At Attention

A young boy who has difficulty controlling his impulses pushes another student out of his way–he tends to take action without much thought. A nearby teacher witnesses this and quickly moves to the one-who-has-been-pushed to show sympathy and care. The boy-who-pushed wanders away, but not without noticing that the hurt boy gets attention from the teacher. Soon, he falls down, and with a moan, announces that his ‘elbow’ is hurt …. Teacher, not entirely convinced by the performance, nevertheless comes and shows a little love ….

Children shoot from the hip. That is, they act according to gut instinct and experience. They cannot easily imagine new ways of behaving, nor will they be able to easily understand pro-social ideas like how doing good to others is good citizenship and good for all (adults don’t always get this concept either). But children do learn new ways of behaving from what they see and experience. If they see somebody get attention when hurt, their simple takeaway is that adults pay attention to hurt children. If they see adults converge on a child throwing a tantrum, the experience becomes one more piece of data in their education: just below the level of consciousness, wheels are turning …. Maybe a tantrum would work for me. We think we are directing a child’s education, but there is a whole back-alley, underground quality to much of how a child learns about life. Is there something we can do to tip the balance in favor of the positive?

Parents and educators have a general idea that we need to ‘catch’ kids doing things right in order to reinforce good behavior, but sometimes we get caught up chasing the negative behavior around the room … after all, roughhousing, crying, tantrums, toy-snatching all have a way of catching our attention. It’s not easy to catch a child being quiet. It’s not easy noticing when a child walks around someone instead of pushing them (will the child-who-was-not-pushed alert the teachers with a cry of “Hey, she didn’t push me!”?) It isn’t easy seeing impulse control in action, because a controlled impulse is one that is not acted on.

No, the hard truth is that we have to be eagle-eyed observers of barely observable behavior, the kind that is often almost hidden. When a room is quiet and nothing demands our attentions, at the very moment when we are inclined to catch a breather, to rest in anticipation of the next crisis … that is the moment to go to work. Give attention to the thing that isn’t screaming for it. Notice the quiet, small, unobtrusive, simple behavior that you’d like to see more of. Follow the child with impulse control around the room and show her that you notice her pro-social behavior by simply speaking to it. We don’t have to “praise” every little thing as if everyone gets a medal for not causing problems. But praise isn’t necessary: only attention is. Notice, describe, attend. Children will learn what you pay attention to, and will begin to work towards the behaviors that get noticed.

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on the Peninsula blog]

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