attention to what you pay attention to.
By Brent G. Richardson, Assistant Professor,
Department of Education
my classes, I sometimes ask for a volunteer to try the following
ask them to close their eyes. I
tell them that when they open their eyes, they will have fifteen
seconds to try to memorize everything in the room that is grey.
After fifteen seconds, I have them close their eyes again.
Now, I ask them to tell the class everything around them that
is green. They will
probably have difficulty remembering many green items.
learned long ago from Pavlov's dog and Skinner's box about the
potency of positive reinforcement sometimes get lost in the shuffle
with educators and other helping professionals.
It is easy to become so focused on what is grey and drab, we
neglect what is green and alive.
We become so focused on problem behaviors and perceived
weaknesses, we neglect to recognize and build on strengths.
After I graduated from college in 1985, I took a job at a
special education school living in a double trailer with twelve
teenage boys diagnosed with “severe emotional disturbance and
learning disabilities.” During
that first year as a residential counselor, I began to learn the
importance of paying attention to what I pay attention to.
found myself becoming more and more angered and frustrated by a kid
named Scott. Nothing he
did was right. I
did not like the way Scott talked, walked, or breathed.
Truthfully, I did not like Scott.
My supervisor, asked me to try the “Penny Transfer
Technique.” It was
really quite simple - the most memorable lessons often are.
He asked me to start the day by putting five pennies in my
left pocket. I was
instructed to move a penny
to my right pocket every time I
commented on something Scott did right. I was also instructed to
avoid phony or superficial affirmations (i.e., I like your clothes). My goal was to move all the pennies to the right pocket
by the end of the day. I
did this for one week. Although
it felt somewhat contrived, two things began to happen. First, my
relationship with Scott improved dramatically.
Second, I began to automatically notice things Scott did
right. Since that time, I have successfully used the Penny Transfer
Technique to shift my focus and enhance my relationships with
challenging students or my own children.
A number of educators have also reported a “successful
shift” after trying this strategy.
my Cross Cultural Counseling classes, the students are required to
complete two “Interaction Plans” in which they conduct personal
interviews, attend community meetings, attend social or political
functions, etc. with persons who are culturally different from
semester, several students chose to interview Reverend Damon Lynch
III, a prominent African-American community leader in Over the
Rhine. During their
interview, the students learned that this valuable lesson should
also be applied to communities as well as individuals.
What follows are excerpts from one of those student's paper
eloquently processing her experience.
discussed many times what we were going to ask Reverend Lynch.
We wrote out questions we had thought of and felt we were
pretty prepared for our interview.
We each introduced ourselves and discussed our Multicultural Counseling
class and the nature of our assignment.…We indicated that we hoped
he would be able to give us a better understanding of the basic
needs and concerns of this community….
Lynch paused reflectively then slowly began to explain that he did
not want to talk about needs and concerns of the community; neither
did he think it was a good place for us to start.
He said he did not want to "label the community as
deficient, and that's what has happened too long in communities like
this. We would be
labeling if we started there.”
explained that "this is a rich community.
It is rich with the resources, assets, people with gifts,
institutions, and businesses. As
a matter of fact, this is one of the richest communities in
Cincinnati. There is no
other community in the city that holds the promise that this
community holds. When
we talk about our children, we talk about the resource and the
assets that they are, and the gifts they have.
We need to spend some time on the focus that if the community
is going to change, it is going to start with the strengths that we
used the analogy of the glass that is half filled with water.
"Is it half full or half empty?" he asked.
In our attempt to show our optimism we answered that the
glass was half full. He
replied, "No actually, it is both, but, if you are going to
rebuild the community with this cup, it is obvious that you need to
start with what is half full. Traditionally,
in communities like this, people start with the part that is half
empty. I am just saying
this to caution you two that when you go somewhere else to speak,
instead of asking about their deficiencies, it would be better to
ask about their strengths.
to say, I felt I had just been to church, and learned a good lesson.
I then felt all of the questions we had prepared were totally
useless and inappropriate. We
had a few minutes of silence. Then
we rephrased our questions. "Reverend Lynch, could you please
tell us about the strengths of the community?"
Lynch talked at length about specific strengths of the community).
started this experience thinking that I was empathic enough to the
needs of the Over the Rhine community.
I ended it with the realization that I have a lot to learn.
I started the interview with the need to have someone confirm
my concerns and beliefs about the community.
Instead I was left exposed and ashamed by how stereotypical I
was. I was embarrassed
by my inability to perceive the positive aspects of the community.
It is as if those of us who are privileged majority cannot
perceive the possibility of positive life outside our mode.
We have a lot to learn.
This student should be commended for her willingness to entertain
new ways of being and seeing. She
should also be applauded for learning from her experiences.
Too often, we opt for defending our own perceptions of the
world at the expense of personal and professional growth.
I know I do. Reverend
Lynch identified a common trap that many of us fall into,
particularly when working with racial minority groups: rushing in
and focusing on perceived individual, family, or community
weaknesses rather than recognizing and building on existing
strengths and potential. This
is a difficult paradigm shift to make because the majority of
counseling and helping approaches are deficit-oriented, focusing on
what is supposedly wrong with clients or systems.
Nevertheless, shifting the focus helps us to see students and
their problems in a new light and open the door to new
this lesson was originally written to help counselors and counseling
students critically assess their own thoughts, feelings, and
behaviors regarding the populations they serve, I believe that the
underlying theme is generalizable to all humanity.
Attention to What You Pay Attention to” was adapted from the
author’s book Working with Challenging Youth: Lessons Learned
Along the Way (2001).
Brent Richardson is an assistant professor in the department of
education – graduate counseling program.
to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to
share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching
technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.
Top of Page