"Ignore it! It's only attention-seeking.”

Individual students

This is often the comment about intrusive or disruptive student behaviour.  However, it raises more questions than it answers.

If behaviour is driven by the individual's needs, then it is more accurate to describe it as “attention-needing” behaviour.  Why might the student need the attention of others?  Perhaps they feel overlooked or excluded in particular circumstances or more seriously in large sectors of their life.  In this case, ignoring the behaviour will only deepen the need and drive the behaviour to more desperate extremes.  Of course teachers are wary of reinforcing the behaviour by make it successful in its underlying purpose.  So there is a dilemma – ignore it and make it worse or acknowledge it and strengthen it as a pattern.  

As far as is possible give minimum attention to the behaviour while giving strong attention to the student in other ways.  For example, if the student is talking loudly, move to them and remind them to get back to their task.  Then have a look at their work – is there something there for positive attention?  Even if there isn't much done, because the student has been talking, can you comment on a good start and ask what their next step is? Or ask them to explain some part of their idea?   Another approach is to distract the student by asking them to undertake a class task such as handing out or collecting materials or deliver something to another part of the school.

The advice to the teacher to ignore it assumes that it is the teacher's attention that is being sought.  If the behaviour is directed towards peers, the student may not notice that you are ignoring them.

Ignoring the behaviour poses other risks.  If the lack of acknowledgement strengthens the drivers, the behaviour may reach a level that cannot be ignored.  When you then respond, you are effectively reinforcing the higher level. While you ignore the behaviour, other students, seeing you allow it to happen, may interpret this negatively as, eg, weakness or favouritism.  

If your experience of the student confirms that the driving need for the behaviour is a desire for your attention, then plan to provide this pre-emptively by acknowledging them before the problematic behaviour appears.   Strategies might include:

·     connecting with some running gag such as mock rivalry about sports teams

·     calling on them to answer or undertake tasks (but not so often as to cause resentment or mockery from others)

·     seating them where they are often in your eye line

·     consciously focussing attention on them when they speak

·     ensuring you greet them if encountering them outside of class

·     arrange for attention from others eg sending them to show their work to someone or assigning them as a student-buddy.

If you give them attention they will not have such a strong need to seek it.  The aim is to assist them to feel secure in your regard and so reduce the urgency of the drive.


from the News & Views of

Anne Williams, Consulting Educator

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