Do you struggle to control the frequency and level of noise in and around your classroom? Dave Stott discusses when talking is and is not acceptable, and suggests tips for outlining and enforcing your expectations to pupils

Excessive noise in the teaching and learning environment can not only indicate off-task behaviour and be terribly distracting, but it can also cause tempers to fray and confrontation to escalate.

It is clearly impossible to advocate a “No Talking” policy in the classroom, as it prevents the development of social interaction, useful discussion and a sharing of views. There will be times when you are prepared to accept a limited amount of talking during on-task behaviour, and there will be even be times when talk and discussion are actively encouraged; but who does the talking and what volume is acceptable are things that are more difficult to agree on and measure.

There will also be environmental issues, possibly out of your control, that will be influential for many students. If your teaching area is close to the source of distracting noise, what can be done about it? Are you working in an open plan area, often used as a thoroughfare by staff and pupils alike?

Problems can occur for classrooms and teaching areas situated close to:

  • corridors
  • communal areas
  • a busy road or playground
  • shared teaching areas
  • practical activity area such as the hall (PE or drama activities), dining room (setting out tables etc) or school offices.

It is important to raise awareness of all users of the building that noise in adjacent areas can be distracting and unsettling. There is no need to go to such extremes as soundproofing areas of the school, although this might be advisable for certain areas such as practice rooms, but there should be some physical reminders in areas likely to be affected. Positively phrased signs and directions like “Thanks for being quiet in this area” should do the trick.

Once you have addressed the noise issues outside your teaching area, it is time to evaluate the problems inside the classroom. Clarity of your expectations for different activities – seated, discussion and written tasks, question and answer sessions – is essential. Your expectations should be an integral part of your lesson introduction, including what technique you will be using to attract attention and to ask pupils to stop work and listen. Shouting your directions above the overall noise of the classroom will have only have a negative effect. Don’t forget to also include how you expect pupils to attract your attention. All too often shouts of “Sir!” or “Miss!” can be disruptive and highly distractive. Decide on a technique you wish to use, explain, teach and check for understanding before adopting your chosen technique for all classroom activities.

Practical Tips
Spend some time working with pupils and identify any problems in the classroom environment (inside and outside) that could be distracting. Use a problem solving model with the pupils to find solutions, some of which you will be able to instigate; others will need reporting to senior managers, caretakers, other users of the building, etc.

Problem Solving Model:

1. Identify the specific problem
2. Come up with 5 possible solutions
3. Test your solutions against a) Would it work? b) How would it feel? c) Is it safe? d) How would it feel?
4. Choose the most successful solution
5. Try it
6. Evaluate

Within the classroom, once you have indicated your expectations for various activities, it is important to develop a system that informs pupils if they are succeeding and also when there is a problem.

Use visual indicators to inform pupils of noise levels. Some readers who are old enough may remember the “Swing-o-meter” – a simple pendulum in the form of an elongated arrow. The arrow can then be moved from the red area (indicating too much noise) through to the green area (noise level ok). This system is particularly successful with younger pupils, especially when the pupils themselves operate it. There are more sophisticated electronic systems available should you decide to try this method of visual representation.

There is also a very simple but highly effective system to monitor and control sound levels in the classroom. For those members of staff who are prepared to accept a level of noise, then try a clear statement such as:

“I don’t mind some talking during this activity, but if I can work out whose voice I can hear above everyone else, then that is too loud!”

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

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