Why You Shouldn’t Use A Hand Signal For Quiet Attention
by MICHAEL LINSIN on JUNE 22, 2013
It’s a common scene.
The teacher stands in front of a large group of students with one arm extended skyward, fingers forming a number (two being most popular), while the other hand is closed but for the index finger poised over pursed lips.
The students, hopefully, are doing the same—mirroring her (or his) posture and hand positions while quiet and attentive. The idea is to throw up a simple hand signal anytime you need to speak, give a direction, or otherwise receive silent attention.
Typically, once attention is acquired, both the teacher and her students will put their signal down. But it’s also often used as a continual reminder of quiet while leading students down hallways and across campus.
Although the signal itself may vary from teacher to teacher, the method has good intentions. After all, every teacher needs a reliable way to call for quiet.
The problem, however, is that even at its best, a hand signal is insufficient for such an important aspect of classroom management.
You have to wait.
Many students will be slow to comply simply because they don’t know when the signal is being given. In other words, unless you already have their attention, a hand signal will take time to domino around the class—especially in a noisy, collaborative learning environment or while on a field trip, for example.
It’s also common to wait on just one or two students who are immersed in their work or engaged in conversation. Typically, they need an additional verbal cue in order to snap into the present. Over time, waiting 30 seconds or more eight, nine, ten times a day takes it’s toll—dampening the crisp-moving, productive classroom you’re looking for.
It’s difficult to define.
One of the keys to effective classroom management is to have clearly defined and understood routines for every repeatable moment of the day. So if your students are in any way confused or unsure about anything, at any moment, then behavior, listening, and attentiveness will suffer.
The problem with hand signals is that they’re not as clear, as detailed, or as descriptive as a few, simple words can be. With practice, your students may indeed associate your signal with quiet, but once you remove the visual cue, it begins losing its punch, weakening the longer it remains out of sight.
In other words, hand signals don’t have the stickiness you need for prolonged attention.
Your students can do better.
If ever you find yourself with your arm overhead waiting for quiet, then you’re settling for far less than what is possible. Not only do you not have time for it, but your students can do much better. The truth is, to be most effective, you need to be able to get your students quiet and focused on you anytime you want.
You need a simple, direct, and immediate cue that stops them in their tracks. And nothing works better than asking, “Can I have your attention please?” This routine-prompting question communicates precisely what you want, works no matter where you are, and reaches every student at the same time.
Further, the responsibility to follow it begins the moment the words pass your lips.
One Simple Cue
It’s common for teachers to hold up their quiet signal while at the same time offering reminders, warnings, and admonitions. But this only adds to the confusion, throwing more variables into the mix for students to scratch their heads over.
A single, succinct verbal cue, on the other hand, is a once for all command that stays in play until you say otherwise. And for every time its given, it further grooves the habit of following your directions and tuning in to the sound of your voice.
When paired with a well-taught routine—modeled and practiced until perfected—it has clarity, urgency, and staying power and locks down a small but critical element of effective classroom management.
It also removes a great source of frustration, for both you and your students, saves carloads of time, and brings you one step closer to the finely tuned, high-performing classroom you’ve always wanted.
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