Signal to begin

Behaviour Management

Signal to begin

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

A classroom environment with young students sitting in-front of a teacher.

A signal to begin is an easy-to-master technique that teachers use to get the attention of students in preparation for a new activity or when the teacher wishes to provide instructions to the whole group. The purpose of the signal is to get the full attention of every student so that instructions and explanations can be communicated with maximum understanding. The signal can even be used to attract the attention of students when they are in danger or if they are being unsafe. The teacher will use the same signal to begin multiple times each day with the intention of training students to respond automatically. It takes no time at all for students to learn to respond in an instant. Students must be taught what the signal means and what they are required to do when they see or hear it.

Signals to begin are typically employed when students are all busily working on their own projects or tasks. It ‘signals’ that the teacher wants to ‘begin’ a new activity or amended the instructions of a current activity. As their attention is not on the teacher and the class may be noisily chatting away, a clear signal is needed to get their full attention. If you have worked with large numbers of children before, you will know that getting the attention of 100% of the group is no easy feat. A signal to begin helps with this problem as it trains students in what to do (so they do it automatically) and turns this otherwise difficult task into a game. It also means the teacher can get ‘all eyes on me’ and dead silence in a few seconds as opposed to 60-90 seconds.

Hint: A special signal to begin such as a clapping routine looks very impressive when the principal pops his head into the room or if there are visiting VIPs such as parents or other dignitaries.

Here are 8 types of signals that teachers commonly use:

  1. Hands on head – the teacher puts both hands on his or her head and all students copy. Students closer to the teacher will see the signal in a second or 2, and like a wave, the gesture will be passed from student to student as they notice their neighbour’s behaviour. This type of signal works best with upper primary school children. Teachers can make a game of it and provide regular feedback (positive prompting) to individuals and groups who are first to react. This technique can involve 1 or 2 hands (2 hands will make for a quieter room as students will not be able to fidget with objects).
  2. Follow the teacher – one of the oldest signals in the teachers’ playbook. The teacher says ‘hands on head’ while modelling the instruction – students put their hands on their head (about 50% of them). The teacher waits about 2 seconds and then says ‘hands on ears’ (about 65% now comply). The teacher says ‘cross arms’ and 85% comply, the teacher says ‘hands on hips’ and 100% now copy the teacher. The teacher now has the class’ full attention. A fun version of this is for the teacher to get faster and faster at moving between body parts. Again, don’t forget positive prompting.
  3. Hand in the air – the teacher puts his or her hand straight up in the air. Students are required to stop what they are doing and to turn and watch the teacher. This is commonly used to get the attention of larger groups of students at assemblies and other gatherings.
  4. A verbal – the teacher chooses a word or short phrase as their signal to begin. It may be combined with a physical position such as the front or centre of the room. This positioning clearly indicates that the teacher is waiting for the attention of the class. Common verbals include ‘okay, eyes to me please’ and ‘finish your sentence and then look at me please everyone’. This is then followed by a calm and confident facial expression in anticipation of compliance within 10-15 seconds or so. When working with teenagers or adults, the teacher may say, ‘okay we’ll get started in exactly 60 seconds’. This future signal is more respectful. The teacher can then stand front and centre and wait for 60 seconds – students will gradually move their attention to the teacher.
  5. A repeated verbal – the teacher says a word or 2 and students respond by either repeating the word/s after the teacher or reciting a predetermined response. Often the students’ response is the tail of a rhyme or an alliteration. This signal can change depending on the topic being studied and obviously the age and maturity level of the class. Here is an example: the teacher says, ‘hello kangaroo’ and students all say, ‘hello cockatoo’. They then sit in perfect silence with ‘eyes on the teacher’. If the teacher is really creative (and brave), students might be allowed to respond back with ‘hello cockatoo, coo-cahh-coo-cahh’ or similar. This type of signal is impressive because of the juxtaposition between a loud (but not screaming) synchronised choir, and the crisp silence that follows immediately afterwards.
  6. A countdown – the teacher gives students a certain period of time to return to their seats, finish their conversation or complete the last aspect of an activity. Depending on what students are doing at the time, it may sound like this: ‘okay everyone, time’s up, you have 10 seconds to be in your seats and looking my way please, 10, 9, 8, 8, 8, 7, 6, come on Josh, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, thank-you – now all eyes on me’ (the teacher scans the room making eye contact). Many teachers count down verbally while displaying the seconds remaining with their fingers so students have both a verbal and a visual cue. There are many variations on this such as, ‘finish your sentence and then face me please, in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, eyes on me’.
  7. A sound – This signal is a noise of some type such as squeezing a stuffed animal, a bell or other friendly sound that signals to the class that the teacher wants their attention. This signal is less common but may be effective in the right circumstances (such as in a large art room where a louder sound is needed). Teachers who do not have a loud voice might also prefer this strategy.
  8. Whisper – the teacher stands front and centre, confidently looks out over the class and whispers something such as ‘eye to me please’ or ‘back to your seats’. Repeat every 10 seconds or so and positively prompt students who notice with a head tilt. Add body language and facial expressions to direct students if you wish. Use this signal only if you know it will work (probably not with a large boisterous class). If it doesn’t work, a quick and loud ‘hello paying-attention people’ might be needed to jostle the crowd.

Different students will respond to different signals and there are no issues with experimenting with one or more types. Regardless of which type of signal chosen, it is important to explicitly train students what the signal looks like and what they are required to do. Good practice also involves explaining to students why the signal is so important (safety, transition, timing, efficiency etc.). To initially teach a signal, the teacher spends 2-3 minutes demonstrating it, explaining what to do and its importance, and finally practising its use a few times – this should be framed as a fun activity and include plenty of positive prompting. Having the whole class practise a few times is essential – an explanation alone is not enough. Once this has been mastered, students will eagerly await your signal, particularly if they see the routine as a challenge or a game. The teacher might choose to initially offer a reward of some kind such as points for the first few students who notice and respond.

Regardless of which type of signal chosen, it is important to explicitly train students what the signal looks like and what they are required to do.

As you have read so far, the signal to begin is not sufficient in itself – the teacher’s demeanour, positioning, voice and tone needs to be very ‘teacher-like’. This means being authoritative without being authoritarian; exuding an air of confidence and control – there is no yelling or threats of detention – students need to be eager to comply and impress the teacher. At all times, the teacher remains calm, in control and strategic in all of their actions (including when to use the signal, how to manage non-compliance with minimal necessary force and which behaviours to ignore).

Hint: The signal to begin is not only useful for whole-of-class activities – it can be used for small groups and even when working one-on-one. You might get into a routine of saying ‘okay where are we up to?’ when moving from desk to desk – this is a signal to begin.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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