How To Ask For And Receive Your Students’ Attention Within Two Seconds

Smart Classroom Management: How To Ask For And Receive Your Students' Attention Within Two SecondsThe ability to ask for and receive your students’ attention is crucial.

It’s crucial because it saves precious learning time. It improves listening and performance.

It allows you to give instruction anytime you need to and know that it will be heard and understood.

It’s also a sign of a well-run classroom.

The good news is that it isn’t difficult to teach.

It isn’t difficult to groove the habit of politely responding to your call for attention within just a second or two.

It can even be a lot of fun.

Here’s how:

Step 1: Explain why.

It’s good practice to explain why what you’re asking of your students is important and worth practicing—in all areas of classroom management.

This is a critical step in motivating them to not only go along with your expectations, but to agree with them on the basis that they make the classroom better and more enjoyable.

This underscores the importance of selling not just your lessons, but anything and everything you want your students to be able to do well.

Step 2: Choose a signal.

Many teachers prefer train whistles, bells, and other manufactured sounds to signal for attention.

And although these can work fine (as long as you remain in the classroom), your voice is a better option—because it will help develop the habit of listening attentively whenever you speak.

It will develop the habit of consistently following your directions.

It’s an act of respect that will affect how they view you as the leader of the classroom. I recommend a simple: “Can I have your attention please?”

Step 3: Expect an immediate response.

The biggest mistake teachers make is allowing students more time than they need to respond. This is key.

When you frame your expectations in any terms other than immediate, your students will push their response time back further and further.

The result is that you’ll be waiting for their attention for increasingly longer periods of time until, at some point, they just won’t bother.

By expecting your students to be looking and listening to you before you even get to the end of your sentence, you’ll never have to wait and rarely have to reteach.

Step 4: Model it.

Your students need to see exactly what giving you their attention looks like. To that end, sit at a student’s desk and pretend you’re working independently or as part of a group.

You may also want to model other common scenarios like, for example, if they’re up and getting a tissue or playing a learning game or rotating through centers.

Have a student play the part of the teacher while you engage in the activity. Upon their signal, stop what you’re doing, turn your body to face them, and listen without moving.

You’re setting your expectations and thus should model precisely what you want. Adding how not to do it is also a good idea.

Step 5: Make practice fun.

Practicing routines and expectations with a spirit of fun will always result in greater buy-in.

If you give your students something silly to say while they’re pretending to work in groups, or engaged in other scenarios, learning will be faster, deeper, and longer lasting.

Any nonsensical phrase will do. In the past, I’ve used “hey, hey, whaddya say,” “murmur, murmur,” and “blah, blah, blah,” as well as a few others. The goofier, the better.

Allow them to talk for 30 seconds or so, and then ask for their attention. Practice until they’re able to be still, silent, and looking at you in less than two seconds.

Everything Easier

It’s best to put the routine into play as soon as possible.

Release your students to work on their group projects or gather science materials or anything else that causes them to get up and move about or talk to each other.

Wait no more than five minutes, and then give your signal.

If they don’t get it right, if they don’t respond exactly as they were taught, then run through another round of practice. Send the message that you really do mean what you say.

Nailing down this one routine is important because it makes everything easier and affects so many areas of learning and classroom management.

It saves loads of time, improves listening, encourages group responsibility, and allows you to have instant and total control of your class anytime you need it.

It’s correlated with respect, politeness, and the pursuit of excellence.

It’s worth getting right.

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18 thoughts on “How To Ask For And Receive Your Students’ Attention Within Two Seconds

    • Hi Shauna,

      I have not worked with deaf students, but presumably a hand signal–which, when used by students, can also accompany the strategy above. We’ll cover this topic in a future article.


  1. This is such a great suggestion for getting instant communication with the class. Thank you. I’ve been doing it for years and it works well. However, when practicing or going over the skill once again, I usually have one or two students who make some noise when everyone else is listening and quiet. So we do it again and again until they get it right. Yes, the others get annoyed and it isn’t funny anymore and they let those students know it, but they keep it going far longer than they should. Should I give them a warning? Should I model it again? I’ve done both, but I’d like to know what you suggest. I’ve used your suggestions with great success for a long time and tell others about your column often. Thank you!

    • Hi Pam,

      For one or two students, yes, follow your classroom management plan. Doing it again and again will cause resentment from the rest of the class.


  2. Hello Michael,

    Thank you for your invaluable advice. How would you handle students that think “What’s the purpose?” I teach Spanish to 7th and 8th graders. I do tell them about the benefits of education, and Knowledge is power, and so on. Is there an article that addresses these concerns?

  3. Michael I just love how you keep us on top of things. You don’t rest on your laurels of success, rather you listen to teacher’s questions and write new articles that help us continue to be successful.
    People want to know how I know how to manage my class so well and I tell them about “how to have a Dream class.” I am sure they think it can’t be that easy. So I forward your articles to our teaching staff. It is great to hear them come back and say they tried the idea … and “it worked!” Thanks so much for caring enough to share!

    • Hi Barbara,

      Thank you for your kind and supporting words! I appreciate it and appreciate you sharing your success and the SCM website with your colleagues.


  4. Great advice! At our school we use the phrase “attentive listening,” kids respond well, but I definitely don’t have it down to two seconds. Is it worth implementing now, with only a few months left of school??

  5. I am a substitute teacher and I have wondered what I should do about this. I try to remember to ask teachers what their signal is and it often works like a charm. However, there are times when I don’t have the opportunity to ask the teacher, it doesn’t work, or they don’t have one. I substitute for all grade levels and types of classes. What do you suggest I do?

    Thanks for your articles! They have been very insightful.

    • Hi Malia,

      You can either ask the students what the signal is or create your own. I hope to write about this topic in a future ebook for substitute teachers.


  6. Hi. Thanks for your nice articles on class management. I wish if we would be able to see an article on how to manage primary classes like grades 1, 2 and 3

  7. I am a kindergarten teacher and elementary lead teacher. I use the phrase, “1-2-3, eyes on me.” The children respond, “1-2, eyes on you!” I have modeled to them since the beginning of the year to stop everything and look at me immediately. Of course, there are times when someone doesn’t, so I just say, “Sally, let me see your big eyes.” Then I give that child a bug eyed look. It gets a giggle, and I get her attention. Most of the elementary teachers are using that phrase now.

  8. When I give instructions I want children to be silent, stop what they are doing, and look at me. I would feel comfortable giving a consequence (warning/time out/letter) if a child keep talking after I asked for attention, however I’m not sure whether I should also give a consequence if a child is quiet but doesn’t give me eye contact.

    It seems too harsh to be so particular as to give a consequence because a student didn’t keep their attention on me. I don’t want my children living in fear that they have to be perfect or alternatively not to feel the weight of a consequence (because they are so common as they are impossible to avoid)

    However, if I don’t give them a consequence my expectation may just be seen as a suggestion and I will be continually reminding/pleading with students for their attention.

    Is there some kind of middle ground? A way that I can show that I expect that they need to look at me (and any speaker) but not to give a formal warning if they haven’t looked my way within 2 seconds of me asking for attention or if there eyes stray out the window?

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