How to Minimize Attention to Negative Behaviors

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am a kindergarten teacher. I have a well-behaved class except for one student. He is impulsive, he touches people, he blurts out, he takes materials from other students. I feel like I am constantly saying his name to tell him to stop doing all of these things. I think I spend 30% of all of my time talking to this student about what he is doing wrong, and his behavior just keeps getting worse. What do I do? -Kimberly -Des Moines, Iowa


God Bless the Kindergarten Teachers.

I think that .001% of people have the capacity to be teachers. I think .00000001% of people have the capacity to be kindergarten teachers.

So, thank you for being amazing.

On to your challenging kid. You have a common quandary. You know that these behaviors are at least partly attention-seeking and that if you give them attention, these behaviors will get worse, but you know that you have to do something to stop them since he is bothering the entire class all day long!

My answer includes using four things: proximity, interventions, empathy, and consequences. As with everything with kindergarteners, it is easier said than done, but this is the easiest way to train up a young child to use behaviors that will give him a chance to be successful and happy.

When it is not necessary for you to be in a specific spot in the room (the reading table, at the board, etc.) teach from within an arm’s length of the student. Do not seat him away from his peers, but feel free to put his desk in a place that is convenient for you to get to. You may be able to do 40% of your teaching from a position right next to this kid. From this position, you will be able to do interventions. You can also use calm empathy and consequences to train this student to use positive behaviors without simply nagging him and reinforcing the behaviors. I might instruct from a seated position from right next to his desk. Here’s how it might go.

Kid Whisperer: I will be working from the top of your worksh—


Kid Whisperer puts his hand on Kid’s shoulder. Kid looks at Kid Whisperer. Kid Whisper doesn’t stop teaching.

Kid Whisperer: —eet. Read this with me if you can. Sally has four apples…

Kid reaches over to grab a pencil from a neighbor. Kid Whisperer gently guides Kid’s hands away from his intended target and keeps a hand on Kid’s shoulder. Kid Whisperer doesn’t stop teaching.

Kid Whisperer: and she gives Rahel two apples. How—

Kid (after knocking over a supply tray): THE KING IS UNPLEASED!!

Kid Whisperer: —many apples does she have left? (To kid) Oh, dear. I will be doing something about this later. Feel free to pick up your mess now or later. DeJuan, how many apples does Sally have left?

Whether or not Kid cleans up his mess, he will spend several minutes during a non-instructional time practicing sitting next to a supply tray and not knocking it over.

By positioning myself closer to the student, I can actually give less attention to attention-seeking behaviors while guiding him towards positive behaviors. Even when Kid ups the ante, I can just delay the consequence to a time when I won’t have to stop instruction and give attention to a negative behavior.

Again, though nothing is easy in kindergarten, this is the easiest way to do something that is very hard: minimizing attention of negative behaviors while you keep teaching!