Why Ignoring May Backfire: Positive Alternatives for Disruptive Behavior

Some students will stop at nothing to get attention in class. Banging on the desk, making burping sounds, making inappropriate comments - we have all experienced these tedious behaviors that stop the learning and wear down even the most dedicated and experienced teacher.
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Some students will stop at nothing to get attention in class. Banging on the desk, making burping sounds, making inappropriate comments - we have all experienced these tedious behaviors that stop the learning and wear down even the most dedicated and experienced teacher.

Over time, most learn more appropriate ways of drawing the teacher's attention. The distracting behavior subsides. However, there some for whom attention-seeking behaviors are a comfort zone. They continue to yell, throw things, and otherwise highjack the classroom while the helpless teacher is frustrated and out of patience.

In these cases, ignoring seems logical - we've been taught when a student wants attention and we give it to them, we might be reinforcing the behavior. But it is not that simple. When a student a student seeks attention in disruptive ways, it may be due to underlying distress or uncomfortable feelings, such as anxiety. Ignoring the behavior can increase anxiety or discomfort and subsequently increase the student's behavior.

Ignoring can accidentally reinforce less safe behavior
Raphael sat under the desk during math class. When his teacher ignored the behavior he ramped up to something that couldn't be ignored. He lifted the desk and banged it down repeatedly until the teacher finally responded. Raphael learned that banging works better than sitting under his desk.

Teachers can unintentionally be part of reinforcing the escalation in their students who are laser focused on getting attention. When a student finds a behavior that the teacher is forced to respond to, they have learned a less safe behavior that "works" to get the teacher's attention and will move right to that behavior in the future.

Ignoring can unintentionally dismiss the student's feelings
Betsy, a third grader with a history of trauma and generalized anxiety disorder, asked the teacher for more crackers. The teacher explained everyone had six crackers so, to be fair, he couldn't give her anymore -- plus there were no crackers left. Betsy made an angry face, folded her arms and started to kick the leg of the table repeatedly. The teacher ignored her and went to the rug to teach, telling Betsy to join the lesson when she's ready. Betsy remained in her seat, kicking the table with tears streaming down her face for 28 minutes until the lesson was over.

Behavior is communication. The teacher's behavior is no exception. From Betsy's viewpoint, the teacher ignored her because he didn't like or care about her. These feelings impacted her relationship with him, which may have led to broken trust and less compliant behavior in the future.

In truth, the teacher cares deeply for Betsy, often losing sleep over how to help her. Once the student's interpretation of being ignored was pointed out, he felt terribly and asked for alternative approaches.

When in doubt, validate
A student engaging in negative attention-seeking behaviors can be so off-putting that we don't always react empathetically. If a teacher responds to any behavior with empathy and validation, the intensity is typically diffused. The best response may be, "I'm sorry you're so upset" or "I know this is hard for you."

Betsy's teacher could have responded empathetically, "I am so sorry that I can't give you more crackers. I feel bad. I get mad, too, when I don't have the snack I want." This way the student will know the teacher cares, even if she doesn't like his ultimate answer. A similar response would be for the teacher to realize and acknowledge that asking for more crackers isn't a big deal and maybe there's a compromise that's fair and comfortable for student and teacher, like borrowing some crackers in another classroom.

What is the student gaining from negative attention seeking?
To come up with an alternative to ignoring, it's important to understand why students engage in negative attention-seeking behavior. Actually, negative attention is easier to get and understand than positive attention, which can be unpredictable and subtle. For example, a student appropriately doing independent work in class may get a subtle smile, head nod, check on his paper, or mild "good job" from the teacher, after doing work for 40 minutes. Here's a common scenario: A student throws a heavy book down on the floor during a quiet moment in class. For him, this is:

•Efficient: a small movement garners an immediate reaction;
•Predictable: the behavior gets a response every time;
•Obvious: the response from the teacher includes exaggerated facial expressions and a voice tone and volume that's easy to understand;
•Dramatic: the reaction from the teacher may include gasping, yelling, shouting, rushing to the student, or sending the student to the office where several adults may process the event, including the principal.

We need to come up with alternative strategies for delivering positive attention that mirror these more intense reactions automatically received from inappropriate behavior.

Alternatives to Ignoring

More Efficient Positive Attention
For a student with oppositional behavior and underdeveloped social/emotional skills, demonstrating appropriate and expected behavior is an accomplishment. I recommend celebrating expected behaviors (e.g. walking into class and sitting down). Take the time to praise these moments, making positive attention easier and faster to earn. If a student rarely raises his hand, call on him and thank him for participating or acknowledge him with a nonverbal thumbs-up if you call on someone else first.

More Consistent, Predictable Positive Attention
You can wear a timer to remind yourself to give the student attention every few minutes or even have a timer visible to the student to make the attention predictable. Say, "I'll be back to see how you are doing in five minutes." Then set the timer. This offers the student a transparent and reassuring way to predict when you'll be back.

More Obvious Positive Attention
Our voices and facial expressions are exaggerated and more obvious if we react to a student when we're aggravated. Positive attention is often nonverbal and subdued (e.g. a smile or nod). Use an exaggerated affect and tone of voice when giving positive attention. It helps a student who isn't great at reading social cues.

Respond More Dramatically or Intensely

Fortunately, it's rare to have a student who seeks the dramatic aspect of negative attention, which can make a student feel powerful (e.g. bolting out of the building with five adults after him). For students with a pattern of demonstrating behaviors resulting in a dramatic response, be aware of this and be as dramatic and enthusiastic when cheerleading for expected proper behaviors.

Breaking the Cycle
The priority of teachers is for all their students to feel cared for and respected. We need to remember that behavior is how the student communicates to us that they are in distress or anxious and there are more supportive, empathetic, responses than ignoring the student and his behavior. To minimize negative-attention-seeking behavior and to break a negative interaction pattern, you need to make positive attention compete with negative attention in some or all of the domains the student is seeking: efficiency, predictability, obviousness, and intensity/drama. You may only need to use these techniques for a short time before the negative attention cycle is broken. Then you can taper off until positive attention can be delivered in a less frequent and less intense way, all the while continuing to validate the student's feelings and foster a positive relationship.

Jessica Minahan, MEd, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator, as well as a consultant to schools nationwide. She is the author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, with Nancy Rappaport (Harvard Education Press, 2012) and author of The Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions for Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors (Harvard Education Press, 2014).

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