Written by Dr Helen Andrews
What if I was to tell you that there is a simple way of interacting with your baby, toddler and child that strengthens your relationship, builds their self-esteem, encourages creativity and learning, promotes good behaviour and makes it easier to manage more than one child at a time? What if it also enabled you to support your child with areas they are struggling with – sitting still, concentrating, playing with others, managing strong feelings, tidying up, doing the ironing – well, maybe not the ironing! I’m not exaggerating; this simple technique exists and is called attending or using descriptive commentary.
So what is attending?
Attending is, quite simply, describing what your child is doing. For example: “You’re putting a green block on top of the blue one”, “You’re pushing the train around the track”, “It looks like you’re wondering what to do next”. It sounds so easy – and with practise it is – but there are a few common pitfalls when you start off.
What isn’t it?
The most common mistake is to ask questions. “What are you drawing?” “Are you building a tower?” “That’s a good train track, isn’t it?” When faced with a question, a child has two choices. Either they can stop what they are doing to answer us (which is a shame if they are playing constructively), or they can ignore us (not something we want to encourage).
Another error when playing with a child, is for us to start to lead, and become directive. This can be obvious: “Let’s put that over there” or more subtle “Look!” Although there are times when we need to be in charge, play isn’t one of them. It inhibits their creativity and therefore their learning. We need to concentrate on following their lead. To quote Mr Chips – “Say what you see”!
We also need to be careful we don’t slip into teacher mode. If we want our child to get stronger with their colours, we can use attending to describe what they are doing with the different coloured bricks. They’ll soon pick it up.
One final pointer: start your attends with the word “you”, or with the child’s name. I.e. Not, “The elephant is standing next to the lion” – who cares? Instead try, “You’ve moved the elephant to stand next to the lion” – mummy is looking at me!
Why is it so powerful?
We all know that kids love our attention – if they could have it 24/7 they would. Attending is a very powerful and effective way of giving that attention. If we are able to accurately describe what our child is doing, then they know they have our undivided attention at that moment. This is why it is good for our relationship and develops their self-esteem.
If we also only attend to behaviours that we like, and look away and go silent when they start to play up, it gives them very clear, immediate feedback about what we want from them.
If you do find yourself ignoring them, make sure you are watching carefully for when they go back to playing how you want – then you go straight back in there with an attend, so they know they are doing something we like. We are all more likely to repeat behaviours that are rewarded with attention (positive or negative).
How can you use it with babies?
It is important that we talk to our young babies. It strengthens the attachment relationship and lays down the early building blocks of language development and even emotional regulation. We can attend to their behaviours and their internal world. “Ooh, you are wriggly!” “You’ve got yourself all hot and bothered” “You seem hungry”. We can also attend to ourselves: “Mummy’s coming”
One of the major tasks of early childhood is learning to regulate strong emotions. We rely on those around us to develop this skill. One simple thing we can do is put a name to that feeling using an attend. “I can see you feel very sad that your friend has to go”. “You look cross that it is tidy up time”. This can feel containing at the time, especially if it is accompanied by a hug. Over time, children learn to recognise these feelings for themselves and can tell us how they are feeling, rather than show us. Some adults need help with this as well!
How is it used effectively with older children?
I usually recommend that parents develop this core skill of attending by playing with their child for 10 minutes a day, which is good practise for all of us anyway. In that time, the parent could be talking almost non-stop, describing what the child is doing, and praising frequently. You’ll find that ignoring the child following minor naughty behaviour is much more effective when the child can tell the difference!
As it is harder than you think to reduce the number of questions you ask, and build up the number of attends you give, it can be helpful to have a friend or partner watch you and give you feedback. You can do the same for them. Eventually you’ll become painfully aware of every question you ask and may go through a phase of hardly daring to open your mouth!
Once you’ve mastered the technique, you can then start to ‘throw’ attends across the room in everyday life. Say you’re preparing the tea whilst your child is playing on the floor. If you look over and give a good attend, the child will be encouraged to keep playing and you can continue uninterrupted.
If you have siblings, you can keep each child engaged in play by starting your attend with their name. They know that they are important to you, and that you are interested in them, so they don’t need to fight to get your attention.
You can also start to tailor your attends to suit your child and the areas you want them to work on. E.g.“You are concentrating hard on that puzzle”, “You shared those pens very nicely with your sister”, “You’re putting all of the animals back in the box”, “You look like you might be getting cross” and so on.
Combine that with a specific labelled praise, and you’ve nailed it! A specific labelled praise is simply one that is very clear. So rather than “good boy!” or “great job!”, it’s “Thank you for tidying away the toys as soon as I asked” or “Wow, you’re really good at building tall towers, well done”. Again, this gives really clear feedback about the behaviour you are looking for, and lets you give extra attention and praise for those things that your child finds difficult.
So, if you’ve often struggled to know how to ‘play’ with your child (after all, how many ways can you push a car up and down?), if you find that you are always asking questions, or telling them what to do, or if you know you need to help your child develop a new skill – attend to what they are doing, give specific praise whenever you can see they are making an effort and ignore the little blips that make life interesting!
Where can I find out more?
You can read more about this skill, and others, by looking at The Incredible Years by Carolyn Webster-Stratton or the work of McMahon & Forehand. There are also professionals locally who specialise in this sort of approach, myself included.
Dr Helen Andrews is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development.
Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or find out more at www.familymattersinwarwickshire.co.uk