The lie of ‘they’re just doing it for attention’

The assumption is not only inaccurate, it is completely unhelpful, argues Jarlath O’Brien

Attention seeking

“They’re just doing it for attention.”

In my view this is the most unhelpful sentence in the behaviour lexicon. It has a politician’s ratio (the number of times the phrase is uttered divided by the number of situations it has helped to solve or improve) that cannot be equalled, and yet it continues to be offered up as a nugget of wisdom. 


Quick read: Why punishments and rewards do not work 

Quick listen: What you need to know about the teenage brain

Want more articles like this? Join our Tes Teaching and Learning Facebook group 


Despite my aversion to the term, I do appreciate where it comes from and the supportive intent behind it.

It arises in situations, I suspect, where a child is being disruptive and there seems to be little or no reason behind it. Therefore, given no obvious influences, the aim of the disruption is laid at the door of simply gaining attention.

Behaviour management

Even if you believe that to be true, how does it actually help you as a teacher?

During my PGCE, upon hearing this advice, I had no idea if my job as a teacher was to give them my attention or to do everything in my power to ignore them. Or something else…

Intuitively, I wanted to ignore them, but I was worried about legitimising poor behaviour or, if I did give them attention, indulging the child.

Neither felt like it was going to be effective.

Further, giving the child the attention didn’t actually seem to resolve the problem anyway, so ‘They’re just doing it for attention’ didn’t seem to hold water.

Research informed

The research backs this up. Dr Ross Greene is a US clinical child psychologist and he writes: “Children do well if they can, and if they’re not doing well it is because they are lacking the skills to do well”. 

What could be termed ‘gaining attention’ could be a premeditated or reflexive attempt at work avoidance. It is safer, in the eyes of some, to cause a disruption to avoid a test, say, than to have to endure, as they see it, the cast-iron certainty of failure and shame once more.

In addition, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an interesting way of looking at behaviour from scientist William Powers: “Instead of assuming that brains control behaviour based on sensory stimuli, it makes more sense to assume that brains adapt behaviour to control what stimuli it gets from the world.”

I wonder, if we take this and Greene’s work, if we viewed what we perceive as a child’s attempts to gain attention as attempts to influence their environment in order to have their needs met more successfully (irrespective of how unacceptable the behaviour they deploy may be), would we be in with a better chance of working out how to improve the situation?

Jarlath O’Brien is a headteacher and the author of Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers and works in special education in London.    

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Jarlath O'Brien
Jarlath O’Brien
Jarlath O’Brien is a headteacher and the author of ‘Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers’ and works in special education in London.
Find me on Twitter @JarlathOBrien

Latest stories

Computers in schools can benefit but only sometimes

A fresh start for edtech? Maybe. But the road is bumpy

Since the coronavirus crisis took hold, an extraordinary amount has been achieved in a staggeringly short period of time by schools, teachers and edtech companies – but more leadership is needed from the centre
Ty Goddard 4 Apr 2020