Side-talking can be especially frustrating because, although it’s done out of earshot, it’s remarkably disruptive.
When your students turn their attention away from you and to a neighbor, they miss important instruction and learning time—which means you’ll either have to repeat yourself or reteach individual students after your lesson.
It can also delay them from getting their independent work done and distract them from deeper understanding. Furthermore, side-talking begets more side-talking, as students catch the contagion and pass it along to others.
Ignoring the problem just isn’t an option.
You can certainly enforce a consequence, but an oft-repeated and valid complaint from teachers is that it can be difficult to determine who exactly is doing the side-talking and who is merely listening or asking the other to stop.
What follows is a simple, four-step solution. And the best part is, because it’s a student-empowered strategy, you don’t even have to get involved.
1. Define it.
Before you can begin fixing the problem of side-talking, you must define it for your students. They need to know specifically what your definition of side-talking is and what it looks like.
There may be times when you allow it—or a form of it. If so, your students need to know when those times are and what appropriate side-talking looks like. Modeling all forms—right and wrong, appropriate and not—is key to their understanding.
2. Provide them a tool.
Once your students are clear about what side-talking is, and when it is and isn’t okay, the next step is to empower them with a tool they can use to curb inappropriate side-talking on their own and without saying a word.
The tool you’ll show them is a simple hand gesture they’ll display to whoever attempts to side-talk with them during a lesson, while immersed in independent work, or whenever you deem unacceptable.
3. Teach them how to use it.
As long as it isn’t culturally offensive, any sign or motion of the hand will do. Crossing the first two fingers and shaking lightly is a good way to go. It’s a gesture conspicuous enough for you to see from across the room and all students can perform it easily.
To show how it works, sit at a student’s desk or in a table group while your class is circled around. Pretend to be focused on your work or a lesson when a classmate leans in to interrupt. Quickly and pleasantly show your signal and then turn back to whatever you were doing.
4. Practice politeness.
It’s important to emphasize that the gesture is nothing more than a polite reminder to a friend. It’s like saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk right now.” It isn’t aggressive or angry and it should never accompany any talking or admonition.
Pair students up or put them in groups and have them practice, reminding them to use pleasant facial expressions and body language. Show them precisely and thoroughly how it’s done this first time, and they won’t do it any other way.
Be sure and also practice the appropriate response when on the receiving end of the gesture. Namely, a quick nod of the head and then back to fulfilling their responsibilities.
When To Enforce
This simple, nonverbal communication between two students attacks the problem at the source and sends the message, each time its given, that interrupting a fellow student during critical listening or independent learning time is off limits.
And because it comes from within, it is a powerful deterrent.
It does require a slight addendum to your classroom management plan, but it is a narrow one at that. For if ever your students don’t follow the hand-gesture procedure as taught and practiced, or if the gesture is ignored, then a consequence is immediately given.
But unlike struggling to figure out who is deserving of a consequence, and getting it wrong much of the time, you’ll be able to tell exactly who the culprit is. No arguing, no “it was her, not me,” and no wasting time.
Just a polite, more focused classroom.
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