The attention seekers

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises on how to pacify your prima donnas


"Formidable and frustrated personalities became a real handful for me"

Last year, I particularly enjoyed teaching two students (let's call them Danny and Samantha). They were strong personalities, and they certainly gave me a run for my money in class. They were very popular in Year 9 - and they knew it.

Danny always played the joker - his simulated burps and farts seemed to punctuate much of what was supposed to be silent working time. Meanwhile, Samantha would breeze into my lessons 10 minutes late - to the acknowledgement of the acolytes in her girl-gang - and would always play up to any confrontation that resulted.

But both these children had redeeming qualities. Danny had a real curiosity about stories and wanted to impress me. Sam had great leadership potential and was very able in English.

With Danny, I tactically ignored his misbehaviour. If he called out, for example, I gave a long stare but didn't respond verbally. When met with his inappropriate noises, I would ignore him for the remainder of the lesson, and that seemed to frustrate him.

He seemed to need to gain attention in order to belong to the group and raise his self-esteem. I stressed that he already had my attention because I could see that he enjoyed his English work, and that we would work together to make sure he fulfilled his true potential. In time, Danny became a fairly focused student, albeit a somewhat excitable one, and began to take greater pride in himself.

Samantha had a group of devotees in Year 9 as well as a network of contacts in Year 10 who helped her to intimidate her peers. She would often truant from lessons - but when she did turn up it was always with a flourish that disrupted the whole class. She seemed to be saying, "I only belong when people pay me lots of attention."

I tried to stress Samantha's high ability and acknowledged her popularity.

I suggested that she might feel a different kind of pride and confidence if she took a leadership role in class.

During a performance poetry contest in class, I gave her centre stage in keeping score, and asked her to write answers on the board. She had a real flair for writing iambic pentameters and she taught the principles of metre to her classmates, who listened carefully to her and willingly had a go.

And she was absolutely chuffed.

She often fell off the wagon and resorted to surliness if I didn't indulge her. At these times, I mirrored her behaviour to her after the lesson.

She'd laugh at how absurd she looked, and her maturity would return. She responded to being treated as an equal. Like Danny, she just couldn't bear to be ignored.

Sue Heffernan Smith teaches at Wootten Bassett school in Wiltshire


"The teacher must find ways to channel strong characters' energy in positive directions"

Some children feel a desperate urge to be centre-stage - to stand in the spotlight and win the approval of their audience. Unfortunately, they will often gain this approval by playing a silly or aggressive "character".

Undermining the teacher in front of the class is a great way to get attention, and it takes a certain type of courage to take you on. Pupils who have the guts to do this will inevitably impress their peer group.

Attention-seeking children appear confident, but typically they have very low self-esteem. These pupils' misbehaviour is symptomatic of a need to please others, to feel important and to acquire a sense of self-worth.

Danny knows the class will laugh at his antics. Samantha impresses others through her reputation for being "hard".

With his childish, inappropriate behaviour, Danny is getting his revenge in first. He cannot believe that anyone would like the "normal" version of Danny, so he plays the class clown instead. By undermining the expected norms of classroom behaviour, he gets himself a reputation as a joker. This becomes a vicious cycle - the other pupils look to him for amusement and he must fulfil their expectations.

It is up to the teacher to break this cycle. Our instinct is often to focus attention on a misbehaving child, but this reinforces the negative behaviour we want to prevent. Learn to fight that instinctive reaction, and give attention only to those who behave in a positive way.

It's hard to stay calm and cool, but Sue has done well to ignore Danny's noises. To overcome the problem of calling out, give the class a cue for contributions. Start any question-and-answer session by saying, "Put up your hand if you can tell me..." This focuses all pupils on the behaviour you want to see.

Like Sue, you can channel the attention-seeker's energy into positive, confidence-building activities, such as "being teacher" and delivering part of the lesson. Danny lacks awareness of what is socially acceptable, so talking to him about why these noises are inappropriate might help.

Sometimes, attention-seeking is used to hide a lack of ability or understanding. Take time to check that the child is not struggling with the work and messing around to hide those difficulties.

Samantha's "tough girl" image probably masks a deep-seated insecurity. She gathers a gang of peers around her and keeps adults at arm's length. In her gang, life feels safe and secure. It is as if she cannot take the risk of giving her trust or respect to adults - for fear that they might let her down.

Again, Sue has found lots of ways to boost Samantha's confidence, and has acknowledged her popularity and high ability. If a child has a reputation, it is be tempting to expect the worst. I make a point of saying early on that I'll judge my pupils solely on what they do in my lessons.

But a few words of caution. Ignoring low-level misbehaviour can work, but keep your expectations high. It is unfair to the class if you always let a child "get away" with poor behaviour, so you need to judge when the time has come to intervene. At this stage, give the child a choice. She can behave as you wish and be rewarded, or choose to misbehave, but she must accept the consequences.

There is also a danger that we might focus too much on our strong characters. Aim the spotlight at the quiet majority who always work and behave well. Show attention-seekers that this is the way to gain centre-stage in your class.

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


* Know when to ignore misbehaviour: Silly, low-level misbehaviour can often be ignored as long as it's not dangerous. Refuse to react to a child tapping a pen, for instance - he or she will soon run out of steam.

* Stay calm: Winding up teacher gives children a great sense of power.

Breathe deeply, count to 10, but don't lose your temper - it only gives pupils a motive to mess you about even more.

* Give your attention to positive behaviour: Keep your eyes peeled for children who are working and behaving well, and offer them lavish praise.

Always remember that your attention is a powerful reward.

* Judge what you see: When a pupil arrives with a reputation, it can be very tempting to expect the worst from that child. Give all your pupils a fair chance, and judge them only by what they do for you.

* Find ways to boost confidence: Even though attention-seekers appear confident on the surface, they are often exactly the opposite. Find as many positive ways as you can to boost the child's confidence.

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