Sunday, November 17, 2013

How to Help Calling Out and "Class Clown" Behavior

On A Peach for the Teach on Facebook, I invited people to ask their most challenging behavior questions. We got some great questions, each of which really tied together. 

Dona asked, I have a student that comes to me from second grade (I teach 1st) for my entire reading block, who likes to shout out talk back and just shuts down when you ask him to do something. He then treats his 2nd teacher with severe disrespect when he goes back to class.

Rebecca asked, I have a class of 25 this year. 1 student is below K level (I teach 1st grade), 2 are identified as ADHD, we are working towards another student getting identified as ADHD, and I have 2 students who have really disrespectful attitudes. I have tried talking with parents, I have changed their seating, I have tried encouraging them and pointing out the positive......nothing seems to be working. Ideas? 

Lindsay asked, I need motivation tips for kids who can do the work but basically refuse to... 

These are such common issues that teachers face daily. I think they all tie together and have similar interventions, which led me to write this blog post-- How to Help Calling Out and "Class Clown" Behavior.

"If you put a kid in the position of choosing between looking bad or looking dumb, he will choose to look bad." - Rick Lavoie, Motivation Breakthrough

When a student is performing at a level lower than his peers, he is often aware of that. That could be part of the reason for the acting out. Maybe the child is embarrassed and would rather be seen as a class clown than struggling. It allows the child a sense of control over a situation where he would otherwise feel out of control. Try giving him some control in a positive way.
To intervene, start with an informal play meeting. Meet with the student individually when he is calm, to play a preferred, non-academic game at the beginning or end of the day. He may be more likely to open up honestly in that type of setting through informal conversations (e.g., favorite TV shows, games, etc.). Casually ask what he likes and doesn't like about school, and "admit" to him that you always had a hard time with [insert his least preferred subject]. Try not to make it obvious that this is the whole point of your conversation. He might give you some insight into what's causing this. It's also great for establishing rapport, which will help you to get the student on your side.

Give him some sort of task with which he can be successful, and give him positive attention for completing it. Avoid patronizing him or making it obviously at a level lower than the other students. Instead, try non-academic leadership positions, like a class helper, teacher's assistant, etc. Maybe give him the opportunity to call on students with questions.

"Class, today we are going to try something new."

Next, set limits. Start by telling the whole class that today we are going to try something new. Starting today, the teacher will no longer answer any calling out. Explain that we need to practice raising our hands and not calling out. Demonstrate, practice, and ask for volunteers to show you what hand raising looks like. Establish a non-verbal cue (e.g., a cue card with an image of a hand, or simply hold up your hand), and completely ignore calling out. Instruct the class to also ignore calling out. Have students practice calling out while you ignore it. Explain why you're doing this, so the student knows it's not just him being ignored. Ignore the behavior, not the child. You might want to give one verbal cue, such as, "I'd be happy to answer you when you raise your hand." This is your new procedure that will happen every single time a student calls out. You could still say it in a positive tone of voice, but it's all you will say.

Give a Little, Get a Little


Use positive language to elicit positive language. If a student is using disrespectful language, being threatening will teach the child to talk back with threatening language. Think about your reaction when somebody confronts you with doing something wrong. You initially feel a little attacked, so you want to react. Give the student the opportunity to save face. For example, instead of, "How dare you speak to me that way?" try a, "Whoops, that sounded disrespectful. I know you could ask me using nicer words," and only respond when he uses nicer words. If he doesn't, say, "I'll be over here when you're ready to use nice words to ask me."

Dodge the Power Struggle

To nip disrespect in the bud, we need to avoid power struggles-- even when a student questions what we're doing. That's the part that really tricks even the most skilled behavior interventionists. We want students to believe in, trust, and respect us. When they question what we're doing, we want to tell them. Please don't. You don't need to justify yourself in this moment. You may be skilled with planned ignoring, but when the child asks, "Why are you ignoring me?" it's too tempting to reply with an explanation, but resist the urge. If you planned and practiced this procedure previously, the child already knows why you're ignoring him. He may try to get you to give him anything other than the ignoring. Stick to the ignoring, and he will eventually try using nice words to get you to reply.

It may also be helpful to teach a lesson on the words "disrespect" vs. "respect." Teach the meaning, and explain situations and words that are unacceptable. Teach this with empathy, and practice it. If the child uses negative language in class, prompt with a, "Please use your nice words if you need me to respond to you." Completely ignore anything else.

I know that using a firm prompt followed by planned ignoring sometimes feels like you aren't doing anything to stop the behavior, but that's the best thing about it-- doing "nothing" stops the behavior. It completely eliminates the power struggle and argument. The child will be forced to use kind words to get any type of reaction out of you and to gain access to his wants/needs. This also works with whining. I told my little ones that my ears can no longer hear whining, and they all stopped whining. Now if only I could use planned ignoring on messes to make my kitchen clean itself!

Words of Caution

Sometimes when implementing planned ignoring, the child may initially test the limits and engage in more attention-seeking behavior. This is typical and should pass when he sees that he won't get a reaction.

I got a comment on this post that really made me think and add another word of caution about this strategy-- exercise caution when using this for students with bonding and/or attachment needs. We certainly do not want to intensify feelings of abandonment, and we want to be sure that we are responding to their needs. 

It is vitally important to make sure that we are ignoring the behavior, not the child. Give the child plenty of positive attention for positive behavior. Make giving positive attention during appropriate behavior part of your behavior protocol for this child. When the negative behavior ends and the child begins acting positively, give positive attention. No need for a lecture at that moment.

After the Procedure is Learned

Once you are sure that the student understands how he will appropriately gain access to wants/needs, you can begin to address the calling out caused by impulsivity and habit. Make a T-chart, and write the positive behavior on the left and negative on the right (e.g., "Called Out" and "Raised My Hand"). Instruct the student to tally when he does each. This alone is often enough to curb the negative behavior. Other times with more severe behavior, it helps if tallies are tied  to reinforcement. For example, the student can earn [something preferred] if he has more positive than negative tallies at the end of each block. You could also set goals based on baselines. For example, if the student reduces his calling out by ___% or does not exceed
___% incidents of calling out, he can earn [something preferred]. 

Class Dojo is another fun way to track this! The teacher can track the behaviors throughout the day, or the students can self-monitor behaviors on their T-Charts and plug them into the Dojo at the end of the day. Establish a procedure that students must earn more green (i.e., "positive") than red (i.e., "needs work"), or a certain percentage of green, in order to earn a reinforcer, positive note home, etc.

Another helpful strategy is bonus free time. It's often harder for a student with ADHD and/or behavior needs to attend to instruction for a given length of time, so plan three breaks in the day. I call them "five minute free time" to play with something fun, and I end each of my subjects with it. It gives me five minutes to clean up or correct work, and it gives the students five minutes to regroup. If you're strapped for time, you could have students complete exit tickets, assessments, etc., and give the student with ADHD the special free time. It also gives him something to word toward, as he has to earn the free time. If a student engages in negative behavior or work refusal, I ask if he is earning his free time or if he is to make up his work during free time. Never underestimate the power of a question instead of a demand. A simple, "Are you earning your free time?" is often enough to set the behavior back on track.

An additional motivational tool is a task chart where students rank their tasks by preference. They  earn little reinforcement for easy/preferred tasks and high reinforcement for non-preferred tasks. You can download that chart for free here.

What are some ideas you use in your classroom to help calling out and "class clown" behavior? Do you have any questions about behavior challenges? Please share in the comments below!

A Peach for the Teach


  1. "If you put a kid in the position of choosing between looking bad or looking dumb, he will choose to look bad." - Rick Lavoie, Motivation Breakthrough

    ... This quote and post just put so much in perspective for me for a little munchkin in my class. Thank you for sharing this!!! You're amazing!

  2. You're welcome! Isn't Rick Lavoie amazing? I always say I want to be as smart as him when I grow up! LOL! I'm so happy this helped you! Thanks so much for your kind words and for reading!

  3. Be very careful here not to try this with a child who has bonding and/or attachment deficits. It can back fire badly as these children will sometimes become very belligerant or violent when they feel shut out.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! That is a really good point, and I'm so glad you brought that up. I'll revise my post to include cautions with that. I think if planned ignoring isn't done cautiously or (for lack of a better word) correctly, it can backfire for lots of children. I think that's why a nonverbal cue is important. That's where the key point comes in-- ignore the behavior, NOT the child. Give lots of positive attention when positive behaviors arise. Thanks again!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing. I especially needed to hear the part about not responding in the moment when they question you. I usually get so frustrated in those moments that I spout off a response-probably not the best for myself or the student. Thank you for sharing these great tips!!

    1. You're welcome! I'm so glad this helped you. I'm reading Chris Biffle's book, and in it he talks about a teacher who created a self-rating system for herself. Each day she didn't rate the child's behavior, but rather she rated herself in how she handled it. She decided ahead of time how she would respond, and she set goals for herself, like a 10-point scale to rate herself. Instead of rating herself by how the child behaved, she rated her own behavior. The child's behavior naturally improved. So cool! I love that there are teachers out there like you who make an effort to be self-aware! Kudos! :)

  5. What would you do if, after ignoring the undesired behavior, the child begins to have a meltdown (falling on the floor, kicking, screaming and/or crying loudly)? I had a student last year (first grade) who could literally cry for hours if he wanted to. When he was calm, we did set up cues and a "cool down" spot for him but during his meltdowns, he would never use them. I praised every positive behavior I could and we worked out a reward system for him but nevertheless, meltdowns would still come unexpectedly and seemed to last for eternity (sometimes he would need to be physically removed from the classroom). I really want to learn how to handle this type of behavior on my own. How do you handle this when you have 20 other students distracted and who need you? Thank you!

    1. This is such a tough situation. First, read the book "Challenging Kids, Challenged Teachers." This will be a tremendous help for all behaviors in general. :)

      Has the child been evaluated for emotional support or ED? When a child becomes fully escalated, it can take over an hour to calm him down sometimes. It's nearly impossible when you have 20 other little ones in the room. It sounds like you're doing everything right!

      Did you try rehearsing how to access the "cool down" spot when he was calm? We often set up spots for kids and let them know about them, visit them a few times, and talk about them after the episode, but we don't rehearse going into them enough when they're calm. With a child that age, it's something that needs to be rehearsed over and over, and time will bring him there.

      Did the reward systems work for a short period and then stop working? Was there a reward system specifically set up for not having tantrums (e.g., "Using words to express self/No meltdowns"), not positive behavior in general? I'm trying to determine whether this was due to satiation/habitation (getting sick of one reward system when the novelty wears off), or if the need to escape or the desire for attention was stronger than the reward itself (sometimes it doesn't matter how strong it is if the need to escape is greater). If he responded to a reward system for some time and then stopped, try leveled reinforcement. Chris Biffle has a really great leveled scoreboard that works with kiddos like this. Check out and look under "Industrial Strength WBT" for more info.

      Is there a common time of day, trigger, subject, demand, person, or other antecedent that happens right before the behavior?

      I really applaud your dedication! So many teachers in your classroom would not have the patience. Thank you!

    2. Also-- Check out my post on how to handle meltdowns, storms, rages, and tantrums for more specific info!

  6. Thank you for all your helpful advice. I’d love your input on a situation that I’m currently dealing with in my 2nd grade classroom. Here’s what happens. “Class Clown” kiddo tries to interrupt my small group instruction. I ignore him and he knows why. He still wants attention. Then he walks over to one of the other class clowns or an ADHD kid and teases, talks, or disrupts in one way or another. Usually the child who is being interrupted gets loud, asks for help, or something similar. Now half the class is watching the disruption so I feel like no one is on task. Ignoring goes out the window and I remind “Class Clown” kiddo of his behavior chart, which may or may not work. I am trying to teach the non “Class Clowns” to ignore, but it’s not working. I have done mini lessons, read books with good examples for discussion, and we role played too. I’m running out of ideas. Any thoughts?

  7. I have a student with these behaviors but if you ignore he pushes harder by either bothering or hitting other students to focus your attention on him. How do you handle that situation?

    1. Sounds like you're doing a lot of great things to help. You've done it so well that he's realized he won't get the negative attention from you and needs to seek it from the kids. Do you think that's the case? Sounds like he'll do anything to get attention from anyone. Maybe you could try explicitly teach the rest of the class a phrase to use when someone interrupts. Maybe give him some sort of positive attention when you see him heading that direction-- maybe he can be the clicker on your SMARTBoard or in charge of keeping track of something for you throughout the lesson. Maybe you could follow whatever task you're doing with something where he could get a lot of positive attention if he controls his blurts. Does that help at all?

    2. That is a really tough situation. First, I would focus my attention more on the victim. I'd set up a ton of positive opportunities for attention. I would tell him when he's calm that you'll be able to give lots of attention when he's acting safely but can't when he's not. The tough part about this type of behavior is that often it comes from kids who have experienced trauma and have been conditioned to only understand and feel that negative attention is safe. I have a friend who grew up and told me she did this as a child because chaos was all she knew and really felt comfortable with-- and that happiness and stability was fleeting and temporary. She said the most helpful thing for her was a counselor who sat with her and told her, "It's okay to feel totally out of control. I'm here with you as you ride it out." She said it totally shook her, because everyone else always taught her it was wrong, and she already knew that. Once she felt she could trust this person she was able to work through it and realize she could create her own sense of stability and calm and learn to love it. It takes time and lots of love. It also helps to look at triggers and to see if you can add in leadership opportunities or situations where the child could get attention in a positive way in that moment. Good luck!

  8. Have you elaborated somewhere on what options you give for free play? Id be curious to read that.

  9. Have you elaborated somewhere on what options you give for free play? Id be curious to read that.

  10. I tried ignoring a child Friday who was trying to take the power and because of this he decided to walk out of class. Any suggestions for that?


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