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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE of the Classroom #10: Action

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

This is post #10 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams. This post contains excerpts from my book Take CHARGE of the Classroom.

Here’s an example of ignoring behaviors that are counterproductive to the class. Let’s say you are an elementary teacher and you want your students to come to the carpet for story time. This is a procedure you’ve practiced many times and most students come and sit quietly on their assigned spot.

Except for John.

John thinks it’s great fun to instead crawl under the kidney table next to the carpet and stare out from there, making faces at the other students. When this happens, you have several options. One, you can fuss at John and demand that he get out from under the table. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Either way, he won’t be in a place to learn because his brain will be flooded with negative emotions as he’s scolded. Worst case scenario, he defies your authority and you’re left with either looking incompetent or dragging him out bodily, neither of which is a good resolution.

Another option, however, is to use differential social attention. Knowing that this is Johns’ go-to behavior when he wants attention, you starve him of it. You refuse to acknowledge him and instead heap praise on students who are meeting your expectations. You’ve already held many conversations with the class as a whole about ignoring students when they are misbehaving so you also praise them for staying focused on you while you read the story.

All of this happens while John is under the table sticking his tongue out at his classmates. After a while, though, John will grow bored because he’s not getting the reaction he wants. He might come out and reluctantly join the students on the carpet. If he does, you find every excuse you can to praise him for meeting your expectations. It doesn’t matter so much that he did it in his own time but that he did it at all.

In this alternate timeline, the worst-case scenario is that John stays under the table during the entire read aloud. Rather than growing bored and joining the class, he stays and continues to make faces. In this scenario, you can find an opportunity after the students are back at their desks and sit on the floor next to John. Talking calmly, you can explain how his actions did not meet your expectations but you know that he’ll make better choices next time. You can even explain that you don’t give attention to students misbehaving but instead focus on those making the right choices.

Conversation over, you allow John to choose what he wants to do in his own time. By taking these measures, even though it is a drawn-out approach, you’ve not thrown him into an amygdala hijack or created a power struggle. He can make the right choice without shame because you never showed him disdain or disapproval.

What can you do tomorrow?

Focus on the positive. As you increase your positive noticing to make it predictable and recurring, work to reduce or eliminate your attention to poor behavior. While it will take some retraining, both of yourself and your students, the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term discomfort.

Gird your loins. Be prepared for an extinction burst as students addicted to negative attention start showing withdrawal symptoms.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Students learn to inhibit negative behaviors through teacher actions, including:

· Receiving positive, enthusiastic attention when meeting expectations,

· Having negative behaviors ignored; and

· Not being shamed for making poor choices.


Here's the funny thing about behavior. Focusing on inappropriate behavior will never fix anything because it does not teach the appropriate actions. At best, you might be able to coerce students into inhibiting their negative urges. But that doesn't teach them what to do instead.

There are two types of positive behaviors that you should be on the watch for. The first type of behavior to scan for are initiation behaviors. When students start, or initiate, an action in accordance with your procedures or expectations, that is the moment to praise them. Even simple behaviors are worthy of your notice and should be commented on immediately.

An often overlooked type of behavior, but one worthy of your notice, is a continuation behavior. Sometimes students are making the best choice not just by starting an action but continuing it for a certain period of time. If students are supposed to be working with their partners to solve a math problem, they not only need to initiate the correct behaviors (e.g., writing their names on their papers, quietly talking together, showing their work), they also need to continue those behaviors for a set amount of time.

In many situations, misbehavior occurs not because students can’t initiate the correct behaviors but because they can’t sustain them. To maximize classroom learning, students need to grow their stamina in continuing desired behaviors.

What can you do tomorrow?

Differentiate. As you continue to use the power of differential social attention, note the opportunities for noticing and praising continuation behaviors.

Notice continuation. Take special notice of students who are staying focused, working independently, or even showing their work. As you describe these actions with praise statements, you’ll begin to see more of them in the future.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Students receive differential social attention to reinforce good behaviors, such as:

· Noticing by the teacher when correct actions are initiated;

· Positive praise for continuing desired behaviors; and

· Immediate, descriptive feedback that narrates specific actions.

To read more posts in this series, click here.

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