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Make Like a Goat: The Art of Distracting Unruly Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently teaching 2nd grade for the second year in a row (I've taught for 10 years now), and what I was amazed with, was how easily distracted my students could get. No amount of yelling, hand clapping, staring them down would keep their focus in the first 3 weeks of school. Suddenly though, I found myself smiling at something random, and was amazed at what that simple reaction got out of my students. They wanted to know what was so funny ( I couldn't tell you what is was now). Since we have overcome the hurdles of settling into a routine, these kids seem especially eager to learn when I am at my silliness. Thank you for reminding us that children love to be with adults who know how to be firm, and set clear guidelines, but who also know how to let down their "teacher" persona, and truly laugh with them.

Michele Snyder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Today, I had a rough afternoon with one particular student who is plucking every last nerve of mine. I have group of students this year where many are special needs, this being said a lot of my patience is used up during the day. Stumbling across this blog helped remind me to have a sense of humor. I need to "take charge" of the situation and interact with the student, rather than react to his behavior. Thank you for this! We'll have a fresh start tomorrow!

Sabrina Burkett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was searching for a topic that related to my current situation. Your title caught my attention. I thought your article was great. I loved the metaphor, and I'm definitely going to keep your cardinal rules in mind. My "goat" will be out in full force tomorrow. Thanks so much!!

Dawn Scheidt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved your analogy in the goat/weed story. Even as a very veteran teacher of 24 years, I had one of those days where the weeds seem to get the best of you. ( I am sure kindergarten students have a radar and can tell when we are not feeling our best... an open door so to speak for misbehavior. ) At the end of the day I reflected on what I could have done differently, and I definitely needed more energy to be the "nibbling goat" early on to avoid bigger problems cropping up. I appreciated your reminder that it is not power, but distraction that "tames" at these times when kids are acting up.

Lori's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed your metaphor. I too have had those students who "just want to see what the teacher will do". I usually shock them by laughing or asking them a totally random question. I teach fourth grade in central NY. Yesterday I had a student who was having difficulties getting to school. (anxiety) She actually showed up at my door crying and huddled in a corner saying she was NOT coming in and I couldn't make her. I told her she was right. I also stated she must be exhausted from all the crying. She shook her head yes. I thought she probably used up all of her breakfast energy and needed to eat. I told her I had granola bars for this ocassion ans she was welcomed to come in and eat one. I told her this wasn't room service and she would need to come into my room for it. I turned around and walked into my classroom of 20 other students. She got up and came right in and ate three. It turned out to be a wonderful day. Thanks for the goat idea and the laughter we must always bring to our profession.

Stephamie M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was just browsing through when this post caught my eye. I am a fourth grade teacher in my second year. This has been a challenging year to say the least. I have several behavioural issues in class that have been frustrating me on a daily basis. You have given me som great ideas. I really think looking at the issues with more humor is going to change the dynamic in my classroom.
Thank you!

Melissa Wilkinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too enjoyed this article. I have used similar tactics in the past; however, it seems that I have gotten into a rut and I need to bring back the art of "distracting the goat." I agree that often children tend to shut down when reprimanded or embarrassed, then we lose the battle on many levels. Oh to be able to smile, laugh and distract effectively. Thanks for reminding me of the need to loosen up--I think all this NCLB business has stressed some of us too much.

M. Wilkinson
4th Grade, Georgia

Teddy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I was student teaching in first grade there was this smart little boy that drove the teacher crazy...He loved to put in his ideas or thoughts every two seconds. The teacher often had him move his clip and then sit in time out during recess...When I took over the classroom I gave him a sticky note pad and had him everytime he thought of something to say to write it down and then put it on my desk. It worked like a charm he never moved his clip, had recess and I had histerical notes all over my desk to entertain me every afternoon. This doesn't always work but thinking outside the box sometimes works out and really benefits the child so much more than sitting out.

Shannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wish I could have come across this article last year! I never thought of distracting misbehaved students with a question they would never expect! I tried eating lunch with them, making them goody bags, and talking with them on my preps-nothing worked! I can guarantee it would have worked. As a first full-year teacher, I nearly burnt out. I had a "bottom" 4th grade class containing a lot of behavioral students! I would be so involved with trying to correct bad behavior, I felt like I wasn't teaching the students that wanted to be there. Thanks for your insight! I'm definately going to try this strategy.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I am glad you enjoyed this post. The art of distraction can be a useful tool to channel a student's energy in a way that is productive for you and for the student. The students are accustomed to be challenged directly, but typically they are not expecting an indirect diversion and willingly follow your lead.

Way to stick it out your first year. It does get better.

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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