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Want Your Class To Be Quiet? Crack Open A Tin Of Dog Food

If you can’t get your students to be quiet and listen, stunning them into silence might be the best option

  • Want Your Class To Be Quiet? Crack Open A Tin Of Dog Food

It’s the night before the school year begins, and you wake up at two in the morning, drenched in sweat.

Your heart is thumping like a drum. The last remnants of the nightmare flicker around the edges of your consciousness. It was the nightmare about school – the same one you have every year. The one where, no matter what you do or say, no matter how loud you shout, or what dreadful punishments you threaten, the worst thing you can possibly think of happens. You walk into your classroom and not a single child will listen.

Over the years I have worked with a lot of teachers to help them build their behaviour management techniques. And when I ask any group what worries them most, what low-level behaviour problem they would really, really like me to help them solve, the answer is always the same: “How do I get my children to listen to me?”

It is reasonably easy to get one child to listen to you. It is fairly simple to get two, or three, or perhaps even four children all listening at once. But once you get up into double digits, and you need 30 children to listen simultaneously, that is when the trouble begins.

The first thing to consider is the methods that you use to get their silent attention in the first place. These are many, and varied, and sometimes amazingly creative. While a hand in the air or a finger on the lips will often do the trick, you can be a lot more adventurous.

One teacher showed me how she uses her ‘spirit fingers’ to gain silent attention – imagine a cross between a magic trick and an interpretive dance routine, and you’ll get somewhere close. Another revealed how he gets the children to take their pulses, on the basis that they cannot count their heart beats and talk at the same time. Then there was the teacher who bought a circular rug in IKEA and designated it as her ‘silent spot’. Now all she has to do is step onto it, and her children settle down to listen.

Of course, it’s not just getting them silent in the first place that is tricky. It is keeping them silent long enough to finish saying what you want to say that is the real challenge. Imagine this: after a bit of a struggle, you have finally managed to get the entire class silent. You take a deep breath, and open your mouth to begin your explanation of the lesson. At that precise moment, one of your children breaks wind and the whole class collapses into giggles. Does this sound familiar? Don’t worry, because you are not alone.

Many years ago, I received an email from one of my readers. The email went something like this: “Thanks for your behaviour book, Sue. I found it really helpful. But you know where on page 9 you say that you should ‘wait for silence’? Well, I waited for silence for half an hour and they still weren’t listening to me.”

We should never underestimate the power of the pause in getting silence, especially in a school where the children are generally well disposed to behave. However, simply pausing is often not enough. If you constantly waste lots of time waiting for your children to settle down at the beginning of a lesson, then consider whether you need to get them quickly on task, rather than always doing your lesson introduction at the start.

On the other hand, if you find it totally impossible to get your children to settle down, then you may need to consider shock tactics instead. As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat (or, in the case of the story you are about to hear, to feed a dog).

So it was that one day a colleague of mine went into his lesson and discovered that, as usual, the children were not intending to listen to him. Instead of wasting his energy trying to get them to listen, he sat down on his desk, opened up a can of dog food (filled with mashed up jelly and Mars Bars), and began to eat. As you can imagine, this very quickly got their attention, without him having to say a word.

Sue Cowley is an author and teacher trainer. Her latest book is The Seven S’s of Developing Young Writers.

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