Every new teacher eventually finds herself standing alone in front of a classroom filled with children. It may be for a lesson or a read-aloud, or it may be simply to introduce yourself. Regardless of the purpose, you will find yourself asking the age-old question that all teachers have pondered:
“How in the world do I get them to pay attention?!”
You can find all kinds of tips and tricks about how to get kids to settle down in the classroom. I'll even cover some below. But understand one thing very clearly:
There is no trick or simple technique that is going to cause your students to want to engage in what you are saying.
Techniques are helpful as quick reminders or to direct attention, but true “eyes-on-the-teacher” engagement comes from giving the kids someone to be interested in. And that someone is you.
Holding children's attention
The way you conduct yourself in the classroom – the way you speak, the way you pause, the way you smile, the way you walk around, everything you do – will either cause children to listen or cause them to turn away and find something else to pay attention to.
When you understand the rules of naturally holding the attention of children, you will find that getting them to engage in anything becomes extremely easy. But, if you do not learn these fundamental rules of attention, you will struggle with every aspect of your teaching:
- Classroom management will be difficult
- Delivering lessons will be tiresome
- Your days will be a non-stop attempt to get kids to listen to you
It doesn't have to be that way. Let’s start with some background principles.
I say this over and over again on this website: children are simply small humans. They lack maturity and experience, but they are subject to the same basic instincts as adults. This means that they much prefer to be around interesting people than boring people.
Do you like to be around boring people? Do you like to go on dates or sit in meetings and listen to somebody drone on? Of course not!
It is human nature to be fascinated by interesting people – that's exactly what drives the popularity of celebrity gossip. And you're in luck! You will not have to engage in celebrity antics to gain attention from elementary children. But you will have to embrace your role as a classroom celebrity.
If you don't claim the role of “most interesting person in your classroom,” then believe me, your students will find someone else to pay attention to. And that you cannot have if you want to positively influence your kids through classroom management and instruction.
Every classroom is a stage
“But,” you protest, “I'm not an interesting person! I'm not outgoing, even among my own friends, let alone in a classroom filled with children.”
Good news for you: you don't have to be a natural at this – you can develop that over time; even experienced teachers act differently in the classroom than they do around their families and friends.
You have one advantage that most actors don’t: you don’t have to worry about having a tough audience. These are, after all, small children, and they are not very critical of teachers who may be acting a little bit. In fact, they are extremely accepting and supportive if you give them a reason to be.
Given the information in this article, you will know exactly how to become an interesting person in the eyes of your students. And that's all that counts.
Becoming a super-interesting person
You may think that being interesting comes down only to what you say when you are speaking to your group. Nope. It’s the whole package:
- How you speak (not just what you say)
- How you dress
- How you wear your hair and makeup
- How you smile
- What you eat for lunch
- The kind of coffees you drink
… and on and on. Your students will be scrutinizing absolutely everything about you every moment of the day. You can do something as simple as wearing a new tie or scarf and score interest points without saying a single thing.
What you say when you do speak is icing on the cake, which confirms that you are a fascinating person who will be discussed by all of your students every single evening:
“Mom, guess what Ms. Smith did today?!”
So, how do you take advantage of this? Easy: be yourself!
As long as you are within the bounds of appropriate behavior, don’t fear being different from other teachers – your kids will love you for it because they will feel different (superior) by association. Strive to be the unique person that only you can be… but with a slight amount of exaggeration, like a stage actor who is a bit larger than life so the people in the back row can appreciate the character she is playing.
And change it up – often. Keep them wondering, “What will she do next?” This is not faking it. This is stepping up, into the shoes of great teachers. You will still be “you,” but with special sauce added.
You can even conduct some interesting experiments. Dress blandly for a week, then dress to stand out. How do the kids react? Do a non-animated read-aloud, then one with all the drama you can muster, including outrageous character voices. You’ll see how “flair” can increase learning in children and help them pay attention.
So: you are committed to being interesting, a teacher worth paying attention to. Now, how to get that attention when you need it?
As I've explained on other pages, you can set expectations around any activity that you desire your students to perform. But I think it's important to reinforce that fact with a discussion of a very common question that I get on my website:
“How do I get kids to stop what they are doing, quiet down, and listen to me?”
Again: You set expectations. However, you will hear plenty of advice telling you that there are certain magical phrases or techniques that will automatically get kids to listen and that these tips are the only way to accomplish this. These may include:
- Counting down
- Call and response, such as the teacher saying, “One, two, three, eyes on me,” and the children responding with, “One, two, eyes on you.”
And the list goes on. Which one works best? It doesn't matter! The magic is not in the technique; it’s in the expectations that have been set. You can choose any method you want, as long as you set expectations for what the children are supposed to do when they hear it.
In fact, you could set the expectation that when you say, “Be as noisy as possible,” they will put their things away, quiet down, and look at you. I don't recommend that, because you're kind of working against yourself, but with enough practice, you could make it work.
The key here, as with all expectations, is to go through every single step of what it looks like:
- Model setting down your pencil
- Model turning in a chair to face the front of the classroom
- Model keeping your eyes on the teacher, no matter where she is in the room
- Model quietly tapping another student to indicate that the teacher wants attention
Then practice, practice, practice. You get the idea.
How I get students' attention
What do I personally use to get children's attention? I say, “May I have your attention, please?” in a normal voice. I've had more than one principal stare in shock when I can get complete silence in three seconds by simply asking for it.
Again, you decide how the children will act in every situation and set expectations. It’s not always easy, but it's that simple.