451. Needing Attention

I got some immediate feedback about my article entitled “Misbehavin’.” My friends reminded me about another way of thinking about misbehavior: children misbehave to get attention. I have no doubt that many – maybe most – do, but I’ve often been frustrated by that explanation. If they misbehave to get attention, then the obvious thing to do is ignore misbehavior, or address it in a way that doesn’t involve attention, and conspicuously give good attention to those who don’t misbehave. That can be hard to do.
One of my friends said her approach was to simply tell a young culprit that he didn’t need to misbehave to get attention. She gave him the attention he wanted, and it worked. Another said he’s mastered the art of ignoring those who misbehave. That works for him. At the Fort River School, most teachers respond to misbehavior by thanking children who aren’t misbehaving. I suspect that there was once some workshop or speech about this approach, because it’s become a Fort River trademark. And it’s pretty effective.
I’m trying to get to a bottom line about this issue, but I’m afraid that there may not be one. What works with one child, teacher, and/or situation may not work with another. The least effective approaches I’ve seen have ignored or given very weak attention to children who weren’t misbehaving, and given disruptive children the kind of attention they seemed to be asking for. No one wins when that happens; even the children who get what they seem to be asking for either weren’t really asking for it, or don’t want it once they get it. And other children learn that misbehaving is the only way to be noticed.
I used to fantasize, now and then, that I had the power to stop time, freeze my class, and deal with one child at a time. I would speak to the whole group, freeze the class and stop time, then check with each child to see if what I said was heard and understood. Then I’d defrost everyone, start time again, and resume the lesson. Any time a child started misbehaving, I’d stop time, freeze everyone, and deal with the misbehavior.
So much for fantasy. In reality, teachers have to deal with misbehavior in ways that work for them and for the children they teach. It’s helpful to remember that children who misbehave are often asking for attention, but it’s also helpful to remember that some aren’t, and are surprised and disoriented when they get it. As a volunteer who’s free to work one-to-one almost all the time, I can focus effectively on some children who misbehave. I can also choose not to deal with others if I don’t want to. But a teacher who is responsible for a whole class (and who can’t stop time and freeze his/her class) has to find out what works for her/him, the children, and the situations.

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