Strategy: Using an Attention Signal

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Having a signal that allows you to quickly gain the attention of your students can save you time and increase time for instruction. Having one or more attention signals in your tool box will help reduce the time it takes for students to transition from one activity to another. It will also provide you with an efficient way to get students’ attention anytime it is needed.
Attention signals are used to quickly gain the attention of the students in your classroom regardless of what they are currently doing (independent and/or group work), allowing you to provide direction or further instruction. Once attention signals are taught and students begin to respond to them, they can be used in a variety of situations (e.g. hallway, fieldtrips, and recess).
How Using an Attention Signal Relates to CARES
Involving your students in the development of an attention signal is a great way to engage them in the class. You can ask students for ideas of ways they would like for you to gain their attention when needed. Some students already have familiarity with an attention signal, and it might be as simple as you using the same signal that some of your students are already used to. Additionally, when you implement an effective attention signal, you should incorporate some type of response from students. This can be a verbal response or some type of movement, such as raising their hands and putting their first two fingers up. Making the attention signal something that students enjoy will also help connect students to you and the classroom community, improving the overall climate. Call and response is a common practice in some cultures and can be a way to genuinely engage with some of your students. This strategy is one where the teacher says a word or short phrase and the students respond with an associated and predetermined word or phrase (i.e., Teacher: “Peanut Butter” Students: “Jelly;” Teacher: “Holy moly” Students: “Guacamole”).
Some key elements of an effective attention signal:
1) The attention signal includes both auditory and visual cues that are easily noticed by everyone immediately.
2) The signal is age appropriate. The students should enjoy using the attention signal.
3) Effective signals not only gain students’ attention but require students to provide a response. This allows you to know everyone is ready.

4) Choose a signal that does not require specific conditions (e.g. flipping a light switch which would require you to stand near the switch in order to use the signal). Having flexibility to use the signal wherever you are (e.g., hallway) makes it more useful.

How To

How to Select and Implement an Attention Signal

First, select a signal that is age appropriate and matches your style in the classroom. Consider involving your students in the selection of the attention signal(s) you will use. The signal should include a verbal and visual cue that the students respond to immediately.


  • Rhythmic clapping with a song
    • Teacher: sing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and clap on the words.
    • Students: sing “E-I-E-I-O and clap on the words
  • A catchy phrase
    • Teacher: count on hand and say “1, 2, 3 eyes on me and point to eyes
    • Students: count on hand and say “1, 2 eyes on you and point to teacher
  • Counting
    • Teacher: “give me five” and raise hand
    • Students: count to five on fingers, raise their hands and look at the teacher
Next, teach students to respond to the attention signal within 5 seconds . Demonstrate the signal and explain what you expect them to do when you use it.
Quotation Mark
I am going to show you a signal that means I need your attention. Here is the signal (demonstrate). When I use this signal, stop talking, look up at me, respond with (demonstrate the student response you choose) and wait. I will tell you what we need to do next when everyone has eyes on me.
Then, practice the signal with your students throughout the day in a variety of settings.
Quotation Mark
OK, we are going to practice using the signal. I want to see how quickly you are all able to have your eyes on me. Ready? (use signal)
If all students respond within 5 seconds, tell them that they are doing it correctly:
Quotation Mark
Wow, you guys gave me your attention quickly. Great work! I will be looking for everyone to give me their attention next time I use the signal.
If some students respond slowly or not at all, demonstrate and explain the signal again, then practice again:
Quotation Mark
That was close. Some of you forgot to give me your eyes and respond with (demonstrate the student response you chose). Let’s try that again. We can do it this time! Remember, when I use this signal, stop talking, look up at me, respond with (demonstrate the student response you choose) and wait. I will tell you what we need to do next when everyone has eyes on me. Ready? (use signal)
Continue to implement and repeat practice with the signal as needed. Provide the students with feedback regarding their behavior in response to the attention signal that you have selected. If they are doing a good job, provide behavior-specific praise (e.g., “Thank you for giving me your attention so quickly”) or a reward immediately. If students continue to struggle, clearly explain how they can improve and ensure that the expectations are understood.
Example Videos:

Video Prompts: 

  • This video shows a teacher using hand claps to gain the attention of the students before a transition.
  • Notice how the students clap back to show they know it is time to transition.
  • After gaining the attention of the students the teacher gives very specific directions so the students can transition smoothly.
  • What did you like about this attention signal?
  • How does using a signal like this help students transition to the next task smoothly?
  • How might you incorporate this or other attention signals into your daily teaching?
Verbal with Hand Signal

Video Prompts: 

  • The students in this video are very excited about the activity. The teacher uses an attention signal that uses both her voice and a hand signal. Notice how quickly the students respond.
  • Notice that the teacher provides behavior-specific praise to the students who respond (see Using Behavior-specific Praise)
  • Her use of praise following a student responding helps to get other students on task and makes it more likely that students will respond quickly in the future.
  • What did you like about how this teacher used this attention signal?
  • How could you use a similar attention signal to help with transitions or giving instruction to your students?

Strategy Tool

Using an Attention Signal - Strategy Tool
Use the My Attention Signal strategy tool to help you select, teach, and practice an attention signal you select for your classroom.


Using an Attention Signal - Reflection
Take a moment to make sure your plan is going to work.

Goal Setting

Using an Attention Signal - Goal Setting
Use the following form to set your attention signal goals.

References to Other Relevant Resources:

Reinke, W., Herman, K., & Sprick, R. (2011). Motivational interviewing for effective classroom management: The classroom check-up. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Sprick, R. (2009). CHAMPS: A proactive and positive approach to classroom management. Eugene, OR: Pacific Northwest Publishing.


Concentration Areas: Connection to the Curriculum; Authentic Relationships; Reflective Thinking About Cultural, Racial/Ethnic, and Class Differences; Effective Communication; Sensitivity to Students’ Culture

What is CARES?

CARES is an acronym for the five domains that research has found to be successful in engaging students of culturally diverse backgrounds at school. Each letter refers to a significant element of interaction within the classroom. Applying all five domains of CARES works because it promotes a better understanding of students and ourselves by using strategies that deepen those relationships every day.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All five CARES domains, together with the Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, support one another and need to be applied in the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

Research has shown that each of the five CARES domains has a significant impact on students and their behavior when used regularly and over time. Students who are known and understood by their teachers as individuals in the classroom report deeper connections academically and to their school. When teachers understand their own cultural heritage, they better understand the differences between themselves and their students and report higher levels of mutual respect with students. This also helps teachers to recognize the similarities they share with their students as well as recognize ways in which they are different. Students are more connected and engaged in classrooms where teachers welcome exploration; invite, acknowledge, and celebrate cultural differences; make relevant connections to the curriculum; listen attentively to understand how each student is approaching the concepts; and use humor and other effective communication tools.

Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate

Concentration Areas: Smooth Transitions, Pacing of Instruction, Student Engagement, Clear Expectations, Use of Praise, Use of Reprimands, Level of Disruptive Behavior

What is Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate?

Positive Behavior Supports refers to the proactive ways that teachers work with their students, as well as the ways that teachers respond to challenging situations with students. The focus is on recognizing and affirming student strengths rather than punishing them or taking something away from them. A positive approach to the classroom will promote a classroom climate that is welcoming to all students and is a place where students want to engage with the teacher, each other, and the curriculum. All individuals, students and teachers, and the interactions between and amongst all classroom members play a role in the climate.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, together with the CARES domains, support one another and need to be applied to the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

In a classroom climate that is positive and welcoming to all members, the classroom becomes a safe place where culture and diversity can be openly discussed. A supportive climate is one that promotes student engagement and success. Students feel supported and motivated to be an active member of the classroom community. The teacher taking a positive and proactive approach creates a climate of care and respect and promotes desired student behaviors. This classroom is also a place that provides consistency to students, which is especially important for students who may experience stress and uncertainty outside of the school building. Teachers who have positive and proactive classrooms report fewer disruptive behaviors from their students, an increase in student achievement, and better overall perceptions of school climate.

Using an Attention Signal

CARES Overview

Greeting Students at the Door

Using Journals to Build Relationships

Identifying Reinforcers for the Classroom

Using Social and Emotional Coaching

Using Behavior-specific Praise

Using Active Supervision

Using Group Contingencies

Using Precorrection

Teaching Behavior Expectations

Providing Academic Feedback

Increasing Opportunities to Respond

Developing and Using Clear Academic Objectives

Posting and Using a Schedule

Coaching Process – Menu of Options

Coaching Process – Providing Feedback

Coaching Process – Introduction and Overview

Observation Practice 4

Observation Practice 3

Observation Practice 2

Observation Practice 1

Teaching Classroom Routines

Physical Classroom Structure

Values Card Sort – Example

Card Sort Introduction

Coaching – Interview Guide

Opening the Meeting

Defining and Teaching Classroom Rules

Mrs. James

Miss Faber

Double Check Classroom Check-Up Overview