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Ignoring Distractions

By Chick Moorman

Charlie was clearly an unforgettable workshop participant. He was one of eighty educators from a K-12 public school system in central Pennsylvania. (Names and places have been altered for obvious reasons.) He, like all the teachers on the day I met him, was required to be present as part of the district's annual staff development day.

Charlie didn't care much for staff development and made no effort to conceal his feelings. He sat in the middle of the group the day I was presenting and went about his own agenda as I endeavored to cover mine: Teaching for Respect and Responsibility. This disgruntled teacher sat reading the newspaper as I presented material designed to help teachers teach students how to be responsible and respectful. When I say "reading the newspaper" I do not mean he was reading the newspaper with it folded on his lap in an attempt to hide his disinterest. Oh, no. Charlie held the paper upright and wide open so I could read the front page headlines. His behavior was a clear message to meeting planners and everyone present that while he had to be there, he didn't have to like it or participate in any way.

Recognizing him as a potential distraction, I quickly removed my focus from Charlie and gave him little attention. I concentrated instead on the participants who were sending me enthusiastic energy and mirrored that positive attitude back to them. Those teachers were actively filling in their packets, taking notes, and interacting with a partner upon request. Charlie mostly just sat there, oblivious to the activity around him.

At the morning break, meeting planners rushed up and apologized to me for Charlie's behavior. They cautioned me not to take it personally and explained that he chooses the same behavior during every staff development program. He had been written up, reprimanded, and pleaded with. Yet, Charlie remained unmoved. At my workshop he refused to work with a partner, seldom wrote anything down, and put in his time without causing a major incident.

During the course of this seminar I told teachers, "If you want a behavior, you have to teach that behavior." I stressed the importance of giving students an opportunity to practice the behavior and then shared ways to debrief it following the practice. I gave examples of teaching, practicing, and debriefing behaviors that included respecting the guest speaker, getting started quickly, disagreeing politely, and inviting others to participate.

One skill I decided to include at the last minute was ignoring distractions. I suggested they teach students to:

  1. Recognize the distraction.
  2. Call it by name.
  3. Make a decision not to be distracted.
  4. Refocus on the task at hand.

The day was filled with practical, skill-oriented techniques that teachers would be able to implement immediately. Lecture-bursts, practice, and questions and answers helped participants learn how to Teach for Respect and Responsibility.

Near the end of the workshop I reminded participants that I would be returning a month later for a follow-up session. I informed them that the first order of business on that day would be to get in groups and share what had been implemented and how students responded. The full-day seminar ended without any significant change in Charlie's behavior. He did, however, fill out the final evaluation form, giving me an average rating which I chose to see as a compliment.

Five weeks later I returned to this same school to do a follow-up day of training. As promised, I put participants in groups. To my surprise, Charlie joined a group and seemed to be participating in the discussion focused on implementation efforts and their results. After sufficient discussion time had elapsed, I asked for groups to report to the entire group what they had discussed.

Charlie stood up with his hand in the air. It appeared to me he was signaling to me first. I called on him, took a deep breath, and waited with uncertainty as he began to speak.

"Everyone in here knows me," he began. "They know I have no use for staff development and think it's a waste of time. But something happened this week that I want to talk about. I'm the boys' basketball coach. I have never had a losing record. We have a great program. We finish near the top of our conference every year.

"Our arch rival is the school across the river. Our first goal is to beat them. Twice. Home and away. We have better facilities than they do. We have better athletes than they do. We have better coaching than they do." (This comment drew a laugh from the attentive staff members.)

"Last Friday after you left they came across the river and beat us on our home court. They beat us by one point. That cannot happen. It hasn’t happened in six years. There is no way we should lose to them."

All eyes of everyone present were glued on Charlie as he continued. "Our rivals had a player who was extremely cocky. He was in the face of many of my players, taunting them, egging them on. His behavior was very close to being over the line as poor sportsmanship. If fact, on several occasions I think it was over the line."

"My players set out to show him up. They retaliated by talking back to him and getting in his face. My best player took a swing at him and was ejected. My top scorer fouled out trying repeatedly to take the ball away from him. My players lost their composure and lost the game."

"I spent the entire weekend thinking about that game and what had happened. Sometime on Monday it occurred to me that this cocky kid was a major distraction to my players. Then I remembered your workshop. I thought I remembered you saying something about ignoring distractions. I went to my desk to look for the packet you passed out. To my surprise I had left it on my desk. I usually throw those things out." (More laughter.)

"I found the page on ignoring distractions and discovered that was one of the few things I had written down that day. I reviewed the material and decided to teach my team how to ignore distractions. At practice that afternoon I designated one player as the distracter. I made him wear a red jersey and asked him to do all the things he had seen the distracter do during the game."

"I taught my team to:

  1. Recognize the distraction.
  2. Call it by the name 'Mr. Distracter.'
  3. Make a decision not to be distracted.
  4. Refocus on what they were doing."

"On defense they were instructed to say to themselves, 'There he is, Mr. Distracter. I choose not to be distracted.' They were to refocus on playing defense by repeating the mantra, 'Move your feet. Move your feet. Move your feet,' which we preach all the time on defense anyway."

"On offense they were instructed to say to themselves, 'There he is, Mr. Distracter. I choose not to be distracted.' They were to refocus on playing offense by thinking, 'Pass and cut, pass and cut, pass and cut.' Or 'Move without the ball, move without the ball.'"

"I also told them if they chose to be distracted by Mr. Distracter they were choosing to have a good seat for the game, the one next to me on the bench. We practiced dealing with this distraction all week."

"The following Friday night we bussed across the river and played the same team on their home court. Not one of my players was distracted by this player who again gave his best effort to get my players unglued. They stayed focused and concentrated on the task at hand. If fact, Mr. Distracter got so distracted and flustered that he fouled out of the game. We won by thirty-one points."

Charlie wasn't finished. "I want all you teachers to listen up to this guy because this is good stuff. These skills helped my basketball players win a game. But more importantly these are skills they can use to win in life. These are life skills and are what education is really all about. I like knowing I can teach my student athletes skills they can use off as well as on the court."

Charlie sat down. As he did, his colleagues rose in unison and gave him a standing ovation.


Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of Teaching the Attraction Principle to Children: Practical Strategies for Parents and Teachers to Help Children Manifest a Better World. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for them or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: www.chickmoorman.com and www.thomashaller.com