How to Gently Guide Kids in the Classroom

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I have a student in my fourth-grade class who has been diagnosed with severe anxiety and ADHD. These diagnoses are right on: everything I do seems to agitate him and nothing I do gets him to pay attention. What now? -Mary, Bar Harbor, Maine


This sounds exactly right. As someone who had anxiety and attention issues starting during his youth and continuing up until this moment, I can tell you that traditional behavior management doesn’t work for people like me or for your student. It also doesn’t work for anyone else, but that’s a different column.

I’m going to introduce you to a strategy that you should use with all kids, and without which teaching kids like the student in question will be impossible.

Telling kids what to do all day long is not a viable strategy. Why? Kids don’t like to be bossed around: doing so calls kids out in front of their friends. And does anyone like to be told what to do? Do you? Put yourself in a fourth grader’s shoes: how many times per day is that student told what to do? For the average kid on the average school day, it’s hundreds of times per day. Wouldn’t that get old? Being bossed around all day makes kids more and more resistant as the days and years go on.

For kids with attention and anxiety problems, this is even more true. Traditional Discipline allows these two issues to compound each other: teachers tell students with attention problems what to do more than anyone because they are so often off-task. Each time this is done, the student gets anxious and agitated, making it harder to attend to the task at hand. This causes the teacher to make more demands, which further agitates the student, leading to the student being angry and you feeling defeated and exhausted.

Sound familiar?

Instead, we can break the cycle by using Gentle Guidance Interventions. I teach 44 of them when I train teachers, but here’s how I would use just a few to keep your high-anxiety student with attention issues on task. Notice that I avoid demands and I don’t do anything that will make the student anxious or embarrassed:

Kid is staring off into space, wondering about being an astronaut. Kid Whisperer walks next to Kid without stopping instruction. Kid notices and starts working. Then he stops three seconds later when he sees a squirrel on a tree through the window. Kid Whisperer puts a hand on Kid’s chair and teaches with heightened emotion. Kid notices and starts working. Then, he stops to contemplate the meaning of life.

Kid Whisperer (whispering): What’s next?

Kid realizes that yes, problem #2 is next, and starts working. Then he stops. He starts thinking about breakfast cereal.

Kid Whisperer walks by and gently taps #2 on Kid’s paper twice and walks away. Kid Whisperer keeps teaching. Kid Whisperer never stops teaching. Kid starts working, this time for a few minutes. Then he stops while he wonders if his dad could beat up Thor.

From across the room, while helping another student, Kid Whisperer gets eye contact from Kid.

Kid Whisperer (looking confused): Think!

Kid starts working and Kid Whisperer keeps teaching, keeping either his eyes or his body near Kid.

It does take a bit of time and energy to make sure Kid stays on task using Gentle Guidance Interventions, but not nearly as much time or energy as it would take to try to make demands of a student who will be unable to think or learn when demands are made of him. The former method makes paying attention more likely. The latter method makes paying attention impossible.