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.

tl;dr 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.



I have a friend with depression who frequently cancels plans or doesn’t message me back, and even though I know it’s because she has a limited amount of emotional energy and not because she doesn’t care about me, I end up feeling really neglected and hurt every time. We’ve talked about it and she knows how I feel, but it isn’t getting better. I keep thinking I might have to just stop talking to her to protect myself from getting hurt, but that feels mean. What do you think I should do?
realsocialskills said:
I can’t tell you whether or not you should keep talking to this person, that’s a deeply personal decision.
The first thing I want to say is that it’s ok to decide you don’t want to spend time around someone who regularly hurts you, even if the reasons they hurt you aren’t entirely their fault. Your needs matter.
That said, I think part of the problem might be that you are expecting things from your friend that aren’t possible right now, and that it might be possible to salvage the friendship by changing your expectations. 
Here’s a dynamic that may or may not resemble what’s going on with you, between friends I’ll call Cathy and Debra:
  • Cathy and Debra are in a culture in which the assumption about how friendship works is that Good Friends regularly make and keep plans, and answer each other’s messages in a timely manner
  • Debra has major depression, and isn’t currently capable of doing either of those things
  • Cathy wants to think of Debra as a Good Friend and give her the benefit of the doubt, so she keeps trying to make plans, and sends messages assuming that she will get prompt replies
  • Debra wants to think of herself as a Good Friend, so she keeps trying to make plans even though she’s not actually capable of keeping htem
  • Debra can’t actually keep most of the plans or reply to most of the messages, so she doesn’t
  • This hurts Cathy’s feelings, because she’s counting on Debra to act like a good friend, and Debra is doing things that signal that she doesn’t really care about or respect Cathy
  • Neither of them talk about Debra’s actual capabilities, or make plans taking them into account
  • They keep assuming that, somehow, being Good Friends and trying will solve the problem
  • And meanwhile, it doesn’t, and Cathy gets more and more hurt

If this is what’s going on, I think that making stuff better has to start from the assumption that, no matter how much your friend cares about you, she’s not currently capable of doing some of the things that you currently think of as central to being a good friend. If depression means she can’t do those things right now, no amount of talking about how much this hurts you is going to fix that. If those kinds of conversations gave depressed people more abilities, no one would be depressed. 

That might mean that you can’t be very friendly to one another right now, or it might mean that your understanding of how friendship works needs to change to account for her capabilities. I don’t know which answer is the right one for you. Both are possible. 

But, as far as shifting understandings and assumptions:

Regarding messages:

  • I think your current assumption might be that replies are more-or-less automatic
  • And that if someone doesn’t reply, it’s because they’re actively withholding a reply
  • Which is the case in some kinds of relationships, but it’s probably not what’s going on when your friend doesn’t reply
  • Replies are probably really, really hard for your friend right now, and she’s probably often not up to making them
  • So, with this friend, it might make more sense to assume that not replying is the default, and that sending a reply is something hard that she does when she’s up to it
  • What if when you sent your friend messages, you assumed something along the lines of “My friend will probably like getting this message, but she will probably not be able to reply to it this time”?

Regarding plans:

  • I think it is not a good idea to keep making plans that you will be upset if you friend breaks
  • If she’s not capable of keeping plans reliably, then making them and expecting them to be kept just hurts both of you.
  • So what if you didn’t make plans, and instead only did things spontaneously on rare occasions on which she was up to replying immediately to suggestions?
  • Or what if you made plans with the assumption that she might not be able to keep them, and found a way to be ok with that?
  • Eg: inviting your friend to a group activity, and still going and having a good time with the other people if she cancelled?
  • Or making plans to go to a movie, then going by yourself if she wasn’t up to it?
  • Or planning to go over to her house, but assuming that there was a good chance she wouldn’t actually be up to it, and not making that plan often enough that it would prevent you from doing other things that are important to you?

All of that said, I don’t know what you should do, and I’m not telling you that you have to keep talking to this person. I’m saying that, if you do want to try to keep interacting with them, I think this might be an approach that could make it possible to do so and still feel ok. But it might not be. What I have suggested is not going to work for everyone, and that’s ok. It does work sometimes for some people, though.

Any of y’all have other suggestions?

aura218 said:

My friend and I have a friendship that works b/c we’re both like this. Basically, we did the meetup suggestions above. We both planned to go to group things, events, movies, etc, but if the other didn’t go or was late, that was fine. 

Another thing that worked for us was taking the friendship online. We kind of commuted our friendship to an 80% online friendship. We text several times a week, go on each others’ tumblrs to keep up with what we’re doing, and comment on each others’ creative blogs. It helps us keep up with out lives and keep that connection in a low-pressure way.

depression and friendship



I have a friend with depression who frequently cancels plans or doesn’t message me back, and even though I know it’s because she has a limited amount of emotional energy and not because she doesn’t care about me, I end up feeling really…

lilyuphigh said:

I’m both a depressed person and have been friends with depressed people!

Yes, making plans to go over can be good. But it can also be very difficult if the depressed person isn’t a good house cleaner and then they are embarrassed about their house. Keep that in mind.

One thing that works for me is making plans for near somewhere/sometime I’ll be out anyway. As a depressed person, if I have to be out of the house for an appointment, it’s not much harder to stay out of the house a little longer for fun times. As a friend to depressed people, if they have to last-minute cancel, well I’ll just go on with the rest of my scheduled day.

Definitely the group plans are good too. As a depressed person, I feel less pressure to show up which makes me feel better which makes it easier to show up after all.

One factor could be that the depressed person is getting worked up a bit about feeling like a bad friend already. Like, from personal experience, if I’m preparing to hang out with someone, I might worry that maybe I can’t make it, and then I’ll be a bad friend, and especially because of all the other times I’ve let you down, etc etc, and it can build to the point of being too much pressure and making it impossible to go out. BUT if I know that they will not be hurt and that our friendship will be fine, then it’s easier to not get drowned in negative bullshit.

on figuring out what's wrong

I don’t know what exactly is wrong with me (as a child, i was forbidden to even mention mental health or autism, and now it’s prolly too late to bother). But I find a lot of useful and relatable in this blog (that was thanks). Thing is, I end up just cutting all connections with society (aside from parents). Not leaving my home, being happy only in solitude. But I still need to provide for myself, so I do some coding. Except often I just can’t force myself to work for unknown reason. Any advice?
realsocialskills said:
First of all, it’s not too late to bother. Understanding yourself better is always helpful. It’s a lot easier to manage unusual things about yourself if you have the right words to describe them. Among other things, having the right words allows you to connect with others like you and learn about things that work for them.
Also, some mental health or neurological issues are treatable, even in adulthood. (For instance, many adults with depression, ADHD or OCD find that medication improves their lives).
Most of us spend most of our lives as adults. This stuff doesn’t go away when we grow up, and it doesn’t stop mattering, either. So - it’s not too late, and if you think that you have a mental health or neurological condition, it is worth taking that seriously, whether or not you pursue formal diagnosis or medical treatment.
I can’t tell you why you’re having trouble working. There could be any number of reasons. Some include:
Do you like your work?
  • If your work requires a lot of intense focus, and you find it intensely dull, it’s likely to be hard to make yourself do it, particularly if no one else is around
  • If you’re so bored with your work that you regularly can’t force yourself to do it, it’s probably time to start trying to find different work
  • Which might still be coding if that’s your skillset - not all programming projects are the same
  • There’s only so long you can work against yourself by brute force

Is being alone all the time bad for your work?

  • Some people need to work with or alongside other people in order to get stuff done consistently
  • Not everyone is like this, but some people are, even many people who enjoy solitude
  • If that’s part of your problem, it might be important to work on ways to have company that you can stand
  • This could be virtual, like one person you’re on IM with while you code
  • Or physical, like working out of an office or hackerspace
  • It doesn’t necessarily need to be intensely social
  • This might not be a problem you have, but it is a problem some people have

Are you depressed?

  • If being unable to force yourself to code is a new problem, it’s possible that you’re depressed
  • Particularly if you’re also *generally* disinterested in most things you used to like
  • For some people, depression is a treatable medical problem
  • If that sounds likely to be part of your problem, and if you can go to a doctor safely, it might be worth bringing up the possibility that you’re depressed

Do you need better cognitive cues for work?

  • For some people who work alone from home, it can be really hard to *tell* when you should be working
  • I have this problem and I don’t have a great solution to it, so I’m not sure how much I can suggest
  • For some people, making a schedule helps
  • For some people, always working early in the day helps
  • For some people, using LeechBlock makes it easier to focus
  • Some people find that HabitRPG helps them to keep track of tasks and stay motivated

Are you ok physically?

  • It’s hard to work when you feel horrible physically
  • And a lot of neurodivergent people have trouble telling when something is wrong physically
  • Do you eat enough? Do you get your nutritional needs met? Going without sufficient protein or iron can quickly make everything difficult.
  • Do you remember to drink liquids?
  • Are you in pain?
  • Is your working environment comfortable? (eg: are the lights bothering you? is your chair painful to sit in? is your keyboard at a comfortable or uncomfortable height?)