Tone and volume

Behaviour Management

Tone and volume

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Teacher directing students from across the classroom.

So, you’ve mastered body language and facial expressions – you can direct, instruct and manage students with a flick of your brow and a well-placed micro-expression. Something is clearly missing however – there is one more piece to this puzzle – tone and volume. You can think of tone and volume in the same way as the volume on a speaker. Volume level is expressed numerically on a scale such as 1-10 or more commonly 1-100. To keep things simple, a scale of 1-10 is sufficient for understanding how to implement and manipulate this technique. We have heard so far that teachers use a wide variety of facial expressions. They can also deploy a spectrum of purposeful and deliberate ‘voices’ of varying types, tones and volume levels. For simplicity, we will consider tone and volume as separate skills but obviously they are used together.

Hint: Research suggests that best practice for addressing behavioural issues includes a neutral tone and some form of error correction, such as allowing the student sufficient time to stop the offending behaviour and to then do what they are supposed to be doing (Lane et al., 2002; Reinke et al., 2013; Rhode et al., 1992).

Controlling the volume of your speech is an important part of your teaching prowess. There are occasions when a volume level of 1 is sufficient to achieve your goal (such as whispering to a student during silent reading). You may need to use level 3 to explain a maths problem to a small group of students. This level is perfect for the majority of minimal verbal responses (probably 95% or more). Level 3 is your normal voice (for most people) when having a conversation on the bus with the person sitting next to you. On the other hand, Level 5 is a raised voice used to provide instructions (behaviour, academic or other) when students are actively engaged in an activity and there is lots of general movement, occasional chatter, rustling of paper, and other such noises that in combination require teachers to raise their voices. In these cases, teachers don’t want students to stop working – instead they address them as they continue with the task at hand using a non-aggressive tone. There are very few reasons from a behaviour management perspective to go beyond level 5 in a normal classroom setting.

Hint: Research into teachers’ verbal and non-verbal strategies found that best practice involved voice control, clear and short phrases, clear instructions, the use of student names and other techniques such as checking for understanding and repeated instructions (Geng, 2011).

At level 7, things are getting serious. This level is used for short bursts such as getting the attention of a large class engaged in a noisy activity. It may be used in activities that are unavoidably loud (e.g. metalwork) or where students are spread out (sport, hiking etc.). Students are aware that the raised voice is required due to these factors and don’t perceive it as aggressive; there is no loss of rapport and the teacher is not showing signs of ‘losing it’. Research from around the globe consistently shows that teacher aggression (yelling, intimidation, group punishments etc.) reduces students’ intrinsic motivation and increases their resistance to learning (Lewis et al., 2005; Lewis & Burman, 2008; Romi et al., 2009). For this reason level 7 should be used carefully.

Levels 8 and 9 should be reserved for emergency situations and other rare occasions (imagine a school camping trip where the teacher needs to literally yell to get the attention of students on the other side of a fast-flowing river). Level 10 – think Bruce Lee as he destroys an opponent or a police officer screaming at protestors – using this level may see the teacher in handcuffs! Not only should teachers consciously use volume as a technique, effortlessly shifting from one level to another is a useful skill. For example, a single, non-aggressive level 7 burst (2-4 words with no aggression) at the start of the lesson, followed by a level 3 instruction will get students’ attention, demonstrate your confidence, and simultaneously show you could easily move to level 7 should you choose and feel the need to do so. This multi-level tactic is effective as a preventative measure as it implies you have a high level of self-control – the ability to reprimand at level 7, but the respect, professionalism and self-control to manage behaviour with levels 2 or 3.

Hint: An old-school teachers’ trick is to provide instructions to students in a low-volume whisper. Why? Students will need to sit perfectly still in order to hear what you are saying – even the slightest rustle of a jacket will overpower the barely audible whisper. The result being that students tend to sit perfectly still; you could ‘hear a pin drop’ as the saying goes. To implement this technique, first start by talking in a normal voice; as noise quells and more and more students narrow their focus, gradually reduce the volume until your whisper can be heard from across the room.

Finally, tone is worth consideration. While not as important as volume (most people use a monotone voice for the majority of conversations), there are occasions where manipulating your tone of voice is necessary. Continuing with the level 1-10 analogy, at the lower end your tone is pleasant and friendly. Level 1 is caring and nurturing – like talking to a baby. Level 3 is friendly and inviting. Level 5 is more neutral, professional, diplomatic and considered. Level 7 is certainly unpleasant but potentially acceptable, while level 9 is approaching abusive. You should try to keep your classroom voice and tone at around levels 3 and 4 for the majority of the day. In all but a few short instances (such as projecting their voices to get attention), high-performing and low-stress teachers rarely go beyond level 4 or 5.

Whether you prefer to comfortably sit at level 2, 3, or 4 (or to move between levels) depends on your personality, the dynamics of your class, and the behaviour issues at hand. What is more certain however, is the need for teachers to actively choose which level of volume and tone is going to best achieve their desired outcome. Additionally, various combinations keep students on their toes, add excitement and interest, ensure lessons are well-managed and help the teacher to maintain a positive and engaging environment. Try a few combinations and consider the effects. For example, what happens if you mix level 2 volume with level 4 tone? What about level 5 or 6 tone (e.g. when you are ‘telling a student off’) combined with a near-whisper level 1 or 2 volume?

Hint: Generally speaking, professionals do not go to work intending to yell, scream, threaten or use aggressive tactics such as punching a desk (with rare exceptions of course). Accountants don’t yell at their clients, nor do doctors, architects, engineers, programmers, psychologists or social workers. Even police officers rarely use a volume level above 5, and even when they do, it’s for short bursts only. For teaching professionals, the same expectations apply – don’t go to work expecting (or even worse, planning) to spend the day yelling at your student clients – you are a professional and professionals don’t behave that way.

Research from around the globe consistently shows that teacher aggression (yelling, intimidation, group punishments etc.) reduces students’ intrinsic motivation and increases their resistance to learning (Lewis et al., 2005; Lewis & Burman, 2008; Romi et al., 2009).


Lane, K. L., Gresham, F. M., & O’Shaughnessy, T. E. (2002). Interventions for children with or at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. Allyn & Bacon.

Reinke, W. M., Herman, K. C., & Stormont, M. (2013). Classroom-Level Positive Behavior Supports in Schools Implementing SW-PBIS: Identifying Areas for Enhancement. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 15(1), 39–50.

Reavis, H. K., Jenson W. R., & Rhode, G. (1992). The Tough Kid Book: Practical Classroom Management Strategies. Sopris West.

Geng, G. (2011). Investigation of Teachers’ Verbal and Non-verbal Strategies for Managing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Students’ Behaviours within a Classroom Environment. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36(7).

Lewis, R., Romi, S., Qui, X., & Katz, Y. (2005). Teachers’ classroom discipline and student misbehavior in Australia, China, and Israel. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21, 729-741.

Lewis, R., & Burman, E. (2008). Providing for student voice in classroom management: Teachers’ views. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 12(2), 151-167.

Romi, S., Lewis, R., & Katz, Y. (2009). Student responsibility and classroom discipline in Australia, China and Israel. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 39(4), 439-453.

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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