Teaching Tips: Attention!

A few years ago, I observed a child at a music camp. On the day of my visit, the kids were preparing for a recital, and excitement was in the air!  The costumer was making adjustments, the pianist was warming up, and the technicians were tinkering with microphones and lights. The students filed in from lunch, delighted to run up on the stage and practice their lines and see how loudly they could sing. As so often happens, things began to get a bit too exciting.

One of the counselors, a college student, grabbed a microphone and attempted to settle the students. “Everyone stop talking,” he said firmly, and waited a moment. “No talking,” he continued. “Absolutely no talking.  Did everyone hear me? No talking!” He paused another moment, and then, frustration evident in his voice, he tried one last time: “What part of ‘no talking’ do you guys not understand?” The students continued their excited chatter, oblivious to the counselor’s directions.

Then, suddenly, I heard clapping. I turned to see the leader of the camp, a seasoned teacher, enter the auditorium. As she came in, she was clapping in short rhythms. The students immediately began repeating her rhythms. Their talking ceased. In a barely audible voice, she gave short, specific directions. When finished, she said, “If you know your directions, say, “Yessirree!” she said. “Yessirree!” echoed the smiling students. “Go on three…1-2-3!” the teacher directed. And on her count, the students moved quickly and quietly to their appointed places.

What a contrast!

We can all relate to that college student, can’t we? It can be awfully frustrating to get the attention of chatty students who are focused on something other than the lesson we’re trying to teach. Below are a few tips to increase your students’ attention so you can get to the meat of your lesson.

  • Use positive language. Let the students know what you want them to do, and describe the behavior you would like to see. Students tune in more quickly when they know what they are supposed to be doing, rather than when they are being nagged to stop their current behavior.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Students manage directions better when they remember what they need to do. This is especially important for students with receptive language and processing challenges. Instead of “Please come in the room, get your paper and crayons, finish the coloring sheet and then go to the worship center” try, “Please sit down and color your paper.” One to two step directions are much more manageable.
  • Practice makes perfect. My wonderful colleague, Sheri Halagan, often says, “Kids don’t know as much as we THINK they know about how to act and behave.” Sheri, a third grade teacher, spends a tremendous amount of time teaching her students how to follow directions effectively. Students in her class practice the procedures together until they are confident with every step. Not only does this help Sheri’s class run smoothly, but it also helps the students work together as a community of learners.
  • Use visuals. Remember that many students with hidden disabilities need to SEE what you mean. Try this: “Paying attention looks like this…my eyes are on the teacher, I’m sitting in my seat and my hands are still.”
  • Catch ‘em in the act. When students are doing the right thing, we need to reinforce and encourage them. In my first student teaching placement, I worked with preschoolers who were identified with mental health issues. Many were in foster care, and all were hungry for any attention. Therefore, when I said, “I notice that Christy is ready for our lesson. She’s sitting on her carpet square and her voice is quiet,” I would soon have five more students eagerly awaiting my words of affirmation.
  • Plan your words. We need to be very purposeful about how we encourage our students to follow directions. As you plan your lessons, jot yourself a note that reminds you to praise and encourage this important behavior.


We’ll return to this topic again and again, I’m sure. If you have ideas that have worked well in your class, please share them here on the blog.

Okay…if you know your directions, say “Yessirree!”

2 thoughts on “Teaching Tips: Attention!

  1. Excellent advice Katie on how to equip kids for success. This can be applied to every group learning environment – Sunday School, Camp, VBS, School, etc. Thanks for the tips!

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