The Power Of Positive Attention

The Power Of Positive Attention


When I wrote about Self-Regulation, I related it to a child’s ability to take on an unattractive or difficult task when necessary. What does a child do when the teacher announces clean up time? Children with a good sense of self-regulation pitch right in and begin putting things away. They deserve immediate positive attention.

Another child may ignore the general command to clean up and either continue playing or just dance around the room contributing nothing. That child merits a different kind of attention. Perhaps the teacher asks again for everyone’s help. If that doesn’t work, she may then ask the non-cleaning child to put a few things away. The child ignores the requests and begins to dance right in front of the teacher in defiance. Here is a scene where positive reinforcement can still win the day.

Teacher to a cleaning child, “Lucy, you’re doing a great job. Thanks for putting all the dress up clothes away. You are such a big help.”

The non-cleaning child (Shauna) gets no more attention. In fact the teacher has stopped looking in her direction at all.

Teacher: “Oh Lucy, the dress up area looks so good. You are a terrific cleaner. Would you mind helping put some of the books on the rack? Thank you, Lucy. We’d be lost without your help.” As Lucy moves to replace some of the books, the teacher speaks to the children in the book area. “Lucy is going to help you, but you’re all working hard and making our room look good again. Great job, George and Mary! I’m proud of you.” She continues to ignore Shauna, who has stopped dancing and is looking bent out of shape. 

Slowly Shauna begins to pick up some of the animals and put them in their container. After a minute, the teacher notices. “Shauna, you’re helping! Thank you. Thanks for putting those animals away.” 

Shauna finishes the animal job and picks up a piece of stray paper from under the table. “Great cleaning, Shauna. We love your help.”

Sometimes the easiest way to defuse a deliberately defiant young child is to ignore the behavior. If the child wants to stand out and flaunt the rules, she probably is seeking the teacher’s attention. By not giving Shauna any attention for refusing to cooperate and by lavishing praise on the cleaners, the teacher transmitted a powerful message: you get my attention by doing the right thing. And Shauna eventually heard the message loud and clear. 

Another lesson in this little scenario is that positive attention is always a confidence booster for children. Sometimes we adults forget to praise good behavior and only comment on what’s going wrong. Praising children for doing right makes them want to do it again… and again.

Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years experience in working with young children.