How To Signal For Your Students’ Attention

Can you get your students’ attention—and keep it—any time you want to? Can you do it consistently and without fuss? When you give your signal, do your students immediately stop what they’re doing and look at you?

Being able to get your students’ attention when they’re otherwise engaged in an activity is important. Effective teaching requires it. But it needs to be done quickly and painlessly. You can’t afford to waste time.

Teaching your students how to do it well isn’t complicated and can even be a lot of fun. However, there are two popular methods I don’t recommend.

The first is using a hand signal. The reasons why you shouldn’t use this method to ask for attention are many, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll cover them in a future article.

The second is counting down aloud from five. I don’t recommend this method for three reasons.

1. To students, it sounds like a threat. It’s like saying, “You better look at me before I finish counting, or else.” Classroom management doesn’t need to be negative to be effective. In fact, it works better if it isn’t.

2. There is a temptation to slow down the count. Teachers want so badly for students to do well, so they slow their pace to give students more time to become attentive.

The count, then, becomes slower over time, a slippery slope indeed. We want students to become better, quicker, more attentive. Not less.

3. It’s used after the teacher has already asked for attention and didn’t get it. Counting down amounts to accepting less than what students are capable of. It also encourages selective hearing.

Instead of counting, why not give one simple auditory signal and expect students to give their attention as soon as they hear it?

Your students, whether preschool, elementary, or high school, will rise to meet whatever expectation you set for them—as long as you clearly show them how.

The signal you use is up to you, but I recommend a simple verbal cue like, “Can I have your attention?” I like this because it communicates exactly what you want and can be used anywhere.

You can also use a manufactured sound like a squeak toy, a Snapple cap, a train whistle, or any sound you like.

Follow these steps to get your students’ attention quickly and without difficulty.

1. Explain it.

Give a simple explanation and include only the information they need to succeed. For example, “Whenever I say, ‘Can I have your attention?’, stop what you’re doing and look at me.”

2. Model it.

Using detailed modeling, perform a few scenarios. Play the role of a student while your class observes and ask questions.

3. Practice it.

Let them talk with their neighbors, or have them get up and walk around, saying hello to their friends. Then give your signal. Do this a few times or until they get it right.

To add some fun, have them repeat, “blah, blah, blah,” or “hey, hey, what do you say,” or “murmur, murmur,” over and over until you give your signal.

4. Review it.

After the initial teaching, spend five minutes a day practicing for two or three weeks, and test them periodically. When they’re deeply involved in an activity, ask for their attention and see how they do.

5. Praise them.

During the initial learning phase, remember to praise them when they do it well.

6. Do it again.

If at any time during the year they don’t give their attention right after the signal, have them do it again. Tell them to go back to work or “blah, blah” with their neighbors, and then ask for their attention again.

One of the keys to great classroom management is to never move on until you get exactly what you want from your students.

7. Score it.

During practice, give them an honest score between one and ten. Children are naturally competitive and will always want to improve. Furthermore, giving opportunities for your class to work for a common goal builds unity.

8. Take it one step further.

Once they have it down and are able to do it right every time, try whispering your signal so that just a few students hear you. I think you’ll be surprised at what they’re capable of.

Make sure you teach every step with a spirit of fun. They’ll learn faster, enjoy it more, and will look forward to practicing it.

Is it worth putting so much effort into something so rudimentary? Yes, yes, and yes. Like so much of classroom management, this exercise in excellence will transfer to everything they do.

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24 Responses to How To Signal For Your Students’ Attention

  1. Tanya September 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Thank you for these articles. I am a 4th year teacher and a first year teacher at the same time. I just started at a new high school this year. I am stressed and panicked beyond belief and this website has been amazing. Thank you so much for your time and effort. I am really grateful.

    • Michael Linsin September 18, 2011 at 7:40 am #

      Your welcome, Tanya! You’re going to do great!

  2. Charlene October 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    Thanks Michael. I’ve been teaching a 1/2 split for the past 12 years and although my class management is pretty good, your articles have made it GREAT! You have targeted some of my bad habits that were driving me crazy(I’ve always wondered why counting down didn’t work well) now I get it! Keep the articles coming. I look forward to them.

    • Michael Linsin October 16, 2011 at 9:48 am #

      You got it, Charlene! Thanks!

  3. Sandra Meade September 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    I have been using your advice, and for the first time after 16 years of see a big improvement on how students are listening and using self control. I have recommended for my colleagues to read you wonderful book. Please keep sending your e-mails!

    Sandra Meade

    • Michael Linsin September 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      That’s wonderful, Sandra! Good to hear it!

  4. Beth Howle October 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    I feel like I have found a treasure. Great articles.

    • Michael Linsin October 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

      Thanks Beth! Glad you like them.

      :)Michael

  5. Linda October 4, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    Counting down from 5 works every time for me, because the students do the counting. They love it. In fact, sometimes when the class gets too noisy, someone will start and the rest chime in. The secret is just to say 5. The students are taught to continue the count. They love hurrying to their seats by the time they get to one — sitting up, quiet, and focused on the teacher (curiously).

  6. Debbie October 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    I’m teaching a K/1 split (50-50) for the first time. Never has a class come together like the one this year. I taught my attention signal (Class-Yes from Power Teaching) and the grade 1’s respond quickly. The K’s remain deep in conversations or whatever task they are working on and often ignore the signal. We have done a lot of practice. I’ve taught the gr. 1’s to “help their friends” when I give the signal. It worked for a while, but soon many K’s ignore the signal again next time it’s used. When I do finally get their attention (sometimes after 4-5 repetitions), we try it again 2 or 3 times, but later in the day when I give the signal again, the ignoring often happens again. We’ve also done echo clapping because the principal uses it in the gym, but similarly, this takes a few repetitions before everyone stops what they’re doing and listens. And, if they do listen on the signal, the listening falls apart a minute or so into the instructions I’m giving.

    • Michael Linsin October 7, 2012 at 8:29 am #

      Hi Debbie,

      I’ve written about this extensively. You can find all of your questions answered in the Attentiveness category of the archive. If, after reading through it, you have further questions, I’m happy to help.

      :)Michael

  7. Ellena October 28, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    Love your articles, Michael. You are spot on with some of your scenarios. Sometimes, I want to laugh. Sometimes, I want to cry because you seem to understand our plight more than Administration! I have also recommended your articles to co-workers. My problem is that I am starting to loose faith in the prospect of getting things under control… calmly and quietly. My co-workers and I have discussed our dismay at how it seems that the majority of our student body simply does not respond unless we raise our voices! I know this is a big NO, NO. I really do not like doing it. As a matter of fact, raising my voice is not even comfortable to me outside this school’s environment. I don’t do it with my child at home. When I taught in other environments, I did not have to raise my voice. BIG ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM QUESTION…are there some children who are actually desensitized (hope this is the right word) to someone talking to them quietly? If so, what are some strategies to overcome this dilemma? Most educational experts insist that– no matter what– everything is controlled by the Teacher. But are there other things going on with these children that may indeed be causing these wonderful strategies to be more challenging to implement? Because I waste a considerable amount of my class time waiting for my students to “get it”.

    • Michael Linsin October 28, 2012 at 8:13 am #

      Hi Ellena,

      All of the strategies you’ll find on this website have been used and proven to work by me with students from every background imaginable. Now, it’s important to note that they work better when used together. For example, if you don’t have a positive relationship with your students, then yes, some of the strategies are more challenging to implement. As to your first question, when you raise your voice you train your students to tune in only when you raise your voice. They assume then that if you don’t raise your voice, it must not be very important.

      Michael

  8. Amanda December 18, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    I just started teaching pre-k to 10 kids without an assistant. Any suggestions to modifying this for 4 and 5 year olds? I tried this today to no avail. I even stood on a chair, waited 15 minutes, and I am still feeling frustrated that I can’t gain their attention unless I yell. I don’t want to be that sort of person or teacher. Please help!

    • Michael Linsin December 18, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

      Hi Amanda,

      It’s not something you try. It’s something you teach. With younger students it may take time, but they’ll get it. You may also want to use a sound or tone to signal for attention.

      :)Michael

  9. jul January 8, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

    its really a big help for me..i am intern or pre service teacher of Notre Dame University Junior high School cotabato city philippines..it had a great help to me..Thank you very much michael..

    • Michael Linsin January 9, 2013 at 8:35 am #

      You’re welcome, Jul!

      Michael

  10. Lauren January 24, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    Hi,

    I just started my first teaching job..6th, 7th, and 8th grade art..all mixed. I’ve also started mid-semester after the students have had substitutes in and out since last November. Today was my 4th day with the students.
    I’ve been using a hand signal. Only about 1/3 of my students take me seriously. I also cannot seem to keep their attention (once I get it) when giving direct instruction for their current project. We’ve wasted a lot of time with me just trying to get their attention. I know it is only day 4, but I feel like something needs to change already. These students need stability badly, so I am weary of changing, but I can see it’s not working. Where is the article you mentioned on why not to use hand signals?
    Also, do you have any discipline procedure suggestions? I am using a “three strikes” rule, but I am finding it hard to determine what needs to go through that procedure, and what should result in a direct referral to the office. The school doesn’t have a specific policy. Problems range from inability to stay seated, constant foul language, to flipping students off, hitting students with rulers, graffiti-ing a table, and telling other teachers that they are going to break up my engagement with my fiance!! I know that I cannot expect them to be angels, but their behavior is unacceptable.

    Thank you so much!!!

    • Michael Linsin January 25, 2013 at 7:46 am #

      Hi Lauren,

      I have such a long list of article topics to cover that I have yet to get to the one you mentioned. As for your second question, please read through the Classroom Management Plan category of the website.

      :)Michael

  11. Tyler March 4, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    Michael,
    I’m a first year 8th grade math teacher. Your tips seem spot on, and I wish I could start my year over again with them. I’ve got one class thats’ really getting me down. They’ve been a challenging class from day 1 (the para kicked three of them out before we could start the get to know you game). I found myself so often pleading with students, and giving more warnings than any cell in my body wanted to. I praised them when they were mediocre. I thought we could build up to higher expectations by building on the positive. Obviously that was foolish. The students caught on to my inconsistency right away, and they exploit that daily. I moralized and pleaded and in every action showed them that they controlled the room.

    About midyear I tried a big intervention, where we discussed as a class what wasn’t going well in the class (should’ve talked about what was going well too I suppose). The students helped come up with new rules, but no sooner had they listed off what school had taught them to be appropriate rules than they broke them. The consequences didn’t work. It was too hard to enforce them, and I found myself again setting the standard that I wanted them to be in my classroom more than I wanted them to be well behaved.

    The students are playing around too much during class, and not getting down to business. When I give students consequences they challenge me and refuse until I call down to the office. I hate it. Their conversations are totally off task, and when they are asked to do work they respond that they don’t get it.

    I’m just beat. It’s already March. There are still 3 months left. As much as I want to say things will be different next year, I’ve got to get control of this class so I have a job next year.

    Where do I focus? What do I make my next project? Where do I draw the line on bad behavior and refusing consequences?

    • Michael Linsin March 5, 2013 at 7:51 am #

      Hi Tyler,

      What is your classroom management plan? Have you read Dream Class? How much of this website (the archives) have you read? Email me your answers and I’ll give you my best advice.

      Michael

  12. Ben June 24, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    Michael,

    Are you familiar with Whole Brain Teaching’s “Class-Yes”? That’s the attention-getting signal that I use for my middle-schoolers since it’s noticeable and interactive.

    • Michael Linsin June 24, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

      Hi Ben,

      No, not specifically.

      Michael

  13. Jo August 18, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    Great ideas.
    Our school uses a “stop & drop” announcement and I detest it. Although it is somewhat effective, there must be a better way than getting the kids to drop to the dirty concrete and ground. I hope they take up some of these ones instead.