays quietly while you’re on the phone
  • active listening – for example, listening with interest when your child tells you something in a normal voice instead of shouting.

This kind of attention works best if you do it often, rather than occasionally. That’s because you get into the habit of looking for positives. Also, your child gets plenty of reminders of what kind of behaviour you like and want to see more of.

You can also give attention for good behaviour anywhere – at the supermarket, when you’re eating, doing the dishes or walking to school, and on the bus. It doesn’t take any extra time when it’s something you do as part of your everyday interactions with your child.

Praising good behaviour is particularly important for behaviour that your child has found difficult to learn. You can praise the effort as well as the behaviour. For example, your child might have had a lot of trouble remembering not to interrupt when you’re on the phone. You could say something like, ‘Well done, Darcy. I know it’s hard for you to wait while I’m talking, so I really appreciate that you let me finish’.

In general, praise your child six times for every one time you correct her.

Your child won’t always behave in ways you like. So the trick is to pay more attention to the behaviour you want, and less to the behaviour you don’t want. You can use planned ignoring and consequences to show your child his behaviour isn’t OK, without giving him too much attention.

Giving your child attention: how to make it part of everyday life

The more you give your child positive attention, the more natural it becomes – and the better it is for your relationship with her. A good relationship with you is also better for your child’s behaviour.

Here are some general things you can do that will also help with your relationship and your child’s behaviour:

  • Take time to tune in to your child. Notice the 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. Take notice of the books he’s choosing at the library, or the skills he’s building on the monkey bars at the park. He’ll know he’s valued if you take interest in the things that interest him.
  • Follow your child’s lead. When you’re spending time with your child, it’s good to let your child choose games or activities whenever possible. This sends the message that your child’s interests are important, which helps her feel loved and gives her confidence.
  • 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 his side rather than watching from across the room. Look into his eyes, uncross your arms, and smile, smile, smile.
  • Comment on what your child is doing. For example, you could say, ‘I see you like the red truck’ or ‘That’s an interesting bug you’re looking at’. This shows your child that you’re paying attention and are interested. You build her trust and confidence and your relationship simply by giving attention.

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Last updated or reviewed
26-07-2018

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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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