Taking a troubleshooting approach

Content note: This post is my answer to a scout leader who asked a question about my objection to describing things pejoratively as “attention seeking behavior”.

justmethesecond asked:

Hey, you made a recent post about attention seeking behaviors and how there are a lot of normal things that involve seeking attention.

But I have a question, as I staff at scouting and we have some kids that do demand personal attention when that is inconvenient or impossible for us to give (such as in a group activity, when you have ½ adults on 20 kids)

To elaborate a little bit further, the behavior things I am talking about are mostly kids that talk individually back at you when explaining things to a group (or in other ways, such as crying or trying to play (physical) games with you).

These types of behavior aren’t bad but they do sometimes limit our ability to explain things to a group of people.

And I was wondering how to deal with that?

realsocialskills said:

A couple of things:

There is no generalized way to deal with that. It depends on the situation.

Part of what you need to do is identify the problem more specifically:

  • Attention seeking isn’t the problem in itself
  • The problem is that the group activity isn’t working
  • Part of the problem *might* be that some kids need to learn what’s appropriate and what isn’t
  • Part of the problem *might* be that kids are being willfully disruptive and need to know that you won’t tolerate it
  • The problem might be something else entirely, and almost certainly has components that aren’t “that kid has a behavior problem” or “that kid is attention seeking”
  • There are a lot of possibilities, and I’ll get to some of them later in this post

Here’s why you shouldn’t call this “attention seeking behavior”:

  • “Seeking attention” is not an objective description of behavior; it’s a very vague theory about why someone might be doing something.
  • There is no such thing as generic “attention seeking behavior”
  • From your perspective, everything that annoys you by getting your attention when you don’t want to, can’t, or shouldn’t pay attention may feel the same
  • But it’s *not* all the same from the perspective of the kids who are annoying you
  • They’re doing what they’re doing for reasons, and the reasons are specific and individual.
  • (And they may or may not have anything at all to do with attention)
  • Eg: A child may be crying *because they’re upset*, and it might not be about you at all. They may in fact find the crying humiliating and be hoping that no one notices.
  • A child who is trying to play a game with you isn’t just generically trying to get attention. They’re trying to play a game. Which they may be doing for any number of reasons
  • A child who talks to you during the announcements might be trying to give input, ask a question, focus their attention, or any number of other things
  • Don’t collapse all of that into “attention seeking” as if it’s all the same.

Here are some troubleshooting tips:

Consider whether your expectations are age-appropriate:

  • Little children have a short attention span
  • They can’t sit and listen very long
  • They can’t wait very long for a turn to do something active
  • If you’re having problems with multiple kids, it’s very likely that you’re asking them to do something that they’re really too young for
  • If you’re asking kids to attend for longer than is reasonable for kids their age, *you’re* the one who is inappropriately seeking out attention when it’s not possible
  • (And just like you’re not doing it maliciously, kids who are disruptive are probably not doing it maliciously either)
  • It might be time to change how you do announcements and activities

Make sure the group knows your expectations:

  • It’s easy to assume that kids know the rules when they don’t
  • Things that are obvious to adults are not always obvious to children, especially young children
  • Kids are not born knowing how groups work
  • And different groups have different rules
  • Don’t assume that kids *know* that they’re not supposed to talk individually back at you when you’re addressing a group (there are actually environments where that’s allowed)
  • Don’t assume that kids *know* you’re not supposed to try to play side games or whatever
  • It can help to have a group conversation about rules
  • It’s particularly helpful if you get the kids’ input about the rules in that conversation
  • It’s likely that kids know things you don’t about what needs to be spelled out explicitly
  • And also things you don’t about what the rules need to be
  • Don’t do this as a punishment. Do this as a group conversation about rules. If it’s well into the year, you can say something like “So we realized that we forgot to set rules for the group. This week we’re going to start by setting the rules together.”
  • Many of the kids in your group will have done an exercise like this before; it’s a fairly common thing to do with kids
  • (Be careful though, don’t say things like “but you agreed to these rules!”. This isn’t really an agreement. This is you setting rules from a position of authority, and getting some input from kids about what the rules should be.


  • If you’re not saying in the moment that something is a problem, it’s important to start doing that
  • If you don’t object, some kids might be assuming you’re ok with it
  • Don’t be mean, but do speak up, eg:
  • “You can ask questions when I finish talking”
  • “I can’t play with you right now”.
  • It also helps if you can phrase it by telling them what you *do* want them to do, eg:
  • “Try and tag someone. I bet you can tag (specific kid).”.
  • If kids have trouble telling when it is and isn’t ok to talk, try having an object that someone holds when it’s their turn to talk.

Talk to the kids who are having trouble individually:

  • Talk to them about what’s going on (out of earshot of other kids)
  • Talk to them about why some of the things they’re doing are a problem
  • They might actually not know — no one is born knowing how to act in a group, and some kids need to have it explained explicitly
  • Even if you’ve had a group conversation about rules, it’s possible that they don’t get it
  • Or that they can’t follow the rules as they stand
  • It’s important to ask them what they think is going on
  • And if there’s a reason it’s not working for them
  • And if they have ideas about solving the problem
  • Kids don’t always know, but sometimes they do
  • And knowing that you care makes a difference

Parents also might be able to help you:

  • Parents (usually) know their kid better than you do
  • This is particularly true of elementary-aged kids
  • Most parents want to help their kids
  • Most parents have at least half a clue about what is helpful to their kids
  • Don’t use calling parents as a punishment
  • Do talk to parents when there’s a problem in your group and you don’t know what to do about it
  • (Be more cautious about this with older kids; teenagers have a developmental need for more privacy)
  • (Also be cautious about this if you suspect abuse. Talking to parents who are likely to be harshly punitive is not likely to make things better)
  • Say explicitly that this is not a punishment and that you’re asking for help
  • They will likely have helpful suggestions
  • (Not always; some parents are unreasonable. But a lot of parents are very helpful, if you listen to them).
  • Don’t assume parents are right; do listen to them. They often know things you don’t.

Ask for advice from a teacher:

  • Teachers spend all day working with groups of kids
  • Not all of them are good at it; but some of them are
  • Good teachers will know things you don’t about how to make activities and announcements work
  • If you know a teacher who you respect, ask them for advice
  • Ask these questions specifically:
  • “I’m having trouble with some kids in the scouting troop I’m running. Could I ask you for some advice?”
  • “Is this something that’s reasonable to ask of kids this age?”
  • “Do you have any advice about how to manage this problem in a positive way?”
  • “Do you know about something else that works well?”
  • Listen to what they say and consider why they’re saying it, but ultimately trust your own judgement. You are the one working with kids directly, and you’re the one who is ultimately responsible. Don’t do something that you think is wrong.

Google resources for teachers:

  • There are a *lot* of resources for teachers on the Internet
  • Most things that are relevant for teachers are also relevant for scout leaders
  • You can google activities for kids the age you work with, then consider which things on the lists are likely to work for kids you work with
  • Positive classroom management is also a good thing to google (particularly for the age you work with)
  • Not all teacher resources are good; seek out information, and use your own judgement about which advice to take

Consider the possibility that your environment is causing pain:

  • Scouting often takes place in physically uncomfortable outdoor environments
  • That may be intolerably painful for some of your kids
  • Are they being painfully bitten by bugs? If so, do they have bug spray? Are they using it? Is it working?
  • Are they getting sunburned? If so, maybe you need to change the procedure for making sure that all kids put on sunscreen.
  • Is the sun shining painfully into their faces?
  • Are they inhaling campfire smoke?
  • Are they sitting in a painful position?
  • Sitting cross-legged on the ground or floor is physically painful for some kids
  • (Likewise sitting on benches with no back support)
  • It might be that they’re trying to do things that will get them out of that position
  • If you suspect that this is a problem, try having kids sit in chairs and see what happens
  • Or try sitting around a table kids can lean on and see what happens
  • This is particularly likely to be the case for older kids or heavier kids
  • Positions often become intolerable as kids get bigger
  • It also might help to alternate between sitting activities and standing or moving activities in shorter intervals so that kids aren’t sitting as long

Are they hungry or thirsty?

  • Often when kids are disruptive, it’s because they’re hungry or thirsty
  • At certain ages where kids are growing rapidly, they’re hungry a *lot* of the time
  • Kids won’t necessarily realize that enough to ask
  • And they also may have been taught that asking is pointless because no one cares whether they are hungry or thirsty
  • Being proactive about this might help
  • Try making water easily available without kids having to ask for it (eg: by requiring them to carry water bottles)
  • If you’re not already doing a snack at the beginning of the meeting, try doing that
  • If you are already doing that, try making it something more substantial
  • Low calorie snacks suitable for adults who are trying to lose weight are *not* good snacks for the purpose of feeding hungry children
  • (Eg: celery sticks are not a good snack to get growing kids through a scout meeting; celery sticks with peanut butter might be. A handful of pretzels is not a good snack; cheese sticks might be.)
  • If you’re on a camping trip or something, you may need to feed the kids more often than you realize
  • If this is a problem, it’s probably *also* a problem for the kids who *aren’t* disruptive, so don’t just do this for the disruptive kids. Assume that all of the kids may be hungrier and thirstier than you realize

Don’t be mean:

  • If something feels mean, don’t do it
  • If you’d think it was mean if someone did it to you, don’t do it
  • If something is humiliating toward a kid, don’t do it
  • Don’t punish kids in front of other kids
  • It’s ok to say something like, “Not now” and redirect
  • It’s not ok to yell, or say something like “I’ve told you this over and over, why don’t you get it?”
  • (If you need to take a kid out of an activity and talk to them about it, have the conversation out of earshot of other kids)
  • Don’t have a big reward event and exclude some kids from it

Some kids need 1:1 support:

  • Some kids need a lot of help to do some things
  • If that’s the situation, the problem isn’t that they’re misbehaving
  • The problem is that they need more support than they’re getting
  • This may or may not be a problem you (or their parents) can solve
  • But it is something that should be on the table as a possibility for some kids
  • A caution about that: Sometimes people leap to the assumption that any kid they’re having trouble with needs a 1:1, and it’s usually not true.

Sometimes the solution is to change the activity.

  • No amount of clarifying rules and expectations will help if you’re asking a kid to do something they’re not capable of doing.
  • Or if you’re routinely asking them to do something that is extremely difficult and only barely possible for them
  • Or if you’re asking them to routinely do something they find actively distressing
  • If there are insurmountable barriers to a kid participating in an activity, then the activity probably needs to change
  • Some kids need to be actively doing something in order to pay attention
  • Some kids need attention in order to pay attention
  • A kid having these needs is not a behavior problem; it’s a support need

Thoughts on changing activities:

  • Some activities require a lot of turn-taking, passive listening, and waiting
  • Those are not great activities for kids who need a lot of feedback in order to know what to do
  • They’re also not great activities for kids who need to be actively participating in order to focus
  • If you have kids in your group who have that need, it is likely a good idea to switch to doing activities in which everyone is actively doing something most of the time
  • For instance:
  • Red Rover probably won’t work well with kids who have trouble with passive waiting
  • And a circle activity in which only one person at a time does something is likely to be even worse
  • Games in which everyone is actively playing, like tag or Simon Says, are likely to work much better
  • This is also true of group conversations:
  • Long conversations with a big group require a lot of passive listening. That’s a problem for kids who need to be active in order to focus
  • Having kids discuss things in small groups or with a partner might work better

Sometimes you can change an activity by creating a way for kids who’re having trouble a way to focus:

  • Eg: Kids who have trouble in groups might be able to focus if they take notes
  • Or if they have a fidget toy to fidget with
  • Or if they have a specific task (ie: if everyone is supposed to be preparing a campfire and they’re climbing on you, it might help to ask them to gather wood from a particular area)
  • A caution about this: Don’t use this as a reward or as a punishment.
  • Don’t assume any particular approach will work. Don’t single a kid out over their objections. (eg: If a kid doesn’t want to take notes or use a fidget toy, don’t make them just because someone on the internet says this helps some kids)
  • Sometimes minor modifications work; sometimes they don’t. When they don’t work, it’s time to try something else.

This isn’t an exhaustive list — there are a *lot* of things worth trying and thinking about. The important thing is to take a troubleshooting approach and to keep trying to identify and solve the actual problem.

Short version: Sometimes when you’re responsible for kids, they do stuff you don’t like. This is often treated generically as “attention seeking behavior”, but it shouldn’t be. Kids have much more diverse and complex motivations than that. Instead of calling it “attention seeking”, or ignoring them, adopt a troubleshooting approach to the problem. Taking a troubleshooting approach is much more likely to enable you to identify and solve the actual problem. Scroll up for some specific troubleshooting suggestions.