DD Newsletter Winter 2012, Signal for Attention

Signal for Attention, How To

The signal for attention has a visual and an auditory component. It must be modeled, discussed, practiced, and implemented at the start of every year. By simply standing motionless in an area with good sightlines, raising a hand, saying, “Focus here” (or equivalent), and waiting for compliance, teachers establish a clear guideline for what is to come next: a time when everyone must pay careful, silent attention.

Steps to implementing a signal for attention

1. Have the class generate reasons why responding quickly to a signal for attention is in everyone’s best interest.

2. Demonstrate the visual signal.

3. Demonstrate how to respond to the visual signal.

4. Have class generate a list of things they noticed about the two demonstrations.

5. Practice the signal with the whole group. Time their response. Repeat as needed. Aim for 3-5 seconds.

6. Add an auditory signal. Demo the visual and auditory signal, using both at the same time.

7. Practice again with the whole group, using both the visual and auditory signal. Time their response. Repeat as needed. Again, aim for a very brief time: 3-5 seconds.

8. Implement the signal in every class every day.

9. Check in.

In a Developmental Designs classroom, the success of many practices turns on a rigorously managed signal for attention. Introducing the signal is the easy part; maintaining it is more challenging, and trying to get its power back when several students are ignoring it altogether can be daunting. What are some ways effective teachers handle these more difficult scenarios? We asked several and got varied and interesting responses.


Erin Klug, former teacher at New City School, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and current Origins Developmental Designs consultant

What if students start to ignore the signal?

Catch it early so you don’t have a bigger problem on your hands later

  • Do a basic remodeling right in the moment: “Who can show us what you need to do when the signal is given?”
  • If I can identify one or two slow responders, I ask those students to take a break.
  • Sometimes I use reminding language: “Who can remind us what your job is when I give the signal?”
  • Point to (repost if necessary) the visual reminder, and refer to the “bar” that was set at the beginning of the year: “We said that it should take five seconds to respond to the signal. Let’s get back to that level of cooperation.”
  • Restate the purpose and goal of the signal at the beginning of a class period if the signal was rocky the day before.

What if most students ignore the signal?

Chances are the routine was not taught thoroughly in the first place. It’s time for a fresh start: “Our signal is not working. We need to model and practice it.”

It could be that students have not endorsed the signal. To gain their endorsement, I have used discussion, and appealed to their desire for order and what they will gain by having a routine for attention: “An effective signal allows everyone to be heard and to get the information everyone needs.” Once the signal has gained endorsement, I share the power, letting students use the signal so they have the experience of how it brings the class to order.



Erin Michels, 5th grade teacher at Mead Elementary School, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and Responsive Classroom workshop facilitator

What if students start to ignore the signal?

I re-model the signal, and discuss or review the expectations: “Let’s try again, and I’ll time us.” Or I use reminding language: “Who can remind us how quickly we should respond to the signal?”

What if most students ignore the signal altogether?
We have a backup for times when students are not responding well to the signal, a “call and response” version of the signal that has a touch of levity in it. At the start of this year, when we implemented the signal, one of our “what-if” discussion questions was “What if the signal breaks down?” The students came up with “Lady Gaga.” I say, “Lady” and they respond, “Gaga.” It’s been great to see them become rigorous again after slipping, when they hear me say “Lady!” Once the signal has been retaught, try creating such a backup with your students.


Steve Hasti, 8th grade teacher, Green Central Park Community School, Minneapolis,  Minnesota, and Developmental Designs workshop facilitator

What if students start to ignore the signal?

There are several possibilities.

1) Add an audible component, like a special clap.

2) Remind students that after the signal for attention, the next and only person to speak is the person who gave the signal.

3) Give the students a heads-up before the signal: “You’ll need your attention up front in 30 seconds.” Then give the signal.

I remodel by practicing with a little playfulness: “I’ll give the signal soon. Let’s see how quickly we can have eyes forward, mouths closed.” Then I ask for predictions about how long it will take and challenge them to beat the time.

I use a Y-chart (graphic recording of how responding to the signal for attention should look, sound, and feel) to get endorsement. I post it and refer to it before a lesson that may require unexpected signals.

What if most students ignore the signal altogether?
I use advisory to have a problem-solving meeting about the signal. I restate my beginning-of-the-year “hook” about the signal to regain buy-in-sometimes I tell a personal story, sometimes I use a metaphor, sometimes I have a visual up on the wall. I work very hard to be more consistent, especially by using immediate redirections like take a break and loss of privilege. In my classroom, the biggest barrier to effective signal use is side-talking, and loss of privilege (the privilege of sitting next to your neighbor) works well. Sometimes an agreement that restores a lost privilege is produced during a quick conference, e.g., “Marcus, you can return to your original seat once you consistently respond well to my nonverbal cues.”


Jitendrapal Kundan, Principal, New City School, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Developmental Designs workshop facilitator


What if students start to ignore the signal or ignore it altogether?
In order to breathe life back into any underperforming protocol, I would examine my teacher practices. Here are some things I’d consider.

My class hour structure and my approach to lesson delivery: Am I overusing the signal? Using the signal too much can result in students’ tuning it out.

My expectations for student responses to the signal: Am I consistent?

Do I proactively remind each group on a regular basis about the expectations for responding to the signal? Do I remind students that the allotted time is winding down, and consistently redirect students who do not meet the expectation?

My whole-group mini-lessons: If they’re too long, you start to lose students. Shorter lessons help. Build into each mini-lesson a set of short partner shares, tell the students ahead of time how long they’ll have to share, and then remind them to respond quickly to the signal before beginning the lesson.

Our relationships and community-building practices: Lack of cooperation (not responding well to the signal) could mean I haven’t built enough fun, recognition, and challenges into our time together. If we respond well to the signal during a class period, we should sometimes end that period with a group cheer. Or we could challenge ourselves to respond consistently in three seconds or less, and then monitor our response times. We can record our results and try to better the time.

Am I using enough reinforcing language? It’s no good to only notice when they make mistakes. If I balance my redirecting language by reinforcing positive behaviors, my relationship with them is more positive.


Kandace Logan, Instructional Leader for Minneapolis Public Schools and former Origins Developmental Designs consultant


What if students start to ignore the signal?
Give a clear reminder. Before students begin a work session, restate how long the signal  response should take: “The last few times I’ve given the signal, the response has been slower than usual. We all know you can respond in five seconds. I will time how long it takes you to respond to the signal, and we can record the times. If necessary, we can look at why the response isn’t quicker.” Then try it again, and time them. Chances are the response time will improve right away!

Another approach is to simply say, “That was too slow; let’s try it again.” I will hold firm to my commitment to using the signal, and I expect you to consistently do your part, too.”

What if most students ignore the signal altogether?
Use the Loop to reflect and get their input about what’s going wrong. “Let’s take a few minutes to re-commit to the signal. We agreed that it would be the way to get everyone’s attention. What’s challenging about responding immediately to the signal?” After some student responses, say, “Now let’s hear some strategies you could use to help yourself or your classmates respond quickly.” Select one or two student-generated strategies to use as a group, or just move on, keeping all of them in mind. Either way, go back to timing them, and letting them know how they’re doing.

I’ve used this metaphor: “When a conductor takes the podium, that’s the orchestra’s cue that he or she is ready to begin. Every musician immediately stops warming up and falls silent. When I or someone else gives the signal, picture me standing at the podium with my tuxedo on and my baton ready. As soon as I give the signal, you need to be silent, like an orchestra that is ready to play.”


Barbara Forshag, Developmental Designs workshop facilitator and former Assistant Principal at Harry Hurst Middle School, Luling, Louisiana


What if students start to ignore the signal?
First, ask yourself if you are using the signal appropriately. “Am I overusing it? Was it really necessary the last several times I used it, or have I gone a little ‘signal happy?’ On the other hand, have I been forgetting to use it, and I have been trying to get attention by talking loudly?”

This type of self-analysis often leads to a good idea about how to use the signal better. If it was becoming ineffective because the students were simply getting lazy about responding, then it’s time to stop and have students remind each other why we need it, and/or ask them to think about their part in its success or failure. Practice it once or a few times, and go forward from there.

What if most students ignore it altogether?
Once again, I have to first ask myself why it is not working well. Is it because I have let it slip into an ineffective practice? Am I not noticing that students are still talking, and I talk over them? Am I accepting the fact that it is taking too long for them to get quiet? When it needs fixin’, I need to fix it!

Have a class discussion about the Social Contract, our goals, and our need for the signal. Use teacher language to reinforce when it works and to remind them when it doesn’t. We might keep a record on the board for a day or two to see if we are improving our response time, and we might use an exit ticket reflection format (a question answered on a card which is collected as students leave class) to get feedback about how we are doing… but don’t just keep doing it if it is not working!



Matthew Christen, middle grades teacher at Logan Middle School in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Developmental Designs workshop facilitator


What if students start to ignore the signal?
When I notice it starting to slip, I immediately remodel and reaffirm the expectation. This usually helps us avoid having to deal with major breakdowns in its effectiveness.

The most important key is my own commitment. I think the signal is essential, and I use it consistently. If I slip in my own belief in the signal, or start to use it sloppily, the students almost immediately start slipping, too.

The signal is the first thing to address on the first day of school. We build a case for student endorsement of the signal each day for the first few days until the students get the message, and you have modeled it well. With this work accomplished on the front end, it is easier to reinforce throughout the year.

You must say what you mean and do what you say. I give the signal and do not speak until I lower it. If I do the signal’s equivalent of a “rolling stop”-the driving habit of slowing down but not really stopping-I almost always actually lose time, because if I don’t have everyone’s attention I’ll have to stop everything and redirect.

A metaphor I use is the referee signal during a basketball or football game. The signal calls a stop to all activity and gets everyone’s attention, and then the signal, usually a whistle, puts everyone back in action.

Published January 2012.