Could the ‘Gentle Art of Distraction’ save the janitor’s hammer from crashing down on the frail fence, or worse still, on me? There was only one way to find out.
Justin’s teacher called me during class-time to report that Justin (not his real name), had left the classroom. After checking the usual hiding spots, I found Justin, with a hammer poised menacingly in his right hand, within striking distance of the back fence. And he was angry!
A million thoughts flashed through my mind, as they usually did, when I was faced with a crisis like this. Working out the best solution was always tricky, but luckily, an example given by Tom Willis from the Institute for Applied Behavior Analysis, took precedence. I was lucky enough to attend the lecture Tom had given a few years earlier, and had never forgotten the example he gave about using distraction to diffuse situations.
“Oh my goodness! Who put that boat there?”.
Luckily, someone had parked a boat on the easement behind the fence, thus providing the perfect prop for testing my ‘art of distraction’ theory. Justin stood there, hammer poised in the striking position, and said, ‘What?”.
“How did that boat get there? Was there a flood and then the water went down, leaving the boat sitting there”, I asked? With the hammer still poised, Justin replied “No, it’s always been there”. I kept the momentum going with questions and comments, and noticed Justin’s grip on the hammer relaxing, just a little. The more questions I asked, the more relaxed he became. The arm holding the hammer slowly started moving down, towards the ground. I kept the banter going a little longer, just to be sure the anger was gone. When I felt the moment was right, I suggested that we go into my office and have a chat. We had played out the ‘chat-in-the-office’ routine often enough for Justin to know that it was a positive, not a negative, process.
Step Into My Office…
As we walked, I casually asked Justin what his plans were for the hammer in his hand, and he just as casually explained he was going to put it in the janitor’s shed. I agreed, and we handed the hammer over to a very grateful janitor.
There are a number of reasons this situation ended well:
- Trust – Justin knew I would treat him fairly, even if disciplinary measures had to be taken
- No Grudges – what happened yesterday, belonged in yesterday. Each day was a new day
- It wasn’t personal – no matter what happened – I didn’t take it personally
- All behaviour is communicative – my job was to find the reason for the behaviour – and try to fix it
- Explanation mode – is best served in a calm state. I never asked the ‘why’ or ‘what went wrong’ questions until Justin was completely calm. The eye-of-the-storm is never a good time for discussion
- There is always a better way – once I understood the ‘why’ I could teach a better way of handling situations, or make other adjustments that might reduce the risk of a repeat performance
Distraction Works …
I’m not saying that distraction worked every time, but it certainly worked most of the time. Years of experience, and lots of training, gave me the skills I needed to know when to use distraction, and when to stand back and let it all happen. It was something I couldn’t explain to new teachers; you just learn it as you go.
Over the thirty-plus years of my teaching career, I attended as many lectures as I could by Tom Willis or Gary LaVigna – founders of the Institute for Applied Behavior Analysis, based in Los Angeles. They came to Australia every two years, and I waited anxiously for their lectures and workshops. In 2004, I spent the equivalent of two-weeks, spaced over the year, taking the intensive training that LaVigna and Willis normally provide in a two-week intensive training situation in Los Angeles. I loved every minute of it! Behaviour management was a lot easier, and a lot more successful, from then on.
As a result of the training, I could usually find a quirky way to deal with complex issues. In fact, thinking outside the box became the key to fixing a lot of problems.
The story of Justin, and the janitor’s hammer, ended well…
… thanks to the gentle art of distraction.
I’m not saying I’m an expert in behaviour management, but I managed a lot of tricky situations over the long span of my career, that could have ended badly, but didn’t.
If you have any questions about using distraction, or about managing quirky behaviour in general, type them into the Comments section below. If I don’t have the answer, I’m sure I could steer you in the right direction to find it.