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Attention addiction

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By Paul Dixbehaviour specialist

Disruptive behaviour can be very distracting for you and your class and cost you precious teaching time. Paul Dix provides ways to deal with attention-seeking children without neglecting your class

Cheeky boy

Disruptive behaviour

Spending a disproportionate amount of time dealing with children who persistently disrupt is not fair. It is not fair on the rest of the children; those who come every day, work diligently and follow the rules deserve so much more. It is also not fair on ‘Kyle’ who is chewing the curtains in anger; he needs to learn that what may work outside school does not work inside it. He needs to learn it quickly, before labels form and attitudes become entrenched.

You are not going to ‘solve’ the behaviour of children who enjoy breaking the rules by punishing them. Confrontation and shouts make Kyle feel important – you need to teach him that these behaviours don’t work in the classroom, and wean him off the attention addiction. You must do this with some skilled teaching of new behaviours.

Save time with signs

Children read signs more quickly than your intent or voice. We give Kyle a lot of attention by repeating the same requests or running through the same arguments. Using signs and icons allows your intervention to be quick, private and often non-verbal. For example, a small token with a clear image on it can be used as a credit to reinforce appropriate behaviour. Private conversations about behaviour can be held standing next to the list of rule icons, or you can simply tap the laminated set of symbols as you pass them. Instead of using your energy to constantly address the behaviour of one child, save it for when it is most deserved: for children who do the right thing.

Try using icons on children’s desks as rule reminders, routines posted as sets of symbols in relevant areas of the classroom or ‘conduct posters’ with symbols created by the children. Teach the precise behaviours that you want to see in the context you want to see them.

Be positive

Catch Kyle when he is behaving appropriately, even if he is just taking a breather! Gently interrupt his good behaviour: thank him for doing the right thing and show him the icon that relates to the behaviour he is learning. Give him a taste of how it feels to be seen as important for doing the right things. Kyle’s behaviour is not going to change overnight. There may be a difficult period of ‘cold turkey’ as you wean him off negative attention, so you need to persist with new strategies for at least 30 days. New behaviours and routines take time to embed and become habit.

With more time for the rest of the class you can start to change the culture of your classroom. Show those children who stay under the radar that their efforts are valued. Send positive notes home for children whose efforts sometimes go unnoticed, display large photos on the wall appropriately and create displays that reflect the achievement of the class team, not just individuals.

Avoid negative labels

Now address the wider issues that are affecting Kyle’s behaviour. The expectations set in the primary years can become firmly entrenched: if you tell Kyle often enough that he is naughty or disruptive this will begin to define his attitude.

Do everything you can to resist reaffirming the label – a child’s behaviour is not their identity. Change the language you use, and constantly remind him that you know he can and will behave appropriately. Applying labels can damage your relationship with a child, and can also affect a child’s self-perception and your ability to manage your own behaviour. It perpetuates undesirable cycles of behaviour and leaves your language littered with negatives. Neither will it allow you to examine the strategic changes that may need to be made to your teaching.

Prove to Kyle that his behaviour is not his identity. Over time you will help him to understand that even if the old behaviours work at home occasionally, only positive behaviour will work in the classroom.

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Reduce attention addiction in 30 days

  • Agree rules and routine with the class and display them through signs, symbols and icons.
  • Reset expectations: make sure that children understand ‘this is how we do it here’.
  • Resist labelling children in the classroom and in the staffroom.
  • Turn your attention to children who are doing the right thing.
  • Starve disruptive behaviours; refuse to encourage them with negative attention.
  • Use sincere, personal praise – not flattery, bribery or false reinforcement.
  • Prove to everyone that the culture of the classroom has changed.
  • Find personal ways of allowing everyone to feel important, and ways to appreciate the quietest and noisiest children.

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Image © Poprugin Aleksey/

Sue Cowley

Helpful advice

If you’re experiencing disruptive behaviour and need some more advice, don’t forget that Sue Cowley is available to answer your questions. Simply post your question in our forum including ‘For Sue’ in the title.


  1. Rosemary Kronby
    on 23 December 2010

    Attention addiction

    interesting – good advice -examples of appropriate icons would be nice


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