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Distract the Distractor: Stop Off-Task Behavior Without Drama


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Lots of monster-sized discipline problems start with a single off-task behavior. If you put a damper on those little behaviors, you’ll keep a lot of big ones away, too.

It starts so simply: Instead of doing his silent reading, a boy at table 3 leans over and whispers to the kid next to him. At a training session, two participants scroll through their phones instead of listening to you. During soccer practice, one of the girls you coach starts bouncing the ball off her butt.

These small, off-task behaviors happen all the time. Depending on how you handle them, they could either go away or escalate into a full-scale blowup. In this video, I’ll describe a small but powerful classroom management technique called “Distract the Distractor,” where instead of calling attention to the off-task behavior, you re-engage the student with a content-based question:


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Not all discipline problems can be prevented with this technique; some students arrive in a mood that will not be diffused, no matter what. And there’s no substitute for the tried-and-true combination of engaging lessons and good student-teacher relationships. But even in the best of circumstances, kids and adults alike can get distracted. This method is a good addition to your bag of tricks, something that can de-stress your teaching environment and give you and your students more time for learning. ♦


[Note: The name “Distract the Distractor” comes from the book Opportunities and Options in Classroom Management (Pearson, 2003), by Patricia Kyle and Lawrence Rogien.]


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  1. afrenchexit says:

    I can’t figure out why my silence doesn’t work. It catches about half or two-thirds of the kids’ attention, but I have to wait way too long for the other kids to figure it out, and then the conversations fizzle out over the course of a minute or so. It’s becoming a huge waste of time, and other methods aren’t really working.

    I will try distract the distractor, during instruction but what about while I’m giving directions or introducing a topic, something you can’t really expect them to know answers to?

    • Hi! Man, that is so frustrating. I’m not sure if you’ve seen my two posts on using notebooks along with silence to quiet your class — that might be what you’re referring to, or maybe you’ve just tried silence alone and haven’t had a lot of success. If you haven’t added the notebook aspect, see if that works.

      It also helps to add some kind of hand gesture to the wait time, some kind of signal to let them know you need their attention. I found that just holding my hand up (almost like I was stopping traffic) would definitely speed things up. If you are teaching young kids (grades K-3) something like a Whole Brain Teaching’s Class-Yes is ideal (and Whole Brain Teaching is actually great for older kids, too).

      Finally, it’s important to have consequences. Talk to your class ahead of time and let them know that if you can’t get their attention after a few basic attempts, you’re going to start recording the names of students who take too long to respond. This can be done in a notebook (as I describe in Notebooks for Classroom Management, Part 2) or on the board, if your school allows this. Once a student’s name has been written several times for the same problem, there will be a consequence — this can be something like being last to leave class, having to eat lunch separate from their classmates, or writing sentences — believe it or not, this is what my own students suggested as a consequence for excessive talking! Let me know what you try and how it works, and we’ll work together on this until you get it down pat. Good luck!

  2. HALEY says:

    Hi! I’m a brand new digital media teacher, and my class involves a lot of individual work time where students are working on their own on projects. The problem is that there’s not a daily lecture or worksheets I could ask content-based questions on. It’s a project based learning school and I’m having trouble figuring out how to incorporate this technique. I am really struggling to corral the behavior of several seniors who are all friends in my class and constantly talk and bring the volume to ridiculous levels. I’ve created a seating chart to separate them but somehow they end up at the same table or talking from across the room. The problem is that the school has me teaching three classes at once; three different sections of my class exist in the same room at the same time; a beginning, intermediate, and advanced. So often times I have to work with one group while leaving the other group relatively unsupervised in my classroom. It’s those times when they get the most rowdy, when I’m not standing directly over them to supervise. Is it just unreasonable to think I could maintain control of over 30 students in separate sections, or is there some strategy I could use?

  3. Tomoko says:

    This is such great advice. I’ve been struggling with distractors and I plan to implement your method this week!! Thanks very much!!

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