Question:  Even though I have 30 years experience teaching nursery and pre-k children, this year’s class presents a major challenge:  it takes almost 10-15 minutes for me and my co-teacher to settle the class down to do a l5-minute lesson.  They chatter amongst themselves and continue to speak even though one of the teachers is waiting to begin.We have used all sorts of gimmicks, such as hands to raise instead of yelling out answers, bells to get their attention, limiting free time, etc.  Using stickers or snack treats works for the short run, but it does not sustain the behavior.

Myrna Shure:  Waiting for children to settle down, as you have learned, is ineffective. By limiting free time or giving positive rewards, the children may comply – but for the wrong reasons.  These techniques are external, have no connection to what you’re teaching, and do not create a genuine interest in the lesson itself.  

I have found two ways that work:

l) Simply start the lesson, even while the children are talking to each other.  Start with a statement that would surprise them.  For example, if the lesson is about shapes, show a big circle and say, “This IS a square.”  Someone will notice that it is not a square, and you can smile and say, “Oh, I tried to trick you.  You were paying attention.”  A surprise opening, used with any topic, is usually enough to peak their interest.

2) Play a game called the TWO-THINGS-AT-THE-SAME-TIME game.  I created this game to help children enjoy listening.  Say, “I can tap my knee and roll my arms AT THE SAME TIME.”  Then ask, “What can you do AT THE SAME TIME?”  One child said, “I can rub my tummy and sing.”Then say, “I can NOT roll my arms and tap my head AT THE SAME TIME.  What can you NOT do AT THE SAME TIME?”  One boy said, “I can not laugh and cry,” and another, “I can’t hold my nose and breathe.”  When the class is chattering before a lesson, ask, “Can you talk and listen to me AT THE SAME TIME?”  The association of this question with the fun game they played with these words calms them down.

These two techniques will help to inspire children to listen and pay attention without external, unconnected rewards.  They will participate because they want to, not because they have to.