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When Attention Seeking Leads To Outbursts Of Bad Language, Don’t Give The Culprit What They Want

At first it was mildly amusing to hear someone shout “Poo bum!” at full volume across the room, but when his friend shouted a string of swear words back, you knew you had to stop this behaviour in its tracks

  • When Attention Seeking Leads To Outbursts Of Bad Language, Don’t Give The Culprit What They Want

One important way in which young children learn how to behave is by modelling their behaviour on what they see and hear adults do. This is fine if the adults model good behaviour – the children pick up good habits, which they’re likely to bring with them into your setting.

However, if children experience rudeness or other unpleasant behaviours, you’re likely to see this behaviour reflected in what they do when they’re with you.

The scenario

Two new children, who are close friends, have started at your setting recently. Unfortunately they seem to be competing with each other to use as many rude words as they can.

At first it was mildly amusing to hear one shout “Poo bum!” at full volume across the room. However, when his friend shouted a string of swear words back at him, you knew you had to stop this behaviour in its tracks.

Attention-seeking behaviours

Young children sometimes experiment with behaviours in order to see what the reaction of the adults around them will be. If they can get their peers involved in their game of attention seeking, this is even better, because it makes it more likely that the adults will react.

If a child has heard inappropriate language at home, they’ll know that saying rude words is likely to get them attention. Children also seem to sense when it’s the worst possible moment to make a fuss, or to say something completely inappropriate. (You can see this in the embarrassed faces of parents, when a child throws a huge tantrum in the queue at the supermarket checkout.)

Focus on the positive

When a small child demands our attention through poor behaviour, our instinctive reaction tends to be to immediately pay them attention. We fuss over them or make a big deal about the very behaviour that we wish to stop. Effectively, we teach them that naughty behaviour ‘X’ will get shocked reaction ‘Y’. This is an instinct that practitioners need to learn to fight, because the moment we react, we feed the child’s urge to gain attention in the wrong way. Rather than immediately focusing on the problem, train yourself to focus on the positive instead:

1.Look around your setting and spot someone behaving well. Go to them and make a fuss, highlighting what the good behaviour is and why it’s pleasing to you.
2.If you feel uncomfortable not saying anything about the swearing, try narrating your reaction out loud, but not directly to the child. Say something like, “We only use polite language in our setting.”
3.Reinforce your rules around spoken behaviours during whole-group sessions. For instance, one of the rules we use at our setting is about ‘kind words’, and we often talk with the children about what this means.
4.Ask the children to think about what ‘kind words’ are and what effect they have on others. How might it make other people feel if we were to use ‘unkind words’ to them? What could we do to help other children learn to be kind? How should we react if we hear a rude word?

Changing habits

It can be hard to break bad habits. If a child hears lots of swearing at home, and is allowed to get away with being rude themselves, it may take a while for them to understand that they cannot do this in your context. To help these children change their behaviour

use non-verbal interventions when these children use rude words – a disappointed look is more powerful than a shocked word;
have a (subtle) word with the children’s parents – you could say how surprised you were to hear the word that was used, since you’re sure that they could never have picked this up at home;
agree the reaction that you’re going to take with your whole team. If everyone ignores the behaviour, and reinforces the rule about ‘kind words’, the impact will quickly lessen;
if you feel that the two children are feeding off each other’s behaviour, find activities to encourage them to widen their circle of friends. For instance, playing a team game together in a larger group.

Sue Cowley is an educational author and helps to run an ‘outstanding’ preschool.


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