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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE of the Classroom #4: Attention

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

This is post #4 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams.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.

The most common behavior management system that is employed throughout classrooms across the country is destined for failure. A large majority of teachers rely on punishment and reward, the carrot and the stick, to coax and cajole students to behave.

It’s exhausting and doesn’t work. Let’s take a look at why.

Both ends of the spectrum, punishment and reward, target one key emotion in children – fear. For the former, the relationship is fairly obvious. Children should do what they are told or else they’ll be punished through an increasing (and typically intricate) system of penalties.

Students who don’t want to have their name written on the board, a note sent or a phone call home, or, heaven forbid, a visit to the office will toe the line and do their best to comply.

This fails for two spectacular reasons. First and foremost, it’s time-consuming. You suddenly transform from a loving teacher to a behavior cop, sniffing out crime and always on the lookout for trouble. When you focus your attention on spotting misbehavior, that’s what you’ll always find. I’m not sure about you, but I got into education to transform lives, not to moonlight as a warden. That trajectory of behavior management doesn’t let up because it’s a never-ending job without completion or fulfillment.

Punishment and reward both fail for the same reason. They both operate off of fear. As master Yoda told us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” For those that don’t subscribe to the Star Wars mythology and need something closer to neuroscience to convince them, fear activates the survival state in children.

When we notice children’s behaviors and actions, we direct their power of attention in the same way. We facilitate their increasing self-awareness, activate their neuroplasticity, and empower change in their lives. When we notice children, we scaffold their frontal lobes by serving as an external source of power for their attention, directing them and sustaining their own fledgling abilities to focus and persist.

The real question isn’t whether or not we’re noticing them but what about them are we noticing?

What can you do tomorrow?

Decrease judging. When talking with students about their misbehavior, do so from a noticing rather than a judging approach. Describing a student action as bad or wrong comes from your emotional state and triggers a similar response in students.

Increase noticing. Describe (or notice) the behavior without assigning value to it. Talk with the child about the behavior dispassionately, as an ally, rather than as the judge, jury, and executioner.

What does this look like in the classroom?

The teacher notices student behavior, as evidenced by:

· Describing actions rather than judging them;

· Maintaining a calm disposition when discussing actions; and

· Listening fully while still upholding behavioral expectations.


The most effective process for teachers to maintain (and release) control in the classroom is for to selectively direct and withhold their attention based on student behavior.

It might not be as glitzy and glamorous as respect agreements (which are wonderful) or reward systems (which peter out quickly as students reach satiation), but it’s the only method that lies completely within teachers’ power. You can’t control students and you can’t make them behave. What you can do is direct your attention where you will. If you want students to stop behaving inappropriately, reduce or eliminate the amount of attention you give to their misbehavior.

What directing your attention and social approval does is provides students with a window into their own success potential. When you focus on how students are succeeding, and narrate that success through your attention and social approval, you reinforce students’ desire to succeed. That need for attention and inclusion is fed when they meet your expectations and you can foster a desire for more without ever having to resort to nagging, belittling, or behavior policing.

Ultimately, rigorous learning and application are the final outcomes that teachers are reaching for. Before internalizing a desire to learn, however, students must receive recognition for being successful at learning. It’s the small actions and attitudes that students take, from tracking the teacher with their eyes to building stamina to sustaining attention that set the groundwork for deep learning. Teachers, by systematically directing social approval to every student for the advancements they make in these learning behaviors, can transform learning itself into a desire much like the natural hunger for food (Willans & Williams, 2018).

The consistent use of differential social attention subconsciously informs students that they will not be subjected to psychological pain. Trust is built because poor behavior, or behavior that misses the mark, is not called out. Instead, students meeting expectations are praised while attention-seeking misbehavior is ignored. This allows those students a chance to correct their actions and receive much needed praise without going through a cycle of shame and belittlement. This, then, gives them the space to begin regulating their emotions, inhibit inappropriate behavior, and pursue their developmental potential.

For those that wonder how ignoring, or refusing to give social approval, to misbehavior won’t result in chaos and pandemonium, the key lies in creating success. When you are alert to the importance of students being successful in nearly every endeavor they undertake, you’ll begin to find ways to manufacture success in even the smallest gestures. You can actively generate success by eliminating variables that get in its way, by minimizing emotional dysregulation, and creating a culture of safety. The more success students have, the more they want. There is no satiation point with success – heap it on! This never-ending need comes from our inborn wiring for social approval and a cycle of positive behavior soon follows.

What can you do tomorrow?

Praise. Choose a portion of the day and make a concerted effort to be a play-by-play praise announcer. Look for and describe positive actions made by students, keeping up a steady stream of noticing that is personal, recurring, assorted, immediate, specific, and enthusiastic.

Observe. Watch to see how your descriptions affect the behavior of those students not initially meeting your expectations.

What does this look like in the classroom?

The teacher praises positive student choices, reinforcing beneficial behavior by:

· Frequently describing specific actions that meet expectations,

· Using an enthusiastic tone of voice; and

· Providing immediate and personal feedback.

To read more posts in this series, click here.



Willans, A., & Williams, C. L. (2018). Freedom to learn: Creating a classroom where every child thrives. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

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