The Attention Dynamic
The Old Attention Dynamic
Here’s how behaviour management works in many classrooms and many schools.
1. A student does something wrong:
The adult has a chat with them.
2. A student does something wrong again or does something more serious:
The adult has a longer chat with them.
3. The student continues to misbehave:
The adult sends them them out of the classroom so the highest paid person in school can have a chat with them.
When a child misbehaves, our first impulse may be talk to them, to find out why they may have acted like this. We may also lecture them, and say how their lack of concentration, respect or ability to stay in a seat is affecting their learning. This impulse to talk to students about their behaviour is understandable – we’re (usually) just trying to be nice; sometimes we’re just plain frustrated.
However, when we always respond to poor choices with attention, we inadvertently teach our students that one of the most effective ways they can use to get attention from their peers or from us is to behave inappropriately. We then wonder why they continue to behave inappropriately.
In many cases, the same dynamic for students is replicated at home. Parents, busy with jobs and bills to pay and meals to cook and other children to see to (I didn’t even mention the pull of social media) can seem distant figures for some children. Some have found that crashing and banging, teasing a sibling and not going to bed are good ways of getting their parents to interact with them. Sometimes parents will reason with their children or tell them how good they are but, really, even being shouted at is better than being ignored.
It’s important to mention here that I’m not against giving children and young people attention. That’s ludicrous. I just don’t think we should only give them the attention they crave just after they’ve thrown a chair or sworn at a teacher. Extremes of behaviour are sometimes the only way to book a counselling session in a secondary school. It’s the magic ticket to get yourself sitting down with someone who cares. The same is true for low-level attention-seeking behaviour, but with pupils craving smaller segments of attention throughout the lesson/day.
It’s time to redesign how and when we give students attention, at both a teacher/classroom level and at a school organisation level.
Timing is everything
Every school in the country has interventions for Maths and English; is it so strange to imagine that some children and young people need extra attention? Most schools have found that these students find ways to get this attention anyway, so why not give them this attention on our terms. (It’s on our terms, but it’s for everyone’s benefit.)
The New Attention Dynamic
The New Attention Dynamic involves giving students attention before they make poor choices and very little afterwards. For our more vulnerable and challenging students, we can discuss expectations, give our reasons for setting limits, take an interest in them and ask how they are (essentially build relationships) before the lesson, on the way in to the classroom, by talking to them in free periods or in detentions, but not just after poor behaviour. For example, after a problematic afternoon, we can still chat about what went wrong, but let’s save the chat for the next morning, as a way of preventing a repeat of the behaviours.
Communicating your limit-setting after poor choices should be quick and without emotion, and without the accompanying explanations, discussions, appeals and lectures. We need to communicate when and how our relationship is going to grow, but also when it will be put on hold, just for a short time.
All the attention is front-loaded.
The schools that do this now see enormous benefits, and the longer the approach is used, the greater the impact. Let’s stop rewarding kids for making the wrong decisions but still give them all the attention they need and deserve.