How To Get Children's Attention
Nine Strategies for Getting Children’s Attention Without Raising Your Voice
It’s only mid-morning and you already feel worn out from trying to get your ambitious youngsters to pay attention. New teachers and seasoned teachers alike run into this frustration some days, so here are some tried-and-true as well as new techniques worth giving a go!
If you find that students are not responding to a technique, try a different one. Some teachers like to present a new attention-getting strategy each month to keep it fresh, while others use a different technique for each transition. It’s all about what works best for you and your group.
For starters, it may help to explain to students that your need for immediate attention serves a purpose. Play time (or centers, writing, etc.) is their learning time! When it takes a long time for students to hear instructions, or to hear about a change or clarification of plans because it is too noisy, then more of their play/learning time is lost! The technique or tool you use is an indicator that something important needs to be known--or changed--so that everyone can stay safe and keep learning.
It is always good to make your expectations visible as well as auditory. Use three red/yellow/green stacking plastic cups, a stop light or other similar tangible object to indicate the level of noise in the room (see Resources for other ideas). A yellow cup (or light) signifies that there is time to adjust their volume so that everyone may speak, think and be heard comfortably. Whatever you develop to make this visible is not intended as a gimmick, but rather a tool for keeping the time use effective.
Any of the suggested strategies can be effective if…
- they are presented with simple instructions and visual supports (see Resources)
- expectations for students’ response are made clear
- the strategy is rehearsed to build success--What does it look and sound like when children respond appropriately?
- your response to an unacceptable level of noise or disruption is consistent
- the strategy is not overused
Attention Getting Strategies in the Early Classroom
Wait them out.
While this option can take a while, occasionally it is useful to simply stop speaking and wait quietly for students to notice and do the same. When it is quiet again, remind them of your classroom expectation to keep the sound level low enough for all to speak, think and hear without straining and then return to whatever you were doing.
Give Me Five
Raise your hand high so that students can see you. As each student sees the signal, they should also raise their hand. This will continue to spread until all students are silently raising their hands and looking to you for further information.
Option: Time students to see how long it takes for everyone to raise their hand and then challenge them to beat their time the next time your hand is raised. Most students, even those who are not competitive, usually like to beat their own group “record” in the future.
Without speaking, turn off the lights (if it is dark enough that they would readily notice) or turn on twinkling holiday lights. Students are usually quickly enchanted by the twinkling lights, and it will draw their attention without much fuss. Once they’ve stopped to see the lights, make your announcement or reminder.
Sounds of (Coming) Silence
Select one of the following audible attention-getters to refocus students’ attention:
Novelty items: Train, Slide or Bird whistle, harmonica, or plastic mini flute (you don’t need to play a tune!)
Instruments: Maraca, kazoo, jingle stick, traditional school-type bell, tambourine (played lightly), triangle, rainstick, or handled cymbals
A Meditation Chime or Music Wand (like a thin chime of various novel shapes in wand form) provides a very peaceful, calming tone.
Digital sounds: For fun, try out some free sound effects online (see Resources).
Not recommended: Sounds that are very harsh or jolting such as a cowbell, clapper, or air horn which can create a negative response or anxiety for some students (and the class next door!)
Count backwards from 10 while narrating your expectations, e.g.
(Spoken at full volume) “Ten…You are putting away your activities in their storage slots…Nine…Eight… You are putting your crayons and markers back in the holder…” (Voice gets gradually quieter with each count).
“Seven…Six… You should be finding your partner for Read with a Friend…” (Voice is quiet). “Five…Four…You and your partner should find a place around the room to read together. I will deliver your books when you are seated…”
(Almost a whisper). “Three…Two… You should all be seated quietly…” (Whisper) “One! Thank you all for being ready to read.”
Once you reach zero, your class will have had enough time to finish their work and end any conversations before moving on to the next activity.
Alternatives: Try counting backwards from 100-90, 65-55, 20-10, or other combinations of “10.” If you are multilingual, count the numbers in another language. Even if students don’t know the words, they will get the idea quickly!
Sayings like “Hocus pocus, everybody focus” and “Mac and cheese, everybody freeze” are silly but effective ways to grab your students’ attention. Invite students to help you come up with more ideas that rhyme!
Call and response
Getting students involved in creating the calls you’ll use increases their participation and creates a fun experience for all of you! The leader (or teacher) calls the first line, and the rest of the group responds with the second line. Movements can (and should) be added for extra oomph!
Leader: Uh-oh! Flat tire!
Class: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! (Students shrink toward the floor as they “deflate” and then sit).
Leader: Banana Split!
Class: I know how to sit!
Adaptation: Sit where you want students to sit (in a chair if they have desks or on the floor) to visually indicate where students should move. Then when you call “Banana Split” they respond, “I know where to sit.”
If your school has a mascot, spell the name of the school and have the class respond with the name of the mascot, e.g.
Or create an alliterative class name, e.g.
Class: We’re Mrs. Heintz’s Heroes!
Rhyme Time option: Call out the first line of a familiar rhyme or song. Students respond with the second line/rhyme.
Leader: Mary had a little lamb
Class: Its fleece was white as snow!
Sing it: Sing the first line or phrase of a known song. Students sing the next line.
Leader: Peanut, peanut butter!
The element of surprise
Doing something totally unexpected will always garner students’ attention but use this technique sparingly and be prepared for students to imitate you. Howl like a wolf, cackle like a witch and fly your “broom” around the room or pretend to swing from the lights like a chimpanzee! Whatever you choose, be prepared to demonstrate a way for the silliness to come to a close--sit down on the floor with your hands in your lap and become silent or switch your action to putting your hands on your head and becoming quiet.
Clap-In/Tap-in (or Snap-In)
Clapping provides a noticeable way to get students’ attention immediately. To use a clap-in, simply pick a pattern to clap (or tap using rhythm sticks) and have students repeat it back without talking. As more students join in, the clap gets spread across the room until all students are participating in the clap and ending their conversations. As it gets quieter, you may choose to switch to snaps.
Basic: “Clap once if you hear me.” (Pause for responses). Clap twice if you hear me.”
Alternative 1: Switch it up to keep them listening closely by beginning with something unexpected: “Clap three times if you hear me.” (Pause). “Snap once if you hear me.”
Alternative 2: “Put your thumb on your nose if you hear me.(Pause). Put your right pinky on your left ear if you hear me.”
Alternative 3: “Put your right thumb on your nose if you hear me…” (Model in reverse if you are facing students).
Simon Says Challenge: “Put your left hand on your knee if you hear me.” Model putting your right hand on your foot, head, or other body part; you’ll immediately see who is watching vs. listening! This is just playful fun--no penalty involved!
Child-led: Select a student to lead the clap-in or snap-in to build further investment in the attention-getter.
Class-led: Work with your class to develop a unique clap-in or snap-in pattern for your class that you use throughout the month/semester/year.
Fill up your toolbox! You now have a ready supply of attention-getting techniques in your toolbox that should last you all year. Remember that “Everything old is new again!” What may be last year’s news for you could be refreshingly new to this year’s class or all new after the winter break. Keep it fresh for them and for yourself and you’ll have them at the ready in no time!
What are your attention grabbing tips?
10 Ways to Secure Your Students’ Attention
7 Attention-Getters to Use Instead of Raising Your Voice
20 Ways to Get a Noisy Classroom's Attention
Zapslat for free (single classroom use) downloadable sound effects of every sort. Searchable catalog./p>
SadoTech and Lovin Product both have multiple options of wireless, plug-and-use doorbell chimes that have 32+ programmable sounds. Some come with remotes and/or multiple buttons. Highly rated and available on multiple online sites for under $15.
Making noise level visible:
https://bouncyballs.org/ This website provides free visual representation of the noise level in your classroom. The sound sensitivity level is adjustable to suit your needs, as is the level of visual representation, and it features emojis, bubbles, balls, numbers--even colorful eyeballs, and an optional “beep” or “shhh” feature. Requires permission to connect to your microphone.
https://calmcounter.ictgames.com/ This free, simple visual noise representation (a fuel tank-style meter) on your computer screen shows a clock-style “hand” that moves up the meter toward red to indicate too much noise. The sensitivity of the microphone is adjustable. You may also use a USB mic. Requires permission to connect to your microphone.
Jumbo 5 min timer (also available in 10-, 3-, and 1-minute versions) enables students to see how much sand has fallen (elapsed) but is silent when it finishes.
Time Timer offers an easy-to-see red segment that shows the amount of time remaining and offers an audible option when time is up.
The Big Timer is a large (7/5”) magnetic traditional timer that rings when time has elapsed..
Lisa Heintz, M.Ed., is an educator with over 25 years of experience supporting learners from toddlers to adults, and owner of Little Songbird: Songs for Learning, a site that provides quality children’s music and book recommendations for PreK-grade 3 educators. She stays “green and growing” by volunteering in community and school projects that focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with the Children’s Music Network. She is fascinated by birds of all sorts, loves cats, and is the proud mom of a son who is a shining example of what intentional teaching and parenting can do for children with disabilities. Connect with Lisa at Lisa@LittleSongbird.com.