Lend them your ears

Show attention-seekers positive ways to get approval, says behaviour management expert Sue Cowley


"It is exhausting trying to gain any semblance of quiet"

Assigning this label might seem like a nasty generalisation, but it's a problem that I encountered during my PGCE with classes as young as Year 5.

It's also one that has continued this year in my secondary school. I wouldn't mind if some of the boys' extremely concerted effort went into writing, say, an attention-grabbing opening to a short story.

Unfortunately, it seems instead that attention-grabbing behaviour is the number one priority.

This behaviour takes many forms and usually begins in the corridor, where a few early arrivals indulge in pushing and shoving. These result in pupils crashing through my classroom door as I am bidding farewell to my previous class. I did once bellow at the boys to line up against the wall. It did have some initial effect: on that day, they did at least enter the lesson with the calm of a gale force wind rather than a tornado. However, this tactic is not ideal everyday, and once the lesson starts, calling, bawling and caterwauling across the classroom begins.

Having realised the potential difficulties at the start of term, I seated the class alphabetically to try to split up the ringleaders. Unfortunately, this exacerbated the problem. The boys now call across the room about the weekend's dubious activities, using inappropriate language and throwing witticisms from one side of the room to the other.

Naturally, it's hilarious if I consistently reprimand this kind of behaviour (and sound like a stuck record in the process). On the other hand, tactical ignoring, or TI as I believe it's known in some circles, only results in an escalation of volume. When I want to bring them back to me for feeding time (feeding their brains with knowledge, naturally), it is exhausting trying to gain any semblance of quiet from the four corners of the room. Their comments abound while I battle for quiet.

Responding with a breaktime detention for the whole class seems to give the go-ahead for further disruption. The mentality is "if we're staying in already, we may as well make the most of it for the rest of the lesson".

Of course, in writing about this behaviour as a problem, I paint the most negative picture possible - it's not all The Birds meet Hannibal Lecter.

However, every week, any minor victory (on my part) in one lesson seems swamped by their triumphant return to square one in the next.

Sophie Byford is an NQT teaching English at a north London secondary school


"Lay out your expectations and consequences of non-compliance"

It's an instinctive human response to give our attention to those who seek it. Imagine a class full of well-behaved children, heads down, getting on with their work. In the back row, one child is bouncing up and down on his seat, shouting out rude words and waving his hands in the air. It's as though he has a spotlight focused on him, pulling your attention to his performance. The stage is his, and you are the audience he intends to wow.

It takes a self-assured, experienced teacher not to react, and to understand why ignoring him is so important.

These boys seem to be having an inordinate amount of fun winding Sophie up.

I suspect that they are sensing her tension and deliberately provoking her.

At the moment, she is giving them the attention that they crave, using up lots of energy by reacting to their misbehaviour. She seems trapped into giving negative attention - losing her temper, constant reprimands, rearranging seating to split them up. They take delight in undermining her attempt at using sanctions. It's all part of their performance and one that wins them peer group approval as well as winding up their teacher.

It's a positive sign that these pupils want to get Sophie's attention: they obviously think it's worth having her focus on them. Now she needs to find ways to channel that energy so they can get her attention for positive reasons instead. She might ask the loudest boy to get the class silent for her, or enlist the most confident boy's help in delivering part of a lesson. She should find out what their strengths and interests are and incorporate these into her lessons.

A big concern for Sophie is the start of lessons, and rightly so. If the first few minutes of class time go well, this sets you off on the right path for good behaviour. The ideal is for Sophie to be standing at the door, ready for business, when the pupils get to her room. At the moment, early arrivals are disrupting the end of her previous lesson, a situation that is causing unnecessary stress.

Where children are let out of class early and roam the corridors unsupervised, this can be hugely disruptive to lessons still taking place.

In Sophie's situation there are two possibilities: either these pupils are leaving their lesson early, or she is finishing her lesson late. If it's the first instance, have a word with the relevant teacher. If the latter, Sophie should have her previous class stood behind their seats, ready to leave the moment the bell sounds.

With a rowdy group, don't line them up outside unless you are certain that this will have an impact. Instead, invite them in as they arrive, offering a positive word where you can. Have an attention-grabbing starter task on the desks with a reward for the person who completes it best. Don't worry about taking the register or doing other administrative duties until you have all the pupils in the room, settled in their seats and focused on some work.

Sophie is concerned that she sounds like a"stuck record" when she has to reprimand misbehaviour. In fact, too much talk is counter-productive in changing behaviour. Lay out your expectations and the consequences of non-compliance: make sure you are clear and that there is no space for complaints of "I didn't understand". Then, when a pupil misbehaves, apply the punishment. Stay calm, sound relaxed, even regretful. Minimise the verbal interaction between you and a misbehaving pupil - this is the negative attention you want to avoid.

There are no quick fixes when it comes to dealing with attention-seeking pupils. Train yourself to look for good behaviour, giving your energy and focus as a reward to those quiet, hard-working pupils who are doing as you wish. Train the attention-seekers as well: show them positive ways of earning the spotlight of your attention.

Sue Cowley is author of 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' (Continuum)


* Fight your instincts: Force yourself to ignore the attention-seekers and pay attention to those who deserve it - the quiet, hard-working, well-behaved children.

* Don't let them wind you up: Shouting is a form of attention, albeit a negative one. As a teaching strategy it is unsustainable in the long run.

If the pupils feel that they can get a rise out of you, they will take great delight in doing so.

* Model the behaviour you expect: Where children are noisy, don't get trapped into an equally loud, aggressive approach. Offer a positive role model by staying calm, quiet and controlled under pressure.

* Start as you mean to go on: Ensure that your lesson starts in a calm and focused way, and this will set a good tone for the rest of your time together.

* Find positive ways of giving attention: Work out where the strengths and interests of your pupils lie, then use them as part of a positive, rewards-based approach to your teaching.

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