Clear, taught strategies for attracting and holding attention can help to create a calm and ordered learning environment

The whole class is busy and actively engaged in a variety of learning activities. Discussion, partner work and quiet reading are all taking place. The teacher is moving from group to group, dealing with individual difficulties, and scanning general behaviour. He/she is using a range of strategies to reward appropriate behaviour and to refocus any off-task pupils. When the need arises to address the entire group, it is interesting to note the strategies generally used, compared to all those available.

Clapping hands, using a loud voice (directed at no one in particular) with random words or even, non-words i.e. Err! Right! Now! These are rarely successful techniques in gaining the attention of the whole group of children. The result being the teacher needs to repeat the technique, but louder this time. This causes confusion for the pupils, often a rise in volume and, very often, a sense of frustration for the teacher.

But what about when the pupil wishes to attract the attention of the teacher? A problem, a question, an observation – these are all legitimate reasons for seeking your attention. The traditional ‘hands up’ may seem to work fine for you. The problem with this system is it can leave some pupils with one hand in the air for several minutes. They may become frustrated, annoyed and eventually give up. Children revert to using the ‘hand up’ technique together with shouts of ‘Miss, Miss!’ or ‘Sir, Sir!’ Add to this the finger-clicking strategy and the formerly calm, purposeful learning environment becomes noisy and annoying for teacher and pupil alike.

With no clear, taught strategy to attract your attention, some pupils take the next step and become the out of seat ‘Velcro’ child. Turn around and there he/she is, right next to you, demanding your immediate attention or, even worse, at the head of the queue of six or seven Velcros!

Practical tips
There are numerous strategies available to help you gain the attention of the whole class group. Whichever you choose, the key to success is to take the time to teach your strategy or strategies to the whole class. Be very clear and explicit in explaining your strategy, check for understanding, allow the pupils to practice the strategy and review it on a regular basis.

Clapping your hands together with a comment such as ‘Thanks class’ needs careful explanation. i.e. ‘When I clap my hands and say, “Thanks class”, I want you to stop talking, put everything down and look this way.’ Now check with three or for pupils for understanding: ‘What am I going to do? What do I want you to do?’ Make sure you cover and reinforce all the points.

Now ask for any questions, giving the opportunity for anyone to raise any misunderstandings, together with further reinforcement of your strategy. Finally, spend some time practising the strategy, not forgetting to recognise and reward those pupils who manage to get it right.

Once a chosen strategy has been established, maintain it, don’t be tempted to try something different next week. This will result in confusion for both you and the pupils.

It is possible to teach and maintain almost any strategy in this manner. Raising your hand, counting down, standing in a particular position in the classroom, ringing a bell are a few attention-grabbing strategies that can be successful, but remember to teach!

The same clarity of teaching must be employed when determining strategies for your pupils to attract your attention. It is not safe to assume that pupils will ‘know’ how you want them to behave.

Hands up, or red/green signs on tables (easily seen when you are scanning the whole class) are perfectly acceptable techniques. It is also worth teaching pupils to have ‘stand-by’ activities when it is obvious that you are unable to deal with them immediately. This takes away the chance of boredom, anger or frustration when waiting for you to respond. Some pupils will require reminders even when you have practiced this technique. ‘Ok John, I’ll be with you in a couple of minutes. Do you remember what you could be doing while you’re waiting?’

Once again, it is important that you establish a consistent way of doing things in your classroom. Routine and consistency can be the key for many pupils and teachers. Don’t forget to leave details clearly visible in the classroom to reinforce your methods to the pupils (and to remind you!) and to help any supply cover when you’re not there.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2007

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years at headteacher level. Dave has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.