Maren Schmidt: Noticing the right stuff

In my elementary and junior high school years, I always sat in the back row. Except in my seventh grade English class.

I wondered why I inevitably sat in the back against the wall. Alphabetic order, I presumed. The back row perspective allowed me to observe everyone in my classrooms, and even as a second-grader, I could see that the children on the front two rows got most, if not all, of the teacher's smiles and pats on the back.

The concrete block walls chilled and isolated. Not until I was in my thirties and reading a book on classroom management did I understand why I sat at the back of the classroom.

There is a strategy of assigning students to the front of the room who need help to stay on task. Children who follow direction and work independently are put in the back of the room. In retrospect, occupying the rear seat was sort of a backhanded compliment.

Troublemakers, though, never sat on the back row. From the cold wall, the troublemakers looked like the teacher's pets. In the back row, we were marooned in a sea of desks a thousand miles away from a smile.

The front row strategy, I admit, was effective. Our classrooms ran smoothly as teachers paid attention to those children who needed firm and vigilant direction to learn, and encouraged them with a word, a smile, or a touch of the hand on the back.

My teachers taught their inattentive students to pay attention to the right stuff. My teachers knew that to help children learn to do the right things, you have to catch children doing something right, instead of catching them doing something wrong.

When we give undue attention to behavior that doesn't benefit the child's efforts in building concentration and independence, we inadvertently create a reason for the child to continue the "wrong" behavior in order to get attention.

Ignoring unacceptable behavior can be difficult, but we should only stop the behavior if it is dangerous to people or property. We need to catch our children doing something right and let them know unequivocally that they are on the path to independence and stronger focus. How else are they to understand when they are headed in a positive direction?

Three-year-old Bobby, the youngest of four children, pulled stunts to get attention by jumping on the dinner table, throwing his dishes, or running out the front door. Bobby was an expert at provoking a sibling's tirade or inducing a round of laughter. Unless Bobby did something outrageous, his family was too busy to notice to him.

Bobby's behavior stemmed from a need to belong. Bobby's antics met with such success that that he created more outrageous behavior daily. Not knowing what else to do, Bobby's parents and siblings decided to take their pediatrician's advice and catch Bobby doing something right.

"The first day," Bobby's mother, Kay said, "the only thing positive I could find was that Bobby got in his booster seat by himself. But we resolved to not give Bobby any attention for his disruptive behaviors and made a concentrated effort to pay attention to him before he demanded our attention with some stunt."

"In a couple of weeks, as we focused on Bobby and gave him attention for those positive behaviors, Bobby's mischievous stunts became less frequent. In a month they were gone."

Let's pay attention to the right stuff, even for the children in the back row.

Next Week: Misbehavior Meets Needs

Write to Maren@KidsTalkNews.com

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