Centre of attention

24th February 2006 at 00:00
One boy spoils the reward system for others. Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises


"This child does not respond positively to other strategies that I use"

I am a newly qualified teacher teaching Year 2 at a large primary school in Slough. I have a class of 26 pupils, seven of whom are on the special educational needs register for behavioural difficulties.

Much of the behaviour displayed by the children in my class is low-level disruption and does not affect anyone if isolated to just one child. If, however, a group of children become disruptive, it has an effect on the learning of the rest of the class.

I would like to ask your advice about one particular child who finds it hard to accept others being rewarded. Three weeks before Christmas I introduced two "star worker" chairs into the class. I use these as a reward for a period of sustained good behaviour or work at the end of each lesson; and the following session, I choose two people to sit on them. They are used when the remainder of the class is sat on the carpet.

With this particular child, the chairs have worked incredibly well, but a problem has since arisen. He is highly motivated by the chairs and displays positive behaviour for the first session of the day which sometimes results in him being chosen to sit on a chair. He then continues to behave but, in order to keep the rest of the class positive and motivated, I choose two different children to sit on the chairs. When this happens, the child becomes incredibly disruptive, throwing equipment around the classroom, crawling under tables and chairs, and annoying other children.

I feel that I am stuck between pacifying this one child's behaviour to the detriment of rewarding others, or continuing with the same process and facing very challenging behaviour.

It is this particular type of behaviour, in comparison with that displayed by many of the other children in the class, that I am finding particularly difficult to manage, as this child does not respond positively to other strategies that I use, such as stickers, certificates and house points.

I am also aware that his behaviour disturbs the other children when they are concentrating while sat on the carpet or at their tables, and I would really appreciate any advice that you could give me as to strategies that could help to control and manage this child's behaviour.

Thank you very much for any help you can offer.

Katherine Hester teaches at Montem primary school in Slough


"He is a classic attention-seeker. Everything he does is designed to get others looking at him"

For any motivational system to work, the reward on offer must be something that the children want to earn. If they hate the taste of carrots, but yearn for bananas, then have a whole bunch available for your class.

In this case, the child is too keen on the reward - he wants every single banana for himself. He is so desperate to earn and keep his place on the chair that he cannot bear anyone else winning the prize.

When looking to solve behaviour problems, use a range of approaches until you find one that works. Katherine could try three different methods here:

"fixing" the system, adapting it, or dumping it completely.

The first line of attack is the simplest: fixing it so that the child only sits on the chair late in the day. That way he has less time to be disruptive after receiving the reward. I suspect that this might not work, though, because he will be unable to maintain his motivation through the day. He will be too desperate to receive instant gratification.

Katherine could adapt the system to see if she can get it working smoothly.

For instance, she might add an additional level, giving a star worker sticker for each 10-minute block spent on the chair. These blocks could only be earned once in each morning or afternoon session, with five stickers in a week leading to an additional reward.

Katherine should also make "getting off the chair" into a key feature of the reward, increasing the child's motivation to comply. The whole class could join in with a countdown from 10 to zero, and "jumping up" at the end of the time could be made to sound really exciting. He might just fall for this approach.

If adapting the reward system doesn't work, Katherine should change to something completely different. The current system relies on a public show of praise, clearly something this child craves. His behaviour afterwards is probably exacerbated by the public nature of the reward. This child is a classic attention-seeker. Everything he does is designed to get others looking at him. This reward system is making him even more motivated to gain public attention. When Katherine has to remove him from the chair, he feels that all attention is being removed from him as well.

Where peer approval is really important to a child, have the whole class working together to earn a reward. Katherine might try the "marbles in a jar" idea. Get hold of an empty jar and some marbles and place the jar on your desk. Whenever a child behaves or works well, put a marble in the jar.

When the jar is full, the whole class gets a special treat. For example, a trip somewhere special or a takeaway pizza at lunch time.

Katherine should also find ways of giving this child attention for good learning behaviour. For instance, he might help give part of a lesson, writing something on the board or explaining a task to the class. He might also like handing out resources or going to the office to collect something for his teacher. It's possible to make anything seem like a reward; it's all to do with how you frame it. ("I've got a really special task for someone to do, let's see who's behaving really well.") With attention-seeking children, it can feel like you end up pandering to them just so that they don't disrupt your lessons. Try not to - the rest of the children are equally deserving of your time and attention. This child needs to learn how to change his behaviour for the school environment, the sooner the better.

Sometimes we must be tough: we have to let a child misbehave and suffer the consequences. Make the choices clear for all your pupils - do as I say and get the rewards, or refuse to comply and accept the sanctions. Eventually they will get the message.

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


* Don't make life hard for yourself: If a behaviour management approach becomes difficult to apply, don't slog on with it endlessly. Try lots of different strategies until you find something that works for you and your children.

* Match the method to the classchild: Every class, and every child, is unique. There is no single right answer that will work every time. Match the approaches you use to your own situation.

* Be creative with rewards: Use the systems that your school suggests, but also try some more imaginative rewards. Often, the more unusual these are, the better.

* Keep changing your reward systems: Reward systems have a limited shelf life. Even if your children were well motivated by a system last term, you might find that it has now run out of steam.

* Take care with public displays of attention: Giving public praise can backfire because it encourages a competitive "win or lose" mentality. Be sparing in your use of this approach.

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