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Little Individual Attention Goes a Long Way

Susan Notes: Here's a great lesson in human dynamics, and you get a good disciplinary technique as a bonus.

By Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D.

It was one of those classes you hear stories about. You wonder what the counselors could have been thinking to put all of these kids together in the same room at the same time. All the usual suspects were there and they were in full cry.

I like the divide and conquer method when I get these classes. I use the seating chart to change the geography, separating kids, moving kids up or back. Sometimes I change all the seats every week just on the off chance I will get lucky and some combination will result in a quieter, less difficult class.

I wander around while I am talking. I try a little “extinction,” where you ignore bad behavior in its early stages and it goes away due to lack of reaction. I stand next to behavior problem kids, but don't say anything to them. The simple physical proximity calms them down and I don't have to interrupt what I am saying, or get involved in a verbal duel with my student.

There are a pile of these subtle, non-confrontational classroom management techniques that work well. I like them and combined with seating chart manipulation and flowers in the room, usually work to settle things down over time. I can have a nice, family-like environment and avoid the police state feeling of stamping out problem after problem. It's a corporate culture idea where I make my classroom a nice place, use all the subtle tricks, and peer pressure tends to help me out.

Anyway, it was one of those classes. And there was this boy who was a low skills, behavior problem, oppositional-defiant, stir the class up kind of kid. I went through all of my tricks and nothing worked. I would give the class an assignment, and he would go into his disruptive act. As I watched him from across the room, I ran through my ideas and came up empty. But going through the catalog of non-confrontational classroom management ideas that did not work gave me another idea that did work.

I really like the stand next to the problem and say nothing trick. So I decided that I would pull up a chair and simply sit down next to this kid. And that's what I did. Of course he got all stirred up and wanted to know what I was doing. I said I wasn't doing anything. I said I just felt like sitting down while the class was working and thought I would sit there in case he needed any help on the assignment. He protested and assured me he needed no help. I told him that was fine and said no more.

He fussed around for awhile and I ignored him, looking at everything in the room except him or his work. After about two minutes of this, he settled down. I quietly told him that he had done a good job remembering to put his name on the paper. Then I complimented his clear handwriting. I told him good job when he finished a sentence. Mostly I said nothing and just sat there.

Sometimes I would get up and walk around, helping other students. But I always returned to my chair next to his desk. I never said anything negative when I said anything at all. Mostly I just sat next to the kid and relaxed. There is a nice comforting energy that is exchanged when you simply sit next to kids. I get the feeling that this is a rare event in their lives. An adult is either telling them what to do or telling them they are doing something wrong. Adults seldom are physically close to them without some purpose. So for about half of one class, I just sat there.

It was the Mother Simpson idea. My mother has four children, six grandchildren, and a growing collection of great grandchildren. At 87 years old, she has raising kids boiled down to the two-step plan. She says if you feed a kid and stay in the same room with a kid, you can solve every problem there is. I have tried this with my kids and it works.

If you feed them they feel better physically. If you stay in the same room with them, sooner or later they will say something to you. All you have to do is be there and pay attention. Eventually the dirt gets dragged out and a relationship develops as you talk things over. It's great. You don't have to be a parent genius. You just have to be there. The kids will do the rest. They will guide you and help you help them solve their problems. This is what happened with this one difficult student.

I took to sitting in a chair next to this guy for at least part of every class. I didn't say anything; I just sat there watching my class. Eventually he realized I wasn't there telling him to do anything. I wasn't telling him he was doing something wrong. I was just there, available if he had anything to say. And just like Mother Simpson always said, eventually he spilled his guts.

He would test-drive an insult or something, and that didn't get anything but a quiet reminder to get back to work. He finally asked a question, which got immediate attention. He asked more questions and got more help. I was sitting right there. He got quiet, positive, friendly attention. And all he had to do was turn his head and ask. If I said anything at all, it was usually some compliment, some good job on this or good job on that comment I would make up just to pass the time. Then, after about a week, I realized that this kid had changed. He was acting differently.

He would come into class and get his materials out. When I gave an assignment, he would work on it. When I was sitting next to him, he would show me his work. He would ask me questions- about the work, about school, about all kinds of things. I never made any kind of big deal out of me sitting next to him, but every day, for a short amount of time, I was in my chair sitting next to him.

I still interacted with all of my other students. I would get up and down, walk around, stand in front of the class teaching something, all the usual activities. But every day I spent some time sitting next to this kid. And the kid changed. After about a month he turned into one of the more pleasant students in my class.

He was still very low skilled and very labor-intensive. But when all else failed, a little proximity seemed to work. And it worked with several other students in the same quiet way.

So, when you have one of those classes, and you have one of those kids, you might try the most obvious pedagogy. Sit down with the kid and see what happens.

Dr. Steven W. Simpson is President of Simpson Communications. Dr. Simpson worked for nine years as a public high school language arts and journalism teacher in Washington State. He taught business communications and writing courses for the University of Phoenix, has developed and managed several Web site projects and works as a Communications Consultant, Writer, Editor and Web Development Manager. Dr. Simpson served as an elected member of the Snoqualmie Valley School District Board of Directors. He completed his undergraduate degree at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. His Continuing K-12 teaching certificate is from the University of Puget Sound. Dr. Simpson holds two graduate degrees from the University of Washington School of Communications. His M.A. is on high school press law, and his Ph.D. is a comparative study of constitutional protection for freedom of expression in Canada and the United States. Dr. Simpson has lived in the Northwest for 25 years.

— Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D.

2006-01-08
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