Classroom Management Strategies: How to Speak, Get Attention, Deal with Disruption, and Increase Student Focus

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You’ve got your lesson plans down. Now all you have to tackle is managing your classroom.

Classroom management represents a galaxy of concerns, ranging from how to speak to your class to how to handle disruptions, and everything in between.

There can be a dizzying array of considerations to juggle. But let’s start with a few of the basics:

  • How do I speak to my class?
  • How do I get the attention of my class quickly (after they’ve been working on peer activities, for example)?
  • How do I deal with disruptive students?
  • How do I increase focus in my classroom?

Let’s take a look at these classroom management considerations.

How to speak

Speaking is at the core of what teachers do; oftentimes it’s the essence of how they communicate.

That said, it’s worth working on the way you speak and how you come across to your kids.

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Rebecca Alber for the Edutopia blog suggests using a normal, natural voice:

“Raising our voice to get students’ attention is not the best approach, and the stress it causes and the vibe it puts in the room just isn’t worth it. The students will mirror your voice level, so avoid using that semi-shouting voice. If we want kids to talk at a normal, pleasant volume, we must do the same.”

Kids will take cues on how to act from their teachers, so it’s important that teachers model positive behavior — the kind of behavior they want to see among their class.

Along the same lines, in terms of speaking with kids who need discipline, using a calm, measured voice is much more effective than raising your voice.

Beth Arky of the Child Mind Institute writes that raising your voice makes you lose the message you’re trying to send in a jumble of negative emotions. Instead, through a calm voice, kids can learn right from wrong in a safe, nurturing environment.

Muriel Rand of The Positive Classroom, too, recommends using a “calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice when applying logical consequences to children’s inappropriate behavior”:

As we mentioned above, speaking is a key part of a teacher’s efforts. But what some teachers forget is that a teacher often spends an inordinate amount of time talking. It’s important, then, to protect your voice; you’ll be using it all year!

Here are some tips to achieve that end:

Wait for students to be quiet

A choral teacher at my elementary school had a novel way to get students to quiet down and pay attention: She would appeal to their love of recess.

Whenever the students got loud and prevented her from lecturing, she would stop talking, hold up a stopwatch, and start the timer. The accrued time on the stopwatch reflected how long they had to stay after class to make up for being loud.

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The kids always wanted to get out on time for recess, so they always quieted down in a hurry.

Little did the kids know, this was a form of conditioning that helped the children learn to not interrupt the teacher.

You don’t have to implement this in your classroom, but the strategy points to an important concept for teachers: Speak only when your kids are ready to listen.

Alber relates her experience of learning this concept from a fellow teacher who had taught for 20 years.

Alber had to resist the urge to attempt to speak over the kids; instead, she would wait patiently until the kids quieted down. Eventually, her students would help her by telling other kids to be quiet. As Alber said: “They did all the work for me!”

Keep your vocal cords hydrated

Protecting your vocal cords is a serious issue. Michael J. Pitman, director of the New York Eye and Ear’s Voice and Swallowing Institute, writes:

“Teachers are at great risk for occupational-related voice disorders. In fact, about 58 percent of teachers will develop a voice disorder in their lifetime, compared to 20 percent of people in the general population — and the prevalence of voice issues among teachers has been increasing over the years.”

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Pitman recommends “keeping the vocal cords hydrated by drinking six to eight glasses of water a day.”

It’s good advice. According to the Duke Voice Center, you’re less likely to hurt your voice if your focal folds are hydrated. The Center suggests, also, that you can inhale steam (perhaps in the shower or with a humidifier) to keep your vocal cords moist.

Water can moisten your vocal cords, but other drinks can make them more prone to injury. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders recommends drinking less alcohol and caffeine, which can dry out your vocal folds and larynx.

By speaking the right way and taking care of your voice, you set yourself up for a long teaching career. Protect those vocal cords!

How to use attention signals

An attention signal is a method of getting students to stop what they’re doing and direct their focus to you.

Essentially, it involves the teacher giving a signal and students returning with a signal of their own.

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Attention signals are effective because they get the entire class acting in unison, and they get the entire class quiet quickly. It’s a favorite tool of super teachers, and a good one will keep you from tearing your hair out trying to get students’ eyes on you.

Third-grade teacher Demery Bader-Saye likes to give a verbal signal, to which her students respond with a verbal signal of their own:

  • First she says, “My voice is on,” and her students respond with “My voice is off.”
  • Then she says “My eyes are on you,” to which her students respond with “My eyes are on you.”

Here’s what she has to say about the attention signal:

“What I like about the attention signal is that it’s a really positive way to get their attention and call their focus back. So instead of my standing there saying, ‘Listen to me, everybody!’ and repeating myself over and over, it’s a way for me to, in a very positive way, get their eyes and ears on me.”

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Other attention signals include:

  • If you can hear me, clap: You say, “If you can hear me, clap once.” Your students clap in unison. You continue with more claps “If you can hear me, clap twice” until the entire class is quiet.
  • Give me five: You raise your hand and say, “Give me five.” Your students return the signal by raising their hands and “high-fiving” you in the air.
  • Hands on top: One teacher says: “When I want my kids to put everything down and look at me, I chant, ‘Hands on top’ while putting my hands on my head. They respond, ‘Everybody STOP’ while putting their hands on their heads. It works well because they can’t put their hands on their heads and hold crayons, pencils, etc. at the same time.”

To get your class ready to use your attention signal, you can use modeling and practice. Demonstrate how your attention signal works and how you want them to respond.

For example, have your kids talk among themselves as if they were engaged in an activity, then use your attention signal and have them respond. You can provide feedback afterwards. Keep practicing until your class gets the attention signal down like pros!

With attention signals, find what works for you. Different teachers use or create different attention signals depending on their needs and style. Keep experimenting and find something that fits your personality and your kids.

How to deal with disruptive students

Each year, every teacher contends with the possibility (or inevitability) that there will be at least one disruptive student in class.

What are the best ways to minimize their disruption and help them focus?

Kellie Hayden for Bright Hub Education offers two suggestions:

“When students are being disruptive by talking, poking, pulling or crumpling paper, go stand by them. … I have taught from the back of the room by the orneriest boys. This sends them a direct message to stop what they are doing. Most of the time they stop and get back to work.”

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There’s a curious human phenomenon in which people tend to behave better when they know they’re being watched.

The same goes for your classroom, in which kids may try to surreptitiously engage in class-disrupting activity.

If you’re right next to them, they’re far less likely to keep disrupting the class. And your presence doesn’t have to serve as a threat; you can stand next to your disruptive students in a calm, reassuring manner to let them know that, yes, they are being watched, but that you care enough about them to want them to stay focused.

Hayden also writes:

“When you have stood by the student, talked to the student and kept them busy with lessons, and they still are disruptive, take them in the hallway. Ask them, “Are you OK?” It has been my experience that they crumble and tell you that they had a fight with their parents, didn’t get up on time or are having other issues. If they are defiant, send them on to the principal. In the last five years, I have sent very few kids to the principal’s office for classroom disruptions.”

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Hayden’s approach is effective partly because it’s disarming. Disruptive students often come into the classroom with negative relationships with authority figures, and a caring and soothing touch may work where a harsh, authoritarian one may fail.

Hill M. Walker, Elizabeth Ramsey, and Frank M. Gresham write for the American Federation of Teachers that students with a history of bad behavior often have had a lot of practice at home ignoring instructions and escalating power struggles between adult and child.

Three responses to bad behavior Walker, Ramsey, and Gresham note as ineffective are:

Giving attention. When the teacher gives attention to the disruptive student, the student learns that all she has to do win attention in the future is be on her worst behavior.

Additionally, teachers’ attention to problem behaviors is often “negative, critical, and disapproving,” serving to continue the cycle of bad behavior.

Ignoring. Contrary to common wisdom we were told as children, ignoring somebody isn’t the best way to stop bad behavior.

A basic premise behind ignoring disruption is a sort of “oxygen and fire” dynamic: Snuff out the oxygen and the fire goes out. In the same vein, authority figures often believe that if disruptive students aren’t given attention, they’ll realize that being disruptive is fruitless.

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There are a few problems with this view. One, even if the teacher ignores the disruptive student, the disruptive student will still attract the attention of peers.

Two, it is very difficult to ignore a disruptive student for long because the student will continue creating escalating attention grabs that will become increasingly more disruptive to the class.

And three, if a student is simply being disruptive to avoid having to do class work, ignoring the student will not get the student back on task.

As Michelle Aycock writes for the Savannah Morning News, “Bad behavior is not a good thing in a classroom and you cannot ignore it, otherwise it will get worse.”

Escalating commands. If you punish a child by grounding her, ostensibly you’re grounding because she cares enough to want to avoid said punishment.

But what if she doesn’t seem to care? What if, when you ground her, she doesn’t seem fazed at all but responds with “Oh, now I guess I am grounded”?

It is possible that the disruptive children in your classroom have grown to simply not react to reprimands and punishments from adults.

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They may be admonished, but they simply tune out the criticism. Or they may be sent to detention but see it as a benign threat because they’ve been there so many times already.

Escalating commands may very well not stop bad behavior while reinforcing negative behavior. For example, if the student seeks attention for being disruptive and gets rewarded by making a scene and getting sent to the principal’s office, it is possible that the student will continue to be disruptive in the future.

So, if giving attention, ignoring, and issuing escalating commands don’t work, what does work?

Walker, Ramsey, and Gresham offer two strategies:

Avoidance

The authors give an example of a student who does not want to start a in-class assignment.

To address the issue, the authors write, the teacher should “speak in a low voice, remain calm, and try to keep the situation as private as possible.” Then the teacher should ask gently why the student is not working on the assignment.

If the student becomes argumentative, the teacher should cut off the interaction. The teacher should make it clear that the student can take some time before starting the assignment but that he cannot disrupt other students.

In this way, the teacher does not engage the student in an escalating war of words that rewards the student with attention.

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Escape

If a teacher uses an avoidance strategy and walks away from a potentially escalating situation, but the disruptive student throws a tantrum, what should the teacher do?

Walker, Ramsey, and Gresham suggest immediately sending the student to the principal’s office. The reason, they say, is it’s always better to cut off a worsening interaction than arguing with the student.

By sending the student to the principal’s office, the teacher prevents her relationship with her student from degrading further while avoiding the loss of more instructional time.

Peter Lorain, a former high school teacher, describes interacting with disruptive students as a “‘delicate dance’ which requires balance.” In other words, Lorain stresses that it’s important to correct bad behavior but also that it’s necessary to keep the teacher-student relationship somewhat intact so that it can become a positive one.

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Intervention Central notes that it’s important to break a negative cycle of interactions between a teacher and a student. It’s most important, Intervention Central writes, to keep a large ratio of positive to negative interactions with students.

This can be done by, for example, spending two minutes a day talking with the disruptive student in a topic the student is interested in. Or, furthermore, by phrasing instruction in a positive way (“I’ll give you a detention slip if you don’t work on the assignment” vs. “I can help you on your assignment as soon as you start working on it”).

Positivity in the classroom is important; as Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Lia Sandilos write for the American Psychological Association, “students who have close, positive and supportive relationships with their teachers will attain higher levels of achievement than those with more conflict in their relationships.”

And some kids may pretend to not care about anything. But oftentimes, deep down inside, they do. It’s up to us to never give up on them.

Decrease restlessness, increase focus

Fidgeting in the classroom seems to be an problem bound to continue into eternity.

But is it actually a problem? And does it actually point to issues we need to solve?

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Alexis Wiggins, a high school learning coach, wrote for The Washington Post about her experience shadowing a student for a day. One of the things she learned? For a student, sitting down all day must be tough!

“Students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. … It took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.”

Prior to shadowing a student for a day, Wiggins had taught classes for 14 years. One of the things Wiggins said she would change if she could do it over again was to allow her class to stretch halfway through the period.

It sounds like a good idea — researchers have found evidence that a stretching program can increase student focus prior to a test or ease a class into a lesson after recess.

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Furthermore, a U.S. study led by Heather Peck found that regular yoga sessions increased students’ capacity to concentrate in the classroom.

For easy stretches you can do with the kids in your classroom, Fit 4 the Classroom recommends side bends and arm circles:

“To perform a side bend, stand up and hold one arm straight up and one arm down by your side and bending in the direction of the arm that is pointing down toward the ground. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds; repeat on the other side.”

“To perform arm circles, stand up and extend your arms straight out from your sides so that they are parallel to the floor and perpendicular to your torso. Slowly make circles of about 1 foot in diameter with both outstretched arms. Continue the movement for about ten seconds and then reverse the movement, circling your arms in the opposite direction.”

Beyond stretching, consider also being a little more lenient toward fidgeting kids.

Rebecca Bright, for example, points out that “children actually need to move to focus during a complicated mental task,” which for many of us can be quite surprising given many traditional views that students should always sit still.

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Bright also points to an innovate idea by high school teacher Michel Plemmons. Plemmons created giant rubber bands out of recycled tires, which “she strung between the legs of traditional desks to give her students an outlet for foot-fidgets.”

Whatever you choose to do for your classroom, your students will appreciate it when you let them move around a little.

Like Wiggins wrote, sitting all day is tough, so letting your students get up for a bit can create a nice change of pace once in a while and keep their minds fresh for better concentration and better learning.

The right classroom management system for you

With a little bit of innovative thinking and planning, teachers can construct a classroom that works a little more smoothly.

Try these classroom management strategies and see how they work for you. With experimentation and tweaking, you can find the set of strategies that lets your class hum along — just how you’ve always planned it.

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