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Attention seeking missiles: managing challenging behaviour

Jo Lange, a behavioural psychologist whose work has been of immense value to educators for many years, refers to them as being Triple Ls – they’re Late, they’re Loud and they’re Laughing. They wait until you have the ‘audience’ sorted, calm and focused until they switch on the spotlight and take centre stage.

And when these students are on stage, they are world class performers. Of course, these students don’t get paid quite like the Hugh Jackmans of the world.
In fact, they have a different currency than money … it’s eyeballs. The pay-off for these students for the planning, effort, precision timing and preparation they’ve engaged in to make this moment an award winner is the attention of those around

This presents both the first victory and the first conundrum for Teachers when it comes to effectively dealing with attention seeking students.

The victory is that you’ve identified the motivator sitting behind the behaviour. This is critical because no behavioural choice occurs without a motivator. In adults, the motivator for losing weight might be fitting into the aspirational pair of expensive jeans we bought ourselves or feeling confident enough to don the swimmers on a looming beach holiday.

The motivator behind our choice to have a dinner party goes to one of our deepest needs, that of being socially connected. Every behaviour has a motivation and you’ve just identified the need being met by the attention seekers. There’s gold in those eyeballs.

The conundrum is that yours are the only eyeballs you have control of in a classroom setting and there are plenty of other pairs available if you decide on suggested strategy no1 for attention seekers – ignoring them. It’s a good strategy. But it’s undermined by the other students who just can’t take their gaze away from the shenanigans on display. We’re going to need to get clever and a little subtle with our
strategy here.

Think again about that concept of currency. If attention can be measured in dollars, we might consider that a student has gone to $1 worth of effort to get their attention pay-off. I’d contend that they’ll be disappointed if they only get 5c worth of attention.

So what does that look like in practical terms?

A teaching colleague of mine named Dave had a student enter his Year 11 Maths class and take his usual seat. During the Teacher’s instructions, the student slowly began reaching into his school bag and retrieving clothes pegs. One peg at a time, he attached clothes pegs to folds of skin on and around his face until he eventually built himself a mane of wooden pegs. Interesting move! And one clearly motivated and fuelled by the giggles and sniggers of the students around him. My colleague ignored him, but the behaviour persisted. He was already being well paid.

And then Dave remembered our conversation around the currency of attention and wondered what 5c worth of attention might look like, given the clear $1 of effort this student has gone to. He walked over to the student and stood briefly by his side – a clever tactic in itself as being side-by-side eliminates virtually all eye contact while directing attention to the people that Dave also wishes to better engage.

With eyes fixed on the other students in the class, he gently nudged “Pegboy” on the shoulder and said “That’s a pretty good impression of the Paddle Pop Lion, mate. But I’ve got these beautiful people here that I need to teach some Maths to today.” before calmly continuing his lesson.

The class chuckled once more and then commenced to engage with the Teacher’s instruction again. Pegboy, after enduring a few more painful minutes (seriously – that’s got to hurt!) then began removing the pegs and returning them to his school bag. I asked Dave what he thought the real lesson was in the tale of Pegboy.

He said the provision of zero attention by the Teacher was being read by Pegboy as a “not yet” in terms of attention and so he chose to hang in there to see if a bigger pay-off was coming than that being provided by the classroom giggles. But, when the pay-off arrived in a rather disappointing low-key acknowledgement and calm redirection of the remaining students, Dave believed the internal dialogue of Pegboy would have been something along the lines of “Oh bugger. Well that was hardly worth all that trouble.”

Hardly worth all the trouble. That’s a decent and effective mantra that we could all carry into our next encounter with the spotlight seekers that seem to be in almost all of our classrooms these days.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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