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One day, in front 36 riotous sophomores, I clutched my chest and dropped to my knees like Sergeant Elias at the end of Platoon. Instantly, dead silence and open mouths replaced classroom Armageddon. Standing up like nothing had happened, I said, "Thanks for your attention -- let's talk about love poems."

I never used that stunt again. After all, should a real emergency occur, it would be better if students call 911 rather than post my motionless body on YouTube. I've thought this through.

Most teachers use silencing methods, such as flicking the lights, ringing a call bell (see Teacher Tipster's charming video on the subject), raising two fingers, saying "Attention, class," or using Harry Wong's Give Me 5 -- a command for students to:

  1. Focus their eyes on the speaker
  2. Be quiet
  3. Be still
  4. Empty their hands
  5. Listen.

There is also the "three fingers" version, which stands for stop, look, and listen. Fortunately, none of these involve medical hoaxes.

Lesser known techniques are described below and categorized by grade bands:

How to Quiet Kindergarten and Early Elementary School Children

Novelty successfully captures young students' attention, such as the sound of a wind chime or rain stick. Beth O., in Cornerstone for Teachers, tells her students, "Pop a marshmallow in." Next she puffs up her cheeks, and the kids follow suit. It's hard to speak with an imaginary marshmallow filling your mouth.

An equally imaginative approach involves filling an empty Windex bottle with lavender mineral oil, then relabeling the bottle "Quiet Spray." Or you can blow magic "hush-bubbles" for a similar impact.

If you want to go electronic, check out Traffic Light by ICT Magic, which is simply a stoplight for talkers. Other digital methods include the Super Sound Box, Class Dojo, or the Too Noisy App -- an Apple and Android tool that determines noise level and produces an auditory signal when voices become too loud.

Late Elementary and Middle Grade Attention Getters

Back when I taught middle school students, I would announce, "Silent 20," as a way to conclude an activity. If students returned to their seats and were completely quiet in 20 seconds, I advanced them one space on a giant facsimile of Game of Life. When they reached the last square (which took approximately one month), we held a popcorn party.

One of the best ways to maintain a quiet classroom is to catch students at the door before they enter. During these encounters, behavior management expert Rob Plevin recommends using "non-confrontational statements" and "informal chit-chat" to socialize kids into productive behaviors, as modeled in Plevin's video.

Two approaches for securing "100 percent attention" are modeled in a short video narrated by Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov -- a minimally invasive hand gesture and countdown technique ("I need two people. You know who you are. I need one person . . . ").

Another idea is to use a content "word of the week" to signal that it's time for silence. Examples: integer, renaissance, or circuit.

Quieting High School Students

Sometimes, rambunctious high school classrooms need a little longer to comply. In An ELT Notebook article, Rob Johnson recommends that teachers write the following instructions in bold letters on the chalkboard:

If you wish to continue talking during my lesson, I will have to take time off you at break. By the time I've written the title on the board you need to be sitting in silence. Anyone who is still talking after that will be kept behind for five minutes.

The strategy always, always works, says Johnson, because it gives students adequate warning.

Another technique, playing classical music (Bach, not Mahler) on low volume when learners enter the room, sets a professional tone. I played music with positive subliminal messages to ninth graders until they complained that it gave them headaches.

Call and Response

Below is a collection of catchy sayings that work as cues to be quiet, the first ones appropriate for early and middle grade students, and the later ones field tested to work with high school kids.

Teacher says . . .   Students Respond with . . .
Holy . . .   . . . macaroni.
1, 2, 3, eyes on me . . .   . . . 1, 2, eyes on you.
I’m incredible . . .   . . . like the Hulk. Grrrrrr. (Kids flex during the last sound)
Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy . . .   . . . macarena.
I get knocked down . . .   . . . but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down.
Oh Mickey, you're so fine . . .   . . . you're so fine, you blow my mind -- hey Mickey.
The only easy day . . .   . . . was yesterday. (A Navy Seals slogan)

Implementation Suggestions

For maximum effect, teach your quiet signal and procedure, as demonstrated in this elementary level classroom video. Next, have kids rehearse being noisy until you give the signal for silence. Don't accept anything less than 100 percent compliance. Then describe appropriate levels of noise for different contexts, such as when you're talking (zero noise) or during a writing workshop (quiet voices), etc.

If a rough class intimidates you (we've all been there), privately practice stating the following in an authoritative voice: "My words are important. Students will listen to me." Say it until you believe it. Finally, take comfort in the knowledge that, out of three million U.S. educators who taught today, two or three might have struggled to silence a rowdy class.

How do you get your students' attention?

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laprimeradama's picture

Your system seems like what is happening at our school. Students are choosing their incentives and many teachers are using the ClassDojo.

Mr. Gonzalez's picture

Any suggestions for kindergarten children? We are using class dojo and doesn't seem to impact a handful of children. I told the children that every month they'll have a chance to pick a prize out of our classroom prize box by following rules.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I think with Kindergarten students monthly prizes won't be effective for those challenging students. The time frame is just too long. Keep in mind that developmentally there are just going to be children that need more time to settle in. It may be because they didn't attend preschool or for a wide variety of reasons. I would collect some data on those particular students. Make notes what time of day, time during the activity/lesson, and what the particular activity is when they are acting out. Tracking the behaviors and that sort of data may help you resolve your issues. For example, if a child is acting out mostly during the end of circle time it may benefit to do some sort of short movement break during the circle time. If the child is having difficulty when moving to centers he/she may need an escort by the teacher or responsible student to get to the center. You would be surprised at how collecting data for 2-3 weeks can really help resolve many behavior issues. I hope this helps and let us know if you need assistance once you collect that data.

Kimberly Wheeler's picture

@Laogou: I can only imagine you are joking (hopefully). Sadly, some teachers actually use these ineffective and belittling techniques. ; (

Kimberly Wheeler's picture

First grade teacher here. I use a variety of call-response phrases and tone chimes. When they all respond appropriately, I award class tally points on the board. The points and my verbal praise give immediate positive reinforcement. When we get to 100 points on Friday (we always do) they earn some "Fun Friday" free choice time. I throw generous amoints of tally points on the board throughout the day to reinforce any positive behavior I see.

For kids who have unfinished work, they can use the time to get caught up with my help.

I add throughout the year to keep it fresh. Currently I'm using "Hands on top/Everybody stop," "Macaroni and cheese/Everybody freeze," "Flat tire/Shhhhhhhhhh," "If you can hear my voice touch your . . .(repeated till I get everyone following)," and "1-2-3 eyes on me/1-2 eyes on you."

laprimeradama's picture

I don't think you should wait a month. I would start off daily, then go to weekly. They have short attention spans, they need to see results quickly to see the connection between behavior and rewards.

Guest's picture

While teaching if anyone is not listening to the class, I will just stop my class for a moment and will continue again.... making sure he/she has my attention again. Still if he/she continues the same i will have a personal talk , find the reason and make a solution....

NewPathLearning's picture
Teaching Resources for Math, Reading, Science and Social Studies for Gr. 1-10

But what about when you add phones to the mix? For example; Kids showing their friends a YouTube video, social media post, or a text message. What do you think would be the best method to use on kids that are on their phones?

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