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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