By Raising Children Network
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The secret to encouraging good behaviour is to give children lots of positive attention when they’re behaving well. That’s where attending skills come in.
Mother watching young girl knitting

What is attending?

Attending means really tuning in to whatever your child is saying and doing. It also involves using eye contact and open body language to let your child know that you’re paying attention.

Along with active listening and descriptive praise, attending is a way for parents and carers to strengthen their relationships with children.

How attention and attending works

Tuning into your child shows her that she’s important and that what she cares about is important. That builds her confidence, and makes her open to exploring new ideas and interests.

Using attention like this also shows children that good behaviour attracts positive interest. This makes for more smiles on all sides. Your child hates upsetting you, and feels happier when he can see that you’re happy.

You can also use positive attention to encourage good behaviour.

Positive attention includes:

  • praise – for example,  ‘Good sharing, Kezia’
  • encouragement – for example, ‘Keep trying, Lachlan’
  • physical affection – for example, cuddles, hugs or a high five.

You, of course, will feel happier about any extra time you can just enjoy together. It’s much better than having to manage difficult behaviour. Once you start, you might be surprised by how often your child already behaves well.

Even on the busiest of days, there are lots of opportunities to quickly tune in to what your child is doing and saying. This increases your child’s confidence and strengthens your relationship at the same time.

The five steps to attending

1. Follow your child’s lead
Some really important things happen if you let your child choose the game or activity whenever possible and whenever safe. Your child will discover how much you value her company. She will gain confidence that her interests are important. She also learns that you are right behind her when she explores the world.

2. Take your time
Try to slow down the feeling that you need to be doing, doing, doing. This will help you catch all sorts of funny and lovely moments with your child. You also show him that he’s valued if you stop and take an interest in things that fascinate him – petals on a flower, ants crisscrossing the pavement, sauce bottles at the supermarket – rather than rushing him on to the next activity.

3. Get close
You can sit on the floor, kneel in the grass, or squat beside your child’s chair. Face your child, move to her side rather than turning from across the room. Look into her eyes, uncross your arms, and smile, smile, smile. All of these things show your child that she is great company and that you are deeply interested in what she is doing. They also build confidence and trust.

4. Watch your child
If you take your cue from what your child says and does, you’ll see new skills and areas of interest as they emerge. These new interests provide golden opportunities to build your child’s confidence and help him explore the world.

5. Comment on what your child is doing
Talk about what your child is doing: ‘I see you like the red truck’ or ‘That’s an interesting bug you’re looking at’.  Describing what your child is doing shows you’re paying attention and are interested. There’s no need to ask questions. This is your child’s time. You build the relationship and her trust and confidence simply by giving attention. Answer questions if your child has any, but you don’t need to ask any questions or provide any guidance. Just be there taking notice of and appreciating what she’s doing.

Some tips for attending

  • Bite-sized moments work. Research shows that tuning in even for a minute or two works if you do so often, rather than occasionally. Attending is easy even when you’re busy.
  • You can do it anywhere. There are countless opportunities throughout the day to tune in to what your child is doing and saying. Try at the supermarket, when you’re eating, doing the dishes or walking to school, and on the bus. Anywhere – whatever you’re doing together.
  • Look through your child’s eyes. Trying to see the world through your child’s eyes helps you to understand her feelings. This can also reduce misunderstandings about behaviour. You might see that what seems like misbehaviour to you is just part of how the world looks to your child!
  • Look out for the attention trap. If you pay more attention to difficult behaviour you might fall into the attention trap. Your child might find negative attention such as yelling or scolding powerful. It’s immediate, intense and personal. The trick is to pay more attention to the behaviour you want, and less to the behaviour you don’t want. For more ways to avoid the attention trap read our article on systematic ignoring.
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  • Last Updated 07-06-2011
  • Last Reviewed 30-01-2014
  • Acknowledgements This article was adapted from NSW Department of Community Services (2003), Families – Building relationships: parenting preschoolers [Videotape].