By CELA on 23 Jun, 2023

Most people will be familiar with the term "attention-seeking" in relation to children's behaviours. But what if these perceived calls for attention are actually calls for connection? Kerrie Maguire, CELA Learning and Development Specialist, explains that this simple reframe can help educators to react differently and build crucial connections with children.

“I think it's really important to note that we all seek connection, it's what makes us human,” she says. “When I hear educators discussing 'attention-seeking' behaviour it's often viewed as a negative behaviour. Connection seeking is an important reframe. Some children need more connection but they don't know how to express that need.”

Identifying and understanding connection-seeking behaviours

Connection-seeking behaviours can manifest in different ways. Actions can range from aggression to withdrawal and vary based on the child’s age, their temperament, and their needs.

A child who yells and a child seeking hugs may really be looking for the same thing. What they lack is the tools to fully express themselves or their needs.

“Children can only communicate with the skills and resources they have at any given time,” explains Kerrie. “In some cases, their expressions may communicate that they have an unmet need. In this case, connection.”

An introverted child may withdraw because they feel overwhelmed in a new environment. A child with unmet emotional needs may act out in group activities. Trauma, attachment issues, developmental delays and even environmental triggers, such as sudden or loud noises, may all contribute to connection-seeking behaviours.

Understanding the roots of connection-seeking behaviour is key to understanding the child, and developing ways to help foster secure attachments.

Strategies for responding to connection-seeking behaviours

As educators, connection-seeking behaviours can be a challenge, but it's crucial to understand and react appropriately. Consider why a child is acting a certain way, and respond in a way that helps provide what they need, emotionally, physically or socially. 

A positive response can build a secure attachment, promote emotional intelligence, and create a healthier learning environment where children feel heard, and valued. That is, developing safe, secure, reciprocal relationships.

Dr Stuart Shanker has said that if you “See a child differently, you’ll see a different child.” By reframing attention-seeking as connection-seeking, educators have an opportunity to respond to children’s behaviour to address specific needs, for positive learning outcomes. 

There are a range of strategies to help with connection-seeking behaviours. These include:

  • active listening
  • empathy (viewing the situation from a child’s perspective)
  • validation
  • providing praise at other times
  • setting boundaries with compassion
  • using calming strategies
  • providing opportunities for participation with small tasks that help children feel included

Creating an environment conducive to connection

Being proactive and flexible is important to cultivate an environment that anticipates and meets children's needs. This might involve incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) into the curriculum, maintaining a predictable routine, and creating an emotionally safe space.

Kerrie explains: “Building a relationship with a child is complex and it requires skills. Routine is important but so are rituals where the child is involved and engaged with their head and their heart. Setting boundaries with compassion is also important.” 

Educators can look for opportunities to react and respond positively to individual needs, and follow through to help build meaningful connections. 

Collaborating with parents and caregivers

Educators can then work with families to develop a consistent approach between home and service that best supports the child’s emotional needs.

Advise parents of children’s behaviours, and discuss the behaviour openly and without judgement. It’s important to see if there might be anything at home that might be contributing to the behaviour.

“Open and honest communication is really vital,” says Janelle Gallagher, CELA Early Education Specialist. “It’s not about you judging them and them judging you. It’s about working together to achieve the best outcome for the child.”

Make the most of professional development opportunities

“As educators we need to be brave enough to say that we don’t know everything,” asserts Jannelle. “I remember one time where we were really struggling to build a connection with a particular child. We learned more about the approach to take from observing the beautiful connection she had built with another child at the service.”

CELA has a range of workshops available to support you to identify connection-seeking behaviours and respond appropriately. These include:

Recognising Vulnerability to Support Children’s Wellbeing and Development
An Introduction to the Circle of Security for Early Educators
Neuroscience and Behaviour
Emotion Coaching And Self-regulation

Further reading to extend your knowledge

Free CELA eBook: Behaviour and co-regulation

Amplify!: Let's take a look into the window of tolerance
Amplify!: Why aren't they listening?
Amplify!: How understanding neuroscience can help us support children’s behaviour

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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