When you see a child having what you view as an “attention seeking behavior” you have two choices. You could decide you can “fix” that behavior and step away and ignore them. Or you could think, “they’ve got my attention, now what do they need?” If you chose the second one you will likely find they are seeking a connection for some reason - perhaps to get another need met, perhaps out of fear, perhaps due to a lack of skills to get the connection in another way. Then you can step towards them, co-regulate and show them how to express their needs safely and without fear of judgment.
Both choices on your part have long term consequences beyond that moment and that interaction. Ignoring may work, if your definition of “work” is only that it decreases the “attention seeking behavior”. Let’s be clear, most of us were trained to take this view. This view is rooted in ABA and oversimplified views of antecedents, behaviors and consequences. It is not backed by neuroscience or attachment theory.
Being ignored can lead to feeling unheard, it can lead to social anxiety, it can lead to sadness and depression, in short, it can be traumatizing. Ignoring tends to be called, “limited caregiver responsiveness” in developmental and attachment research. That research is clear that having needs ignored and letting distress be unattended to is detrimental.
There is an idea that you can ignore a behavior and not the individual, but this just isn’t true. You are either ignoring the individual while they are engaging in the behavior or you are creating cognitive dissonance by acting as if the behavior isn’t happening while you interact. Ignoring someone who is distressed and expressing it in unpleasant or even dangerous ways sends the message that their distress doesn’t matter, that in order to get their needs met they must pretend to not be distressed. We forget that the individual likely doesn't have the skillsl to better share their distress - or they would be using them.
The other option is to step in to co-regulate by recognizing their distress, joining them in that space as a calming presence, and working with them to reach a place of less distress. When you do this you teach them that they and their feelings are valuable. They feel seen and heard. They learn that they deserve to feel safe and regulated. They also learn how to begin to regulate themselves. When you pair this with learning coping skills at times when they already feel calm and regulated they begin to learn to recognize their emotions and use tools to stay in control even when distressed.
So many of the children I work with, who are all non-speaking and use speech devices, and often have other disabilities, were in educational settings that caused significant educational and emotional (and way more often than anyone would believe physical or even sexual trauma). In their previous settings they were ignored in times of distress. This is nearly universal in their experiences. When they became distressed they were ignored by those who were supposed to be caring for them. Oftentimes, the only way to end the ignoring was for them to become regulated without assistance AND for them with some demand (such as sitting quietly or doing a task). Being ignored in those times taught them either to be louder, more demanding and more aggressive or taught them help was never coming and left them passive. Or it left them vacillating between the two.
Chronically being ignored just further ingrained a belief that their distress would never stop or that they should just accept, without struggle or complaint, their own distress while being sure to not let it bother anyone else. Ignoring is gaslighting in that it creates a false reality of whatever the person in power says is reality. Ignoring is detrimental because it becomes internalized that if someone doesn’t pay attention to you then you are doing something wrong and you need to change, creating constant anxiety. Ignoring is traumatic.
For individuals who are non-speaking and who have other disabilities, these behaviors are often the only communication they can access at that moment of distress. This may be because they don’t have the physical tools to communicate, because their communication partner doesn’t understand their communications or because at that moment they don’t have the physical or emotional ability to use the tools they do have. They often need someone who knows them well to step in, acknowledge their feelings, assist them in decreasing their distress and assist them with communicating in a calmer and safer way. Ignoring doesn’t do any of that.
Professionals and providers of services to individuals with disabilities, as well as caregivers, must begin to challenge the paradigm of assuming our first job is to “fix” the behavior of people who are distressed. We have to let go of the overly reductive idea that when an individual “acts out” in a way that gains “attention” we must avoid “reinforcing the behavior” by not responding. When we allow ourselves to live within that construct we are limiting our ability to teach new skills; we are taking all of the power from the individual and using it to deny them connection and co-regulation; we are removing their agency and replacing it with trauma. It is difficult to let go of the God like position of deciding how to fix and change another person and, instead, be present in their distress, help them achieve better regulation and help them grow into a place where they can better navigate their feelings and the ups and downs of being a human being. But it is essential.