Attend to the attention-seekers

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Disruptive children dominate the classroom stage, and, says a child psychologist, it is time teachers were helped to push them gently into the wings. Nicolas Barnard reports

At 10.08 and 10.22, Norman was working. Unfortunately, those were the only times during the lesson that he was.

For the rest of the time, in a minute-by-minute observation of his behaviour, he was crawling under the TV, knocking Julia's pencils off her desk, flicking his ruler, making pig noises, pretending to play the drums, shouting out "Do you know who my uncle is?" and generally making a racket.

It's the sort of low-level disobedience that grinds teachers down and leaves them yelling at pupils and tearing their (own) hair out.

But it's precisely that reaction, a new book by North Tyneside educational psychologist Nigel Mellor says, which is the problem.

Twelve-year-old Norman is a typical example of an attention-seeking child. It's a "condition" that is common but virtually unresearched - every teacher knows a pupil who gets under their skin, winds them up and refuses to respond to the usual sanctions.

Being forced to stay behind after a lesson is not a punishment; it's a reward. Incurring the wrath of teacher is the whole point - any reaction is good. That may seem obvious, but for the stressed and overstretched teacher sometimes the obvious is the hardest thing to see.

"He blocks me from all the other children," one art teacher writes of a particularly difficult 13-year-old. "He absorbs my energy, my attention ... I start off feeling compassionate - I'd like to spend more time with him - then frustrated, then angry. He drains all the compassion from me. I feel like screaming. I feel like it's my fault.

"I'm just drained at the end of it."

It's not attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; it's not autism or bullying, although it may mimic all of these. It's the child who just needs attention and feels he or she isn't getting enough of it.

Help is now at hand. With 18 years of experience under his belt, Mr Mellor has written what he thinks is the first handbook for the teachers he has seen driven to despair by disruptive children.

"Attention-seeking is a phrase that everybody uses, but nobody has really examined," he said. "I haven't found a single book that deals specifically with it."

The book looks at the causes of attention-seeking, but more importantly lays down a way of first identifying the problem and then tackling it. It deals with case histories, techniques and offers resources for helping children chart their own improving behaviour.

Most importantly, it gives teachers a way of regaining control by deciding when and how they give attention to a child instead of reacting to that child's misbehaviour.

Mr Mellor warns: "Things will get worse before they get better." The key is to ignore disruptive behaviour while praising and rewarding good behaviour. But he accepts that such behaviour modification techniques are not easy to apply.

"They find what irritates the teacher most, and it becomes very personal. And it's the very caring and concerned teacher who is most vulnerable."

Teachers need to monitor the child's behaviour and their own response to it - including non-verbal reactions such as raised eyebrows, eye contact or tense posture. It's also important to identify the disruptive behaviour you wish to stop and the good behaviour with which you wish to replace it.

The immediate result can be an increase in disruption as the child seeks to regain the teacher's attention. But with an effective system of rewards in place - and praising the child for trying rather than achieving - the battle can be won.

A picture to colour in - perhaps of hurdles to leap if the child is fond of sport - helps the child to recognise their own improvement. One teacher found dropping a marble into a jar was a particularly good method. The sound of the marble was itself a reward, while seeing the jar fill provided a goal.

Parents should be involved. Often they are as despairing as the teachers - and are particularly confused if their other children are well-behaved. "But we brought them all up the same," they say.

But no two children's experiences are really the same. One sibling will be younger, the other older. Family tensions may be subtly different - children pick up on the signals.

In Mr Mellor's experience, every school has one or two children seeking attention. The reasons can be as varied as a new baby, parental break-up or rejection by other pupils.

The tragedy is that often the pattern goes unnoticed; if it is spotted, teachers look for underlying causes rather than addressing the behaviour itself, fearing that the child's "real" problems could be swept under the carpet. That can be a mistake. According to Mr Mellor, attention-seeking is not a syndrome, or a disorder, but a problem in itself.

Attention Seeking: a practical solution for the classroom by Nigel Mellor is published by Lucky Duck Publishing, priced Pounds 12

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