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The Power of Attention

Let me tell you a story about a student. For today, I will call her Quanisha. Trust me, that is not her real name.

Quanisha looks like any other student, but everyone says she is mean. Before Quanisha begins in your class, you are warned by 3 teachers. Watch out for that one. She always causes trouble, and is mean to the other kids. You get introduced to her social worker, who fills you in on Quanisha's situation: the gaps in housing; the absent parents; the constant trouble in school; the rebellious older sister.
Do you have a student with major discipline issues? The Power of Attention is a must read for all teachers! Blog post from Hello Mrs Sykes

Quanisha enters your class with a clap of thunder. She looks at the other students with sullen looks of hatred. She pinches other students in line on the first day of school. She gets in trouble in the lunchroom before the second day is done. She is only 7 years old. This breaks your heart, and you decide that she will be your favorite student. (Not that teachers have those...)

Here's what I did with my Quanisha. During one of the rare moments that she wasn't poking a classmate or spreading a rumor, I called her aside with a smile. I didn't do anything! she screeches, and I reply. I know. Don't worry. You are not in trouble.

She looks at me, and I can tell she is trying to decide if she is going to walk to me or punch someone and run down the hall. She chooses to walk over to me (thank goodness!!!!) Here's the gist of our conversation:

Me: I am so glad you are in my class.
Q: no response
Me: I looked at your records, and it looks like you had a rotten time last year. Does that about sum it up?
Q: She hated me.
Me: This year will be better, because I already love you. I have a plan.
Q: look of disbelief
Me: I know it is difficult to get an adult's attention sometimes, so I'll make a deal with you. Anytime you need attention from me, just come stand or sit next to me quietly. If I forget and ask you if you need anything, you say, "I need attention." I promise I will always give it to you.
Q: Anytime?
Me: Anytime.
Q: What about when I'm supposed to be working?
Me: Bring your work with you, if you want.
Q: What if I want to walk with you in the hall?
Me: Then stand beside me quietly, and you can.
Q: I really like to walk with the teacher in the hall. smiles for the first time she has been in my classroom
Me: When you need attention, remember to stand or sit next to me, and I will give you attention. Deal? hold out pinky in universally understand "pinky swear" fashion
Q: shakes on it, then walks back to her seat

For the next 2 weeks, this child is my shadow. If I am sitting, she is next to me. Occasionally, I pat her shoulder, make eye contact and smile, or rub a gentle circle on her back, so she knows I'm still giving her attention. If I am walking the class in the hall, she is holding my hand. If I am standing in front of the class, she is sitting on my stool near me. Over time, the angry outbursts quiet down, and she smiles more and more. I am so consistent about my follow-through with her, that I leave the directions in my sub plans... in bold type... across the top of the page. "If a student stands/sits next to you quietly, please ask if they need anything. If they say I need attention, please give them positive attention, even if you just give them a sticky note and a smile and ask them to draw you a picture. If you are in the hallway, let them walk by your side. If you are working with another student, please let them quietly work near you. I appreciate your help with this."

After a month, she is back to working at her seat full-time. She gives me a hug before she leaves every day. She is getting along with her classmates (mostly.) Throughout the school year, I can tell when she needs a little extra attention, because she is right next to me, whispering, "I need attention." She is no longer the angry clap of thunder... she is the rainbow after the storm.

Years later, I see her in the grocery store. She runs down the aisle to hug me, with a huge smile on her face, eager to tell how well she is doing in school. My heart is happy.


  1. This is why we teach. You are wonderful! Thank you for sharing.

  2. I could cry reading this. YOU are a blessing in this world. Thank you for sharing this. I have a class this year that truly challenges all that I have and all that I am...and needed to read this from you. thank you, thank you.

  3. I LOVED reading this! There are so many layers to our role as teacher and what it can be. You changed a life, Jen! Thank you for sharing this! - Lisa

  4. What a remarkable story! It is a great reminder about the importance of patience. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Mrs. Beattie’s Classroom


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