October 3, 2007

In the Classroom, Blazing a Path From Fidgeting to Focus

You can always count on the New York Times' Education section to dispense bad teaching advice. Today's article by psychology professor Susan Engel is no exception. Engel tries to tackle the problem of "hyperactive" kids:

THE PROBLEM Every year, Roberta Valentine, an elementary school teacher in New York City, encounters a few students who cannot concentrate for more than a few moments. As a girl from her class once said, “Sometimes if I have to sit still for one more minute, I just can’t stand it.” The child who is distracted cannot learn and may distract others, said Ms. Valentine, who has taught first to fifth grade for 20 years.

Before we get into Engel's "solution" let's look at "hyperactivity." In Applied Pyschology for Teachers (a tome that has been shamefully ignored by the education cognoscenti) Wes Becker describes the problem:

Hyperactivity is a fancy label for a child or adolescent who is always on the go or who does not stay on task very long. Hyperactive-behavior patterns are sometimes found in children who show evidence of neurological impairment, but this isn't always so; the presence of hyperactivity is not a reliable basis for inferring brain dysfunction... A large proportion of the students I have worked with who were called hyperactive have simply not been taught to stay with a task long enough to be successful, and many "hyperactive" children are fully capable of quietly watching TV all Saturday morning.

Zig Engelmann describes how he and Becker were able to teach children to stay on task and significantly decrease hyperactive behavior in Your Child Can Succeed:

A child who is told to do his arithmetic worksheet has choices. He can either do the worksheet, look out the window, draw a picture, or belt the little girl next to him. Operant Psychology would hold that if you want the child to choose one of these actions over the others, you have to make that one more rewarding (or less punishing) than the others. The value in making the desired activity rewarding (rather than less punishing) is that if the child learns that working arithmetic problems is "rewarding" he will tend to work on arithmetic problems even when he is not rewarded. If he is taught that every time he doesn't do his arithmetic problems he gets clobbered, he will learn a great deal about what happens when he doesn't do arithmetic, but very little about the rewards that may be associated with doing arithmetic.

Give the kid a reason for doing what you want him to do. Set up a contingency so that if he performs he receives something that he wants. The only way he can get the payoff is to do what you want him to do.

Some children do not work for the joy of doing arithmetic. By using payoffs to get them started, the teacher can systematically build up "motivation." At first the child is interested only in the specific payoff--the candy or the extra recess. As he learns, he receives other payoffs, such as praise for good work. After a while he learns to treat the payoff more as a symbol of his competence than as an end in itself. And he learns that the work itself was perhaps less than fun but certainly not punishment. Finally the child will be willing to work for nothing more than the praise and sense of achievement associated with performing well.

Bascially, what Engelmann and Becker are saying is that in most cases of hyperactivity, the problem is not caused by some disorder in the child, but rather the child has simply not been taught how to stay on task. This behavior can be easily taught by using well-known behavioral reinforcement techniques. One technique that is particularly effective with most young children is to set up the learning environment in which the child can experience real academic success if he works at it and with the teacher praising good/on-task behavior and ignoring bad/off-task behavior. There is a lot of experimental data showing this technique to be effective.

Let's see what Engel recommends as the solution:

THE SOLUTION For years, Ms. Valentine did what many other skilled teachers do. She determined which children had serious problems, like attention deficit disorder, and referred them to specialists. She often found herself reminding the others, repeatedly, not to fidget, jump out of their seats or make noise.

Becker and Engelmann have shown that "reminding the [children], repeatedly, not to fidget, jump out of their seats or make noise" is a particularly ineffective technique for controlling behavior. Often, this kind of nagging behavior results in increased levels of bad-behavior. This isn't what skilled teachers do, it's what unskilled teachers do-- teachers who have never been taught or who have been mis-taught the skills of effective classroom management.

Over the years in her work at the East Village Community School, on 12th Street in Manhattan, she has tested various tactics: setting a timer for 10 minutes to help children break up their work time into manageable chunks; giving a child a stuffed animal to hold during group discussions (a common strategy for cutting down on fidgeting); and even enlisting other students to help daydreamers stay focused. Still, every year, she felt these efforts were not good enough.

Do any of these tricks reinforce students for staying on task? No they don't.

A few years ago, Ms. Valentine read a book by Mel Levine, an expert on learning disabilities, about schoolchildren who have trouble focusing, and came across his term “mind trips” to describe such moments of distraction. She felt that it offered a clue about how to proceed.

Meanwhile, like many teachers in the last decade, Ms. Valentine decided to update her use of technology in the classroom by learning how to make PowerPoint presentations, and teaching the children to do them as well. It occurred to her that she might have stumbled upon a way to help children tell others something interesting about their distractibility, rather than simply trying to hide or suppress it. And so she would help some of the children make PowerPoints about their “mind trips.”

Once again the solution is Powerpoint. Is there nothing Powerpoint can't do? The children should learn how to use Powerpoint so they can describe their “mind trips.” In other words, there's something wrong with the children. They have some kind of brain damage.

Ms. Valentine asked six children to describe what they thought about when their minds were wandering, and wrote down everything they said. Then, each child illustrated their sentences. Finally, Ms. Valentine recorded the children saying the sentences.

Together she and the children put the written and spoken sentences onto PowerPoint, along with the illustrations. Each child’s work became a multimedia slide show about his or her daydreaming.

One child said: “My problem is concentrating. I think about my dad. I think about Titanic. I think about G. I. Joes. Sometimes my mind tells me to stop thinking about things on my own. Sometimes people in my class tell me stop thinking about things, and that helps me.”

Another wrote: “I am a slow writer. It takes me a long time to write. Sometimes I think about watching TV. I don’t like the way I hold my pencil, it feels funny. My teacher says, take a break. When I tell my mind to focus I write more.”

Another wrote: “Sometimes I can’t sit in my chair. My teacher says, ‘Angela, sit in your chair.’ Sometimes I fall off my chair and sometimes I even lay down. Sometimes I walk around the classroom. I say to myself, ‘Angela, you have to stop.’ The kids in my class say ‘Angela, sit down, please,’ and that helps me. If you have this problem you could ask your teacher or the kids in your class to help you, like I did.”

What have the children learned? They've learned that there is something intrinsicially wrong with them. Nevermind, that the children have never been taught how to focus and pay attention to their school work.

Here's the best part.

“It doesn’t solve the problem entirely,” said Ms. Valentine, who has used these presentations for two years. “Kids whose minds wander become adults whose minds wander.”

But by describing their daydreams, she said, children are “able to figure out not only what went wrong, but what kinds of thoughts and tricks could help them concentrate.”

It doesn't even work!

So why are reading about a failed technique in the Times and why is it being touted as a "solution"?

This is the part where you learn a lot about our education system.

Education isn't about competently teaching children. It is about finding new ways to excuse the teacher's failure to teach and to help students find ways to cope with this failure. In this respect, the Powerpoint technique is a stunning success. It was inevitable that these distracted children would grow up to be distracted adults. At least now the kids know where they went wrong.


Anonymous said...

Now you are on to something. And the edustablishment isn't going to like it.

What you are suggesting is that we as a society are, if not creating ADD/minimal brain dysfunction, at the least are enabling and perpetuating it by our educational practices.


Anonymous said...

Some children do not work for the joy of doing arithmetic. By using payoffs to get them started, the teacher can systematically build up "motivation." At first the child is interested only in the specific payoff--the candy or the extra recess. As he learns, he receives other payoffs, such as praise for good work. After a while he learns to treat the payoff more as a symbol of his competence than as an end in itself.

Is there research that shows that children make the transition from being extrinsically motivated by the candy (or whatever) to being intrinsically motivated? If so, can it be done with older, say, middle school, kids? I can see myself doling out Tootsie Rolls for an entire year and not seeing one iota of improvement in behavior.

LynnG said...

It's kind of sad that the teacher never seemed to consider whether or not the material she was covering was appropriate for the level of the students having trouble. Research has shown that kids are more fidgeting and have less ability to pay attention when material is too difficult or too easy. Perhaps the teacher should take a inward mind trip of her own and consider the material she is teaching.

KDeRosa said...

NY Math teacher, there is a fair bit of research for these type of motivation systems for both younger and older children. Be aware that he reinforces will the different for older kids and motivating them will be more of a challenge, especially if they've experienced many years of academic failure and/or much reinforcement for bad behavior. As always, the devil is in the details, but three basic principles appear to be apply in most cases.

1. Give the minimum reinforcement needed (don't offer a token reward if praise will suffice) to reward the desired behavior.

2. Fade the reinforcement gradually.

3. Make sure the children can do the work. The reinforcement won't be a reward if the child cannot obtain it from his own work.

My understanding is that Randy Sprick is the go to guy for this stuff.

Anonymous said...

NYCteacher, you'll find a book titled "Positive Classroom Instruction" by Fred Jones to be an invaluable tool for understanding the process of shaping behaviour and developing "intrinsic" motivation, particularly in older children. Dr. Jones has made a name for himself with his behavior management strategies etc. (as has Randy Sprick, whose greatest achievement might actually have been the Great Falls Precision Teaching project-- as exciting, and hushed up in the same way for the same reasons, as Project Follow Through). I believe "PCI" is out of print but you could locate it on abebooks or a library. He makes all the fairly complex stuff about "variable reinforcement schedules" and the like quite understandable and provides lots of practical applications. The stuff works.

Re "ADHD," a must-read for parents is Sydney Walker, MD's "The Hyperactivity Hoax." Occasionally behavior that "looks like" ADHD can actually be symptomatic of one of several fairly serious medical condition -- uncommon, but ones to consider if only to eliminate the possibility before consenting to use stimulant drugs, which carry their own risks and may mask a real underlying problem. Have known one case where child's "ADHD" was due to a non-malignant brain tumor, and another where it was due to metabolic problems stemming from some liver disease. Good thing those parents had everything checked out.

I think Walker would likely agree with Zig and Wes Becker on the bulk of cases. Here's a link:

KDeRosa said...

palisadesk, do you have any actual classroom experience dealing with these kind of behavior issues? I think teachers would like to hear some success stories from other teachers since most of them think it's close to impossible controlling unruly classrooms. If so, email me and I'll post it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ken, the urban jungle is my stomping ground (most of my experience is at middle school level). However, I am in no way an exemplar; everything I know about the science of learning and behavior - and it is a science - I've learned on my own, no thanks to my employers or teacher preparation or PD. It was absolutely a matter of survival.

Student learning is the "payoff" (reinforcer) for me, but in order to get students to learn, and to benefit from improved instruction design, techniques, curricula etc I had to get the students to behave differently. That is always a challenge (I don't have a "control freak" personality, am something of an anarchist at heart.)

However the positive side is that if I can learn and apply this stuff in a hostile milieu (little to no support) so can others. Natural ability has little to do with it. Effective teacher behavior is learned behavior (Michael Pressley made this point in a very engaging book, Motivating Primary Grade Students -- Guilford, 2004 I think -- check it out. Very practical and not only for primary grade teachers).

Because there's no system-level commitment to addressing these issues with proven practices, every year it's the same thing all over again with different students. So I never feel that I am all that "successful," but kids do learn, and they behave -- for me, most of the time. One has to train oneself to be content with partial victories.

I've had the same problem as Peter W. in that I've emailed you several times in the last year or two and have never got any kind of response. If I have a clearer idea what you're looking for I will try to write it up but don't want to send it into the void.

KDeRosa said...

How is it that real email isn't making it to my inbox yet hardly a day goes by that I don't receive an email notifying me that I've won the UK lottery?

Palisadesk, what I'd like is a description of some classroom management techniques that have actually worked for you that don't rely on just punishment.

After you've emailed my, post a comment notifying me in the event that my spam filter is grabbing these emails.

Anonymous said...

OK, I sent you an inchoate bunch of ideas on the topic. Maybe 5th time lucky and you will receive it. Don't feel obliged to use any of it; I have no credentials in this field.