Attention – The X-Factor

A number of years ago I attended a conference session with Geoff Colvin, retired professor from the University of Oregon; the session was on Behavior Escalations. At the beginning of the session he asked each of us to answer three questions…I’d like you to do the same:

  1. Kids need attention from adults? (Yes/No)
  2. At school, positive behavior guarantees kids attention from adults? (Y/N)
  3. At school, negative behavior guarantees kids attention from adults? (Y/N)

Since that session, this is an activity I have done with countless audiences in numerous presentations and workshops; the results are always the same.

I’m guessing you answered Yes – No – Yes.  Here’s the rub.  Most adults agree that kids need attention from adults…not want…need. However, kids don’t typically get what they need at school unless they act inappropriately.  Think about it, if you were a kid and you wanted adult attention, what would you do?  If you’re playing-the-odds, acting inappropriately is the most efficient and effective way to get adult attention at school; this has to change.

Adult attention is a huge reinforcement for kids even when it’s negative.  This is how we reinforce negative behavior. In order to create a positive class/school climate, we need to create an environment where positive behavior guarantees kids attention from adults.  An environment where attention for on-task, pro-social behavior is more regular and predictable is one that will diminish the need for attention through negative actions.  Kids will always choose the most efficient and effective means to get what they want.  If adult attention is more accessible through pro-social behavior then we render the negative behaviors as being inefficient and effective; negative behaviors are not the fastest way to access adult attention.

In schools, we need to be mindful of how much/little attention we give to student actions…it is the “X-Factor.”  Descriptive feedback for on-task, pro-social behavior will create a culture where kids won’t feel they need to act out. Reinforcement is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is unavoidable, and there is a huge difference between reinforcement and rewards; rewards are tangibles while reinforcement is social. I’m not talking about M&M’s or ‘false praise’ here; this is about authentic relationships and human interaction. John Maag of the University of Nebraska (2001) once wrote:

Some teachers have said, “I don’t believe in using reinforcement.” This statement is as logically absurd as saying, “I don’t believe in gravity.” Just because someone may not like something does not consequently abolish its existence.

Remember, at the beginning you said that kids need attention from adults, so when we say things like, “Oh he’s just doing that for attention” we’re probably right and must remember that this is a very real need for our students.  Withholding attention is not an appropriate strategy as it only creates escalations; they need it and you won’t give it so they up-the-ante!

What we give our attention indicates to our students what we think is important.  If you value on-task, pro-social behavior then notice it, give it your time, provide specific, descriptive feedback to students (not just ‘good job’) about what you noticed.  How often have we walked down a hallway and not engaged any students until they break a rule?

So, the next time you intervene with a student who is acting inappropriately, reflect on how much your attention to the negative is influencing the students slow move to change. 

Again, if you think they’re doing it for the attention, you’re probably right!

4 thoughts on “Attention – The X-Factor

  1. So true. I’m a first-year teacher, so some of my high school students have really been pushing the negative attention button. Interrupting me with non-emergencies when I am talking to another student or teacher has been particularly prevalent; they do so repeatedly, with increasing volume and urgency, sometimes accompanied by arm waving and/or paper shaking.

    I’ve been working really hard to ignore requests for attention that are made in inappropriate ways. Sometimes I hold my palm toward the interrupter (just to let them know that I hear him or her, but will address their request in time) while maintaining eye contact with the person I am assisting. In most cases I’ve been able to finish my first conversation while tuning out distractions; I hope it’s sending the message that each student is important enough for me to address their needs with respect – not just the loud, demanding ones.

    Only time will tell if this approach will make a difference. Thank you for the insightful post!

    • Thanks for commenting Deb. I think you are doing the right thing. The only thing I would add is that some of your students (maybe 1 or 2) might need your attention immediately after beginning a task. They may not be clear on directions, confident they can complete it, etc. Once I assigned my classes an assignment I usually went straight to my 1 or 2 (or 3 or 4??) high fliers and made sure they were ready to work independently. Are the clear on what to do? Do they need me to help them get started? Once I left them, I circulated and helped other students, but i would always return in fairly regular intervals to check-in with them. At first, when you are trying to establish a new habit and routine, i would return quite frequently. Over time, I was able to stretch the time out because my students knew I was coming back so desperate tactics weren’t necessary. I am sure many of the kids are just pushing your buttons – nothing like being in your first year – so over time that should fade. Just control for the fact that for some kids, their actions might be related to their perceived inability to complete the work. Thanks again!

  2. What a great entry about perspective. Which lens are we looking at kids’ behaviour through, the negative or positive one? Are we looking opportunities to offer positive praise or to reprimand? A simple shift in noticing the positive things is spreading positivity and ultimately supporting learning. I find that a significant amount of good attention sends the message to students that it is okay to do well in school where a lack of attention leaves students to seek acceptance from their peers (i.e. what educators may see as seeking attention in the ‘wrong’ ways) that you make reference to above. Here is to spreading positivity through giving students good attention! Nice post that is simple and significant!

    • Thanks Bernie. I appreciate your positive comments. I believe that what we give the most attention to is what we will continue to get. If we only see/notice/interact with the negative then we will continue to get more of that. It doesn’t mean you have to blow it out of proportion when a students acts appropriately, it just means notice and acknowledge it in a very simple way. That interaction builds relationships!

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