Children want attention. In fact, children need attention just as grass needs rain. If they cannot get positive attention, negative attention will do. So in the Strictly Positive Teacher’s classrooms there are endless opportunities to gain positive attention, and no opportunities at all for negative attention.
Lets go back a few steps. When a child is born, it requires the attention of a prime carer for all of its needs. Wherever and whenever those needs are not met, the child will need to employ different techniques to attract the attention of the caregiver to have their needs met. A baby has limited options: what it does is to cry. The longer it’s needs remain unsatisfied, the longer it cries. Most new parents quickly develop a checklist for when their baby cries: Hungry? Tired? Windy? Wet? In this way they can quickly meet the baby’s needs and stop the crying. There are some parents who, for various reasons, are unable to interact with their baby on even this basic level and then the child will develop increasingly intractable problems. But for the vast majority of parents and children, this behaviour and response is a healthy and manageable communication.
As the child develops and their needs (or perceived needs) become more complex, so do the behaviours they exhibit, and so it becomes more difficult for the parents to interpret, and problems may start to emerge. These may be to do with the quality as well as the quantity of attention. Some young people in our classes appear with a history of too little attention, some with too much. For most children, parents will have more or less got the balance of demand and response broadly right, and children will understand the way in which adults and young people interact, and will also understand the the grown up is in charge. But not always.
Another time, in another post, I will explore Attachment Disorder and the reasons why it is essential that we all know how to address it, but for now I will just talk about how a teacher can handle the needs of young people in their classes for attention.
The crucial thing is that when we meet them, we have to set the expectations for the way in which communication will be managed in our classrooms.
“Behaviour is communication.” I have seen these words attributed to several educationalists and child development experts, but I heard it from Louise Bombér, who speaks and writes brilliantly on the subject of Attachment Disorder.
And so it is completely understandable that within minutes, seconds even in some cases, we can see the level of need demonstrated.
Most teachers will set out their expectations when they first meet a class. Quite often these expectations will include a detailed analysis of what will happen when things go wrong. Most teachers, and schools, have a very clear sanctions ladder, starting with verbal warnings and going through detentions of various levels, maybe exclusions from classrooms, being ‘parked’ in another classroom, up to temporary and then permanent exclusion. Obviously the classroom teacher doesn’t have to deal with the draconian end of this ladder, but the message is clear: we have numerous ways of dealing with you when you get something wrong.
Much vaguer, though, is the way in which we deal with those who are getting it right. Doing well is its own reward after all, and the norm is that students will do well. Those who come from a healthy background with what Louise Bombér calls “good enough” parenting or caring will accept this, and will be able to see that working hard and doing well at school will lead inevitably to good outcomes and enhanced chances of success in life.
The problem in the classroom is that this is not clear to everyone. There will be a sizeable minority of students who need attention. Lots of attention. That sanction ladder looks like a whole truckload of attention. If it is not offset by a reward ladder, or an alternative source of attention, then it’ll do.
If we accept, as pragmatic adult beings, that we cannot actually change anybody’s behaviour except our own, then it is sensible to think about how we can modify our own classroom practice in order to ensure that what we see in the classroom is positive behaviour.
It it is therefore a wise teacher who sets out ways in which students can get positive attention and subsequent rewards in their classroom. Multiple ways. Creative ways. Enjoyable ways.
I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. It requires a fundamental shift in attitude and it is hard work to master the techniques. But once they have been mastered, and their use becomes normal, your classroom will become Strictly Positive, and you’ll never go back.