10 tips to get (and keep) attention in the preschool efl esl classroom

10 tips to get and keep attention in the efl esl preschool classroom

All teachers of very young learners have struggled with this at some point I think! I’ve been teaching very young learners for several years now, and there has been a lot of trial and error. Some of the things that worked for me with my primary kids, just weren’t working with my preschool students.

In this article, I’ll share the top 10 techniques that have worked for me. I’ll also share some wonderful pearls of wisdom from my fellow teachers, that I’m dying to try out.

1. Non-verbal signals

Non-verbal signals are, by far, my favourite technique. Normally, when we want to get our class’s attention, we want them to be settled and ready to listen. It helps if we are demonstrating this kind of settled, quiet behaviour, rather than adding to the ‘noise’. 

Be still and silent

Sometimes the best way to refocus the group’s attention, is by stopping talking, being still and being silent. If you have been moving around, talking, and the kids have been involved in a lively activity, this might be enough in itself. All you have to do is wait for up to 10 seconds, and the kids will gradually notice, and get curious about what’s happening.

Use a basic gesture

This might be as basic as putting your finger on your nose, your hand on your head, or your hand under your chin. You can choose anything really, as long as it is a comfortable position to maintain for some time. The kids will gradually start to copy the gesture. I like to give a thumbs up or a wink, to the ones that notice first. The children see the others doing the gesture, and in no time at all, the children are settled and looking at you.

Please note though, you must stop using the gesture when you start talking again. You don’t want your gesture to lose it’s special silent powers!

After the kids have noticed and started copying your gesture, it helps if you do something fun but still settled. Sometimes kids can get frustrated when they see your gesture to stop and listen. They are being interrupted, and being asked to be quiet. If the only incentive is to follow the teacher’s rules, some children will get tired of it. On the other hand, if they think that the signal leads onto something fun, they will be much more engaged and quick to listen. Try out some of the following no (or very few!) words activities:

Brain gym exercises

These are movements that engage both hemispheres of the brain at the same time. These ones are tricky, because each side of the brain is working independently. Because they require concentration, and are very visual, they’re great for focussing attention. I start by doing one of the exercises and the children gradually notice and start copying. 

  • Pat your head, Rub your tummy

Start by rubbing your tummy with one hand, then start patting your head with the other hand. Once all the kids are trying to do the action, switch sides so that your hands are doing the opposite actions. You can get faster or slower with your switches, depending on how well your group is managing it. Don’t make it too difficult for them, or they’ll lose interest again!

  • Hold your nose, hold your ear

Hold your nose with one hand, cross your other hand over in front of you and hold your ear: right hand on nose, left hand on right ear. Now, switch! Your left hand holds your nose, and your right hand holds your right ear.

Make the switch with big actions to begin with, so the children can see what you are doing. Again, you can make the switches faster once you have everyone’s attention.

  • Pinkies and pointers

Make a fist with both hands. Make a thumbs up with one hand. Point to the thumb with the index finger of your other hand. Now try switching. It’s trickier than you think. This is also great for developing fine motor skills.

Chris Roland's Finger stories

These are a brilliant way, to keep the children’s attention, while developing their language. The fact that they are engaged in a settled activity for that little bit longer, makes it easier for the kids to transition to your next activity.

Watch the demonstrations in the video below. Many of them are storyboarded and available as a downloadable resource in Chris’s book: Structuring Fun for Young Learners in the ELT Classroom (2020)

2. TPR (Total Physical Response)

Asking children to do actions, like in the Simon Says game, is another great way to refocus children’s attention. Keep it simple to begin with, “Touch your head”; “Touch your knees”, etc. You can continue adding more complex actions if you wish, “Turn around”; “Wiggle your hips”. End with, “Sit down, please”.

It’s best to give the instructions in a quiet voice. The children nearest you will hear and start playing. Gradually the others will join in, and you will all be doing the activity in a calm, settled way.

3. Attention grabbers - Call and response

The best attention grabbers, or attention getters should be involving, engaging, and ideally include some physical movement. If there is an action that the children are doing, you can see which children are listening, and the children can notice each other doing it too. That way, they know it’s time to listen, even if they don’t hear the ‘call and response’ cue.

These are some examples of call and responses. Basically, the teacher calls out the first part and the students respond with the second part. I find the ones that work best are the ones that have a bit of musicality added in. A change in tone, helps the students notice. 

  1. Who is listening? I am listening.
  2. One, two, three, eyes on me. One, two, eyes on you.
  3. Hocus pocus! Everybody focus.
  4. Hands on top. That means stop.
  5. Zip, zip, zap! Hands on your lap.
  6. Macaroni Cheese. Everybody freeze!
  7. Alligator chomp. Chomp, chomp!
  8. Everybody rock. Everybody roll.
  9. Hi ho, hi ho.. It’s off to work we go.

4. Praise the listeners

Whichever technique you use to engage the children’s attention, it’s important that you praise the students who notice and start listening. This sends an important message to their classmates, that they will get the teacher’s positive attention, if they listen too. You can do this in a non-verbal way by giving thumbs up, nodding or winking, but you can also give praise orally. If you do, use the students’ names, e.g., “Great listening, Maria”; “Daniel’s sitting nicely”; “Jin hee is ready”, etc. The students will be keen to have you call their name out, and will be more willing to give you their attention.

5. Surprise them

Sometimes, it can help to do something that the children don’t expect. What you do depends on your persona as a teacher and what you are comfortable with. It could be simply sitting down on the floor. You could put a silly hat on your head. You could get out a puppet and start talking to it quietly. You might even just quietly take a chair and sit down at the back of the room, rather than being at the front.

You can also engage them, by building suspense about the next activity. For example, if you are planning to do an activity with flashcards, you can pick them up but semi-conceal them and make an expression to show wonder. This can work well, especially if you have the item in a bag or box. The children will quickly want to know what’s in the bag.

6. Countdowns

This is a very common technique, and it is one that the children are very familiar with, both at home and school. Simply count down slowly from 5. The caveat with this one is that you need to know what to do if you get to zero and you still don’t have the children’s attention. What do you do, then? Do you just count again? I generally prefer to reserve countdowns for when I am indicating the end of an activity that they are doing individually or in small groups. This lets the children know they are going to stop the activity soon. Apart from the 5,4,3,2,1, I tell them how many minutes they have left. So, first it’s 5 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 2 minutes, then one minute, then we get to the 5 seconds!

To get their attention to give instructions, or to bring the whole group together, I prefer to use one of the other techniques.

7. Songs

Starting singing a song that the children are familiar with is another good one to grab the children’s attention. The best ones for refocusing attention tend to include actions too. This means they need to stop doing what they are doing, and join in the actions. Songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes work a treat for this.

I like the way that... (to the tune of "In and Out the Dusty Bluebells")

This is another song, that is good for offering praise and encouraging the children to join in. You can change the ending, depending on what you would like the children to do: sitting, standing in line, listening, etc.

I like the way that (Martin)’s sitting,

I like the way that (Ailsa)’s sitting,

I like the way that (Sun)’s sitting,

Can you sit like they are? / Let’s sit down together?

8. Position in the classroom

This is a something I didn’t think about when I first started teaching, but it really helps. Have a designated area(s) in the classroom, where you speak to the group as a whole. This is the area the children will associate with turning their attention to you. It’s another form of non-verbal signal, really. It could be standing at the board, or sitting down on a chair in a certain place. Perhaps it’s the circle time area. If you’re there, the children know to come to you, and that you’re going to do something with them together.

9. Rewards board

This is one I use with caution with very young learners. I generally use it as a last resort with particularly challenging groups. I have three different smiley faces – happy, ok, not happy. Then I have the children’s names on different coloured card. With kids who don’t know how to read their names yet, they can identify their name from their colour.

rewards board for classroom management

At the start of the class, when I have their attention, I’ll put up their names as part of the register routine. I’ll make a comment and a gesture to tell each child that they’re sitting nicely and listening well, and put their name next to the ‘happy’ face. If I am having difficulty getting a child’s attention back at a point in the class, I’ll move slowly to the rewards board and make to move their name to the ‘ok’ face. They generally notice (or their friend notices and tells them), then they quickly pay attention and I don’t have to move their name. If I do move their name, I quickly look for the next time they are listening well and move their name back to the happy face.

As I said, I prefer not to use this system, because I think it can be damaging to self-esteem. Particularly, when a child might have a genuine problem with focussing attention.

10. Sound Signals

This is another one that some teachers really like, but personally I prefer not to use. There are different ways you can make a sound that is the signal for the kids to listen. It could be a squeaky toy, a bell, a buzzer, or anything else fun that you think the kids might like and respond well to.

Final words to the wise

All of these techniques can work wonders for you and your kids, BUT there are some key things I’ve learned to keep in mind:

  • Teach it! – There have been too many times when I’ve been left at the front of the class, trying to use an attention getting strategy, with the kids paying absolutely no attention whatsoever! Perhaps I managed to get a few curious looks – “What is the teacher doing?!” Basically, unless you teach and practise the technique at a point when you have their attention, the children won’t know what you expect of them. Now, whenever I introduce a new call and response, TPR technique, or reward system, I make sure I explicitly teach it and practise it with the kids. Sometimes, this means making it a new game. I’ll introduce it, then we’ll play at being noisy or dance around and practise paying attention as quickly as possible with the new technique.
  • Practise it frequently and often – It can happen quite often that you start the class with your chosen attention grabber or signal. It works! Hurray! The thing is that when things are working, we normally stop using the techniques we used to correct the problem. No problem getting the kids’ attention, no attention getting technique required, right? It’s really important that you make a conscious effort to use your chosen technique frequently, throughout your classes. If you don’t, the children will forget it’s a signal for them to pay attention. I’m not saying you have to use the same technique FOREVER. If you see that the kids (or you) are getting tired of it, try out something new, but whatever it is – practise.
  • Start with high energy and move to low energy – If you are wanting the kids to listen to you to set up a new activity, you need them to feel settled and calm. For example, if you are using a TPR technique, you might start with whole body actions, but then move to small micro-actions, like putting your finger to your lips,  touching fingers together, or patting your head and rubbing your tummy. If you start with a loud voice, finish with a quiet voice.
  • Expect everyone’s attention – It’s best that you have patience and wait for all the children to follow you. Using one of the above techniques in combination with directed praise, usually does the trick. However, there is a tipping point. You don’t want the settled ones to start getting distracted. Sometimes there are only one or two children that aren’t joining in. They might know you want their attention at that point, but have decided not to give it to you (for a variety of reasons!) In these situations, I try to make sure that my attention is kept on the children that are listening and ready (while making sure the other child/children are staying safe). It’s important that I am rewarding and respecting the attention the listeners are giving me. If I start paying more attention to the other(s), I’m sending the message that you get more personal attention by not following along. So, I start the next activity with extra enthusiasm. Usually, the listening kids are so engaged to be doing something new, that the other(s) quickly join in.