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Make Like a Goat: The Art of Distracting Unruly Students

| Ben Johnson

I have 17 acres in south Texas, and half of the acreage is wooded. Particularly in the northern part of my property, there is an obnoxious vine in the lily family, called greenbrier, that grows everywhere.

The leaves are a beautiful vibrant, glossy green, but the vine is a tough, thorny monstrosity that never stops growing, and catches on your clothes, scratches you, and climbs trees, forming an impenetrable barrier that eventually kills them. You know how Bermuda and Johnson grass spread through underground tubers? So does this horrible plant. And I thought barbed wire was bad.

But, as usual, as I battled this evil force, I learned some things about education. Smilax bona-nox L. hides in the shadows and spreads itself beneath the soft forest floor with seemingly sinister persistence. When it is ready, it shoots up tendrils that grow three feet in one week. Soon, the tendrils turn into a tough, woody vine with vicious thorns that would do a rosebush proud. When I saw the tendrils, I would cut them down, but in a few days others would replace them. Chopping the runners beneath the soil only multiplied the problem -- literally.

I investigated and found out that the only way to get rid of greenbrier entirely is to use a systemic approach and go for the heart of the problem. The experts offer several alternatives: I could spray the runners with a broad-spectrum herbicide like Roundup, I could trace them back to the main tuber and dig it out, or I could let loose the most formidably destructive beast known to man: a goat. It turns out that this horrendous plant is edible.

How does all this chatter about plants relate to what happens in the classroom? Learning stops when students' attention meanders like greenbrier, and misbehavior pops up like little tendrils all over the place. If these tendrils are not taken care of promptly, they become tough, thorny problems that can make a teacher want to quit.

Attacking such problems head on is tiresome and frustrating for the teacher and creates an antagonistic atmosphere in the classroom. What a teacher needs to do is to turn the tables and take advantage of the situation. Just as a goat is able to use greenbrier to meet its needs, a teacher must channel the misbehavior to meet his or her needs. It is not about control. It is about the most powerful tool a teacher has: the art of distraction.

Experienced teachers know that it is essential to start a lesson with the students' attention. That is why they prepare some sort of hook -- or, as influential educator Madeline Hunter called it, an anticipatory set that draws the students into the subject to be taught. As a foreign language teacher, I liked to start my classes off with a story or a joke. I spoke in Spanish and I acted out the story, pointed, and did whatever I could to help the students understand. Then I had them help me tell the story or joke. Once we had gone over it, I could get into the lesson that related to the story or joke.

But once we got started in the learning process, how did I keep the students on task? A number of cardinal rules helped me:

  • Never sit down behind your desk while there are students in the classroom.
  • While students are practicing, be a goat and nibble around the room, never stopping too long in any one place.
  • Always give the students a reason to be engaged -- a time limit, a competition, a reward, a project, a case study, or a real-life problem to solve.
  • Make sure that the standards for performance are clear and that the students know that they will have to perform.
  • Keep the pace up by chunking the learning into smaller activities that last no more than five to ten minutes.

What did I do with students set on disruption? I ate them. To put it more diplomatically, I channeled their energy by distracting them long enough to get them on task again. Younger students are easier to distract and refocus than older ones, but the same principle applies: You ask a question they aren't expecting.

For example, let's say a boy is bouncing a hard rubber ball in class. Rather than yell at him to stop, I could ask him if he can do it with his left hand, then behind his back and under his leg. Then I could tell him that if he has such skill with a ball, the current assignment should be a snap. You see, he knew that the activity would irritate me. That was his motivation to begin a conflict. But distracting and redirecting take the conflict away and build rather destroy relationships. Often, you'll find that the more goofy and obtuse the distraction, the better.

A masterful distracter can catch a student off guard with humor, personal interest, and engagement. He or she can then skillfully assimilate the unwanted behavior and rechannel the energy of the student in productive ways without the student ever catching on about what happened.

What masterful ways have you found to distract and redirect student behavior? Please share your thoughts.

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Comments (17)

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Farena (not verified)

Information Very Useful

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Ben,

This was a great article. I can remember my first year as a teacher, I did exactly what you said not to do, I yelled at the students who were misbehaving and said, "stop!" All it did was startled the class and made the situation worse. I thought I was doing the right thing, because I saw my student teacher do the same in her class. Over the years, I have realized that yelling doesn't solve the problem. Thanks for the metaphor. I will also keep your cardinal rules in mind too. Thanks!

Denise Pogy (not verified)

Oh the goats

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Oh, to have a few more goat-like qualities. The ability to redirect is definitely a key factor in getting kids to buy-in and stay in. I will definitely put some more of this into use. I think I had forgotten that this is in my bag of tools. I'm pulling out the goat tomorrow. Thank you.
-Denise
Glendale, CA
HS Science teacher

Sarah Sparks (not verified)

Refocused my Attention

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I really enjoyed this article also. There is always one student (or more) that wants to be the center of attention. Taking control of my class and determining that the anticipatory set will be the center of attention makes the lesson engaging, and more learning is bound to occur! I know that my most successful lessons are the ones that have extremely interesting anticipatory sets. Also, I like how you explained that humor is one of the most effective ways to get students to learn more. I have seen so many students "shut down" because a teacher yells at them. Then a confrontation ensues, and the student refuses to participate in the entire lesson. The goal of the student who misbehaves is to annoy you and get your attention in a negative way. If a teacher makes a joke out of the misbehavior, the student will be so thrown off by your reaction that they will probably not be able to come up with another off task behavior anytime soon. That is my experience anyway.

Ben Johnson (author) (not verified)

Awesome Subterfuge!

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Amanda:

Excellent idea! I have found that refocusing and rechanneling energy through deliberate distraction is more productive than coercing the students to pay attention. I discovered this kind of by accident. I have seven kids and when they were little I noticed that if they were bawling their heads off and something that really interested them caught their eye, they would stop mid-bawl. I tried it out and found that all I had to do to was to distract them with something else and almost always, they forgot about the tantrum. Direct correlation to discipline in the classroom.

Thanks for sharing the idea of you looking for your glasses and trying to figure out where they could be as a problem solving lesson. I would have loved to see that one on video tape! That is a relevant example that immediatly draws in the students and gives them the chance to apply every problem solving technique they know and you could help them with ones they don't know. What did you do when you finally found the glasses with their help?

Sincerely,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Amanda (not verified)

Great Comparison

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As a special educator, I really enjoyed reading this. It is so true that students with attentional concerns need to regain focus before learning can occur. I love to teach students when they don't realize that they are "learning". For example, I taught problem solving by acting like I lost my glasses. The kids thought that we were going to spend the entire class just looking for my glasses; rather, we learned and applied problem solving skills. For other students who are distracted easily, I find having them restate given directions or what they learned very successful. This teaches accountability. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful way of looking at attentional concerns and redirection.

Benjamin Johnson Author (not verified)

Stretching a metaphor

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Kevin:

I'm glad it was of some use to you. I believe that metaphors can be powerful tools in our profession. I agree, that this one is pushing it's connection to education, but the art of distraction is a great tool to use to rechannel interest and student attention. Best of luck with your pre-service teachers- I am assuming that they are college students aspiring to be teachers. You have an awesome job.

Best Regards,

Ben Johnson (author)

Kevin (not verified)

enjoyable useful piece

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The guiding metaphor seems a stretch, but the underlying principles are wonderful and neatly expressed.
I'll use this with my pre-service teachers.
Thanks
-Kevin (UT Austin)

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