Lack of positive reinforcement v/s negative attention seeking behaviours: Ms. Meenakshi Joshi

Minakshi Joshi

Consider two scenarios that parents or caregivers come across routinely-

Maya, a 5-year-old girl, goes to the mall with her mother. Her mother asks her to wait quietly. She obediently waits till her mother is done shopping. For her “good behaviour” of waiting patiently her mother “rewards” her with a cotton candy.

Here is the second scenario:

Mia, a5-year-old girl, goes to the mall with her mother. Her mother asks her to wait quietly. She refuses and starts running around. Her motherscolds her threatening to take her home. Mia escalates her tantrum and starts crying and flopping on the floor. Embarrassed, her mother takesMia to the cotton candy stall and buys her a cotton candy. Mia suddenly stops crying and smiles happily.

The first scenario with Maya demonstrates a widely used technique – positive reinforcement. Simply put, positive reinforcement is adding something after a behaviour occurs so that the future frequency of that behaviour increases. Here, a “cotton candy” was added after the behaviour of “waiting patiently” so that in future the behaviour – “waiting patiently” reoccurs. Positive reinforcement teaches childrento identify good behaviours which will give them something that they desire. This promotes learning of desired behaviour while maintaining a happy and encouraging environment.

Speaking about the second scenario, Mia is very likely to tantrum the next time she enters the mall to get cotton candy. Her actions are called “negative attention seekingbehaviour”. She has learnt that to get what she wants she needs to “tantrum”.

Every child loves attention, especially from their parents and teachers. Positive attention, i.e. praise, compliments, are given when a child engages in a desirable behaviour. Negative attention i.e., scolding, threats, punishment, are given when a child engages in an undesirable behaviour. Positive attention increases the future frequency of the good behaviour. However, contrary to what most people believe, negative attention does not decrease the future frequency of the bad behaviour. Negative attention is also a form of ATTENTION. It actually increases the future occurrences of bad behaviour.

Waysto recognize that your child is engaging in negative attention seeking behaviour-

  1. He smiles when you are angry
  2. He looks at you to check if you are watching before or after engaging in a bad behaviour
  3. He immediately stops engaging in the bad behaviour when you give in to his demands

Many a times we fail to notice (and in turn, reinforce) positive behaviour. However, we consistently notice and reinforce negative attention seeking behaviour. For example, 2 boys are playing a board game and their father is sitting next to them reading a magazine. After about 10 minutes, the boys start fighting. Their father, who was busy in his work all this while, suddenly gets up and starts scolding them. In this case, no attention or any kind of positive reinforcement was provided when the boys were playingappropriately, but negative attention was provided immediately for bad behaviour. The learning that happens in this case is – if I want attention I need to do something bad…

To deal effectively with negative attention seeking behaviour, parents can follow the STOP-BLOCK-REDIRECT technique.

First – STOP providing any kind of attention when a bad behaviour occurs. The opposite of positive attention is NO attention. Do not react in any manner. Do not say anything, scold or hit the child, no facial expressions or show of emotions, try to avoid eye contact. Do not let the behaviour overwhelm or upset you. Try to understand that this behaviour is a “cry for attention”. The method your child is using to get attention iswrong, but his need is real.

Next – BLOCK the bad behaviour if possible. If the child is hitting you, move away. If he is throwing things, block his hands. Remember to ignore the misbehaviour.

Once the child calms down a little immediately REDIRECT him to a more appropriate activity. Maybe your can provide a positive option or teach a more appropriate way of getting attention. Once, the child starts engaging in the positive behaviour, don’t forget to reinforce the positive behaviour.The REDIRECT step is very crucial because ignoring or blocking undesirable behaviour only tells the child what he is not supposed to do, it does not tell him what to do instead. In the absence of REDIRECT, the child is likely to repeat that original undesirable behaviour.

In summary, parents need to be alert and sensitive to the needs of the child. Recommended practice is to positively reinforce all the good behaviours of your child, so that the child will no longer need to engage in any negative attention seeking behaviours.

Ms. Meenakshi Joshi: Applied Behavior Analystand Clinical Psychologist

Ms. Meenakshi Joshi is an Applied Behavior Analyst and Clinical Psychologist. She has done her master’s degree in clinical psychology from Mumbai University and a M.S, degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) from Florida Institute of Technology, Florida, USA. She has been working in the field of Autism for the past 7 years. She has worked in the USA for 4 years. Her interests and clinical expertise lie in conducting assessments and designing treatment programs for children with Autism. She has worked with children exhibiting severe behaviour and communication issues. Her objective while working with a child is to make the him/her independent and integrate the child in his/her environment


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