If I were a bell: (How to shush a classroom without shushing)

obamaContrary to popular belief, children do not plan to resist the beginning of class. Yes, they chat and talk and grab stuff out of each others’ hands, but they do that because they like it. It’s not because they want to obstruct you from launching your carefully crafted lesson plan.

Q: Why is it so difficult to get order and quiet at the beginning of class?

A: It has more to do with human social psychology and less to do with non-compliance.

Reason 1: Nobody wants to be the first to stop talking with their friends.

Whether adults or children, chatting before a program begins is normal, social behavior. Of course they will talk. You would, too. The teacher is shushing, but your neighbor in class just asked you if you want to hang out this weekend. Would you not say, “Cool, let’s go see a movie? What should we see?”

If anything, refusing to answer because the teacher is shushing is the antisocial behavior!

Reason 2: they don’t really hear you trying to start class. The room is noisy and they are focused on climbing the social ladder. Guess what, your frantic shushing isn’t cutting through.

Reason 3: Shushing is annoying. At some level, a person trying to shush you is annoying. Groups of people don’t reward shushers eagerly.

How do I shush without shushing?

You need a signal that is pleasant, clear, unmistakable, and free of judgment to create a classroom that is pleasant, clear, and free of judgment. Here are some choices. 1. Play groovy music at the beginning of class. When you’re ready to begin, start counting down from 10 and lowering the volume. When you get to zero, the music is silent. So is the room.


Find a bell that’s small and cute with a pleasant sound. No need to make awful noise to achieve quiet.

2. Get a little bell that you ring to signal you’re ready to begin. This is perfect for “think, pair, shares” where students turn to each other and talk and you need to recover attention several times in a row. I have a bell and a thermos that makes a loud clank. I reserve the thermos for friday afternoons when the group is more rambunctious.

I’ve noticed that during class discussion, when students start having side conversation while another student is speaking, a few quiet. clanks on the thermos will shush the students without calling attention to them.

Not quite Pavlov, but close.

Not recommended: While many teachers and camp counselors like to use, “If you can hear my voice clap twice” (or the Hebrew School equivalent, “Sheket Bevakesha, HEY!”) I find that inviting groups to MAKE NOISE in order to GET QUIET is counter productive. But if it works for you, hey, it works for you.

Please share your favorite ways to SHUSH without SHUSHING!

(Below, Ms. Piggy demonstrates how NOT to shush).

One thought on “If I were a bell: (How to shush a classroom without shushing)

  1. What I do — I learned this from elderly principal who taught at one of the roughest schools in New Orleans — is stand in front of the group and ask loudly enough to be heard, but no louder, for the class’s or the audience’s attention, and then I wait. I look expectant but not belligerent, maybe a touch toward the the angry side of ready and waiting. The key is what happens next: I keep on waiting until everyone is quiet. Not until enough people are quiet for me to be heard, not mostly quiet but a few people still chatting. I wait until everyone is giving me their attention.

    It doesn’t take long. The first few are quiet because I am asking them to, and I’m standing right there. My presence is enough, but shortly there’s a moving edge where everyone is quiet in front of it. It is sort of a peer pressure wave. Of course, there are some oblivious (let’s be nice) stragglers, but the people around them are made uncomfortable by the rest of the audience waiting, and the stragglers neighbors will shush the stragglers on my behalf. Fifteen or thirty seconds is all it takes to silence an auditorium

    I wait a beat longer, I say thank you and mean it, and then I begin.

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