There is so much information out there for caregivers and teachers alike, that it is difficult to sift through what comes packaged in truth and what comes doused with assumptions.  One thing that seems to be baffling to most people who live or work with young children is trying to understand why (or the function of the behavior) children engage in certain problem behaviors. There are two common sentences that I hear when people make the wrong assumption about the function, “Oh ____________ is only doing that for attention. If you just ignore that, she will stop.” Now don’t get me wrong, there is a grain of truth in second sentence. However, the problem lies in the assumption that every annoying or intolerable behavior that a child produces is due to their need for attention.

How Did This Misconception Emerge?

I am pretty certain that at some point someone learned from an applied behavior analysis (ABA) perspective, that there are four functions of behavior (i.e., Escape, Attention, Tangibles/Tasks, Sensory: EATS). Arguably, attention is one of the easier functions to address when the behavior is not physically harmful to the child or others. Attention is fairly straightforward to address because you mainly have to consistently ignore the behavior or give the child a time out from the reinforcer. While the behavior will initially escalate because the child is trying to find the perfect threshold to get what they want, eventually the behavior will become extinct. Attention is also fairly easy to address because a child who is motivated by attention for a specific behavior, may also quickly respond to labeled praise to reinforce an opposite and more appropriate behavior. Therefore, I can see why attention has become all the rave. If all challenging behaviors were maintained by attention, then all challenging behaviors could be erased relatively quickly by using “timeout”. Additionally, prosocial behaviors, such as speaking in an inside voice could be taught simply by saying, “Great job using your inside voice!”

What’s Wrong with Ignoring a Behavior if Attention Isn’t the Function?

There are at least two problems here. Notice that earlier I said only behaviors that are not harmful to the child or others can be ignored. So what happens when a caregiver is inappropriately told to ignore their child’s challenging behavior of kicking? The kicking could cause someone great harm; that’s the first problem. Second, in this scenario there is actually no system in place to get the child to stop kicking so the behavior would continue. That means by assuming that attention is the function, the behavior could get worse! In turn, we may never get to the true root of the behavior if we waste time incorrectly assuming it’s all about attention.

What’s the Takeaway?

It seems that regardless of good intentions, people have hopped on to ABA functions of behavior and hijacked attention like a runaway train. In some cases, terms have been shortened (e.g., timeout) and have lost their true meaning along the way. In other cases, terms remain the same, but they are being too loosely applied to all behaviors such as what we have seen with attention. Finally, we learned some of the dangers taking a shortcut to identifying the true function of a behavior. So the next time you almost say, “Oh, that’s just for attention.” Please stop and think about this article before acting on that statement.

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