Focusing Attention

         Until this 21st century we called ourselves 'Homo Sapiens' but now we have discovered a new species with a much reduced attention span. It inhabits your classroom. View it here.

         At the very beginning of a class most teachers make it an outcome to get the attention of everyone in the classroom before starting the lesson. Begin to explain content only when you are satisfied that you have the group's attention. Experience shows that starting a lesson before focusing attention is a poor start. If you begin a lesson and hope for attention, pupils will not necessarily pay attention. They will settle when you centre them. Beginning class before concentrating attention will send a false message to pupils that you are willing to compete with them: you don't mind talking while they talk. Spending time on gathering attention at the outset of each class teaches students that speaking in this class is to be orderly and that you are leading them.

         You can calibrate the moment when pupils are attentive because there will be a general silence in the class and most students’ eyes will turn to you in the expectation of a lead-in.
            To understand the non-verbal model we will be using to gather student attention
read this short story on non-verbals.


To achieve focusing you may be inclined to use your voice. It is more recommendable to use visual cues and voice tone for managing, reserving  your oral instruction for subject content. You can begin to focus students’ attention by signalling to them to be seated while you get your papers in order. Then comes the roll call. During this ritual introduction you will find that pupils quieten down noticeably once they hear their names pronounced.

However, the class has not really begun and you will now have to sharpen pupils’ focus. In his book  Envoy  Michael Grinder explains just how to do this:

- Stand at the front of the classroom with your weight equally distributed on your two             feet and say your usual welcome.

- State your greeting in a voice slightly louder than the ambient noise in the classroom and then stand absolutely still and keep quiet. Pause.

- When the background noise lessens start the lesson in a low voice.

 This sequence can be summarised as follows:












How it works

You have now begun using non-verbal management strategies. Note the use of visual communication in this sequence. You show what you want pupils to do – you are already leading. You remain still because you want stillness. You stand upright and in balance, as opposed to lopsidedly. To ensure a balanced stance you can put your hands by your sides. Technically this is named 'high expectations' because it shows, non-verbally, that you expect the group to follow your lead. A similar position is to place one hand by you side and have the other cross you body at stomach level. It may feel more comfortable to hold a pen, an open book or chalk in your hand when doing this. Standing in a balanced position is interpreted by onlookers in Western cultures as a demonstration of self-confidence, knowing what you want, feeling self-assured about your objectives. This says nothing about what you really feel inside, but it conveys a clear message to the onlookers. It might be described as the 'John Wayne' stance: I am here now and don't meddle with me. This is the first message of the strategy.  

The auditory techniques consist of a support system whereby you first greet the class briefly and loud enough to be heard with the underlying aim of attracting attention to yourself. Those of the group who look up will see you standing facing them in a position of unmistakable confidence. You then say nothing because you want silence. Those looking see a silent, self-confident leader. A pause follows which you prolong until you calculate that a good part of the group is beginning to settle. Then you address your class in a whisper, making sure the students at the back have to strain to hear you. When you calibrate that a large majority of the class is focused you gradually raise your voice to a normal speaking level. View the power of whispering.

You will notice that the whole situation is emotionally neutral. Neither you nor your group have misspent energy on confusing feelings of discipline, authoritarianism, or coercion.

         Now consider the opposite scenario. A teacher opens the lesson by shouting loudly above the ambient noise in the classroom, arms waving around to indicate that pupils should pay attention and moving nervously around the front of the room trying to gain attention. The message conveyed to the group, loudly and clearly, is the opposite of what the teacher wants. When the learners look up they perceive a frantic leader desperately trying to control the situation. This creates feelings of chaos and confusion leading to high breathing and nerves. This is precisely the opposite outcome to focused attention.

You can evaluate the effectiveness of this strategic sequence by putting it into practice one day then doing the opposite the next day and noticing the differences in your pupils’ reactions. You can then decide which strategy is more appropriate for your needs.

Non-verbal communication works by walking your talk. As human beings we cannot not communicate so it is advisable to be aware of the message you are conveying. Reading on will give you insights into your unconscious non-verbal messages and allow you to control them for the benefit of your teaching practice.


         Once you have established a focusing sequence as a routine at the beginning of your classes, you will find that it is possible to turn it into an automatic reaction. This is what is technically called an 'anchor'. It is an unconscious reaction to a given stimulus. Timing is of the essence. Here is one experience I had of timing a focusing anchor:

I noticed that a particular class began to start focusing when I closed the classroom door. It was easy to build on this observation and reinforce natural attention by shutting the door just before starting the class. Through repetition the pupils gradually anchored the behaviours: closing the door meant paying attention.

As human beings we make and receive anchors constantly. Focusing a class in this way was simply the result of observation coupled with a use of anchoring to strengthen the desired effect.

Since practice makes perfect try this out in front of a mirror to fine-tune your gesturing then use it in class and calibrate the response you get.

However you still have to work at maintaining attention for the rest of the session so there are 8 practical ways of doing that.