Do you ever feel your classroom just keeps getting louder and louder until you want to take your ears off? As your students get more comfortable, the noise level can get out of hand. Of course, the activity going on in your room can often impact the noise, but your body language and your tone of voice play a bigger role than you may realize. This is a real experiment we tried on our students.
What is Noise?
There are different types of classroom noise. Your classroom should be a balance of all three. Depending on the task, time of day or time of year the acceptable level of noise
When productive talk is happening, the conversations relate to the work being completed. The level of noise is general excitement because people are so involved in what they are doing. There is a general hum that happens when everyone is on task. This doesn’t happen by accident. We spend most of our group work time in this area.
This sounds a little spikey and generally, there are different levels of sound coming from all directions. Most of it will be off task and will have lots of laughing, yelling or squealing mixed in.
This is the level of noise where students might need to talk briefly to each other, but are generally working independently. We spend most of our independent work time in this area.
This is the time when the room is quiet and you can hear a pencil drop. Don’t confuse quiet with productive. They are definitely not the same.
We use quiet after transitions to get calmed down or to switch topics. Over time, we work on our ability to maintain quiet for longer periods of time.
It is also our acceptable level of noise during tests.
This is the time we allow students to yell and have a good time (usually outside or in gym class (but it does not involve screaming or high-pitched squeals because those don’t belong in schools in general). Students are free to make as much noise as they need, but we use a visual signal to regain attention with needed.
Instead of a whistle in our gym classes, we simply stand and hold up one hand in the air. Our students have learned this means, come close enough to hear something important. We use it during gym classes and when we take our students outside for learning activities (or fun). At the beginning of the school year, we explicitly teach this and practice it repeatedly. Students love to see if they can beat their own time so we will practice with a stopwatch at the beginning of the year and then periodically after long school breaks.
When the Noise Level Takes Over
It was May. It was hot in the classroom because we were not blessed with air conditioning (but that’s a whole other story). We just wanted to get the kids to sit down and get some work done. Our classroom is always a bustle with interesting projects, but this particular week was about getting them finished up. Everyone was frustrated. The kids who wanted quiet workspaces were mad at the noisy kids. The noisier students were mad they kept being shushed. And us? We were just plain exhausted.
We thought we were running an efficient and respectful classroom, but it was draining us to maintain order and control. It just so happened a master teacher who taught in the room beside came into our room for something. I mentioned that the noise was getting to me and he did something that still leaves me in awe.
What did he do? I don’t remember.
It wasn’t what he said. It was his tone and how he said it.
First, he stood at the front of the room talking quietly to the group working near him. It made the students at the front listen (which made them stop talking). Then he stopped and looked at the whole class. His entire body said, “I’ll wait for you to be quiet, but I’ll be less happy if I have to wait long.” The room fell completely silent.
I was impressed, but I felt like I could get their attention in a similar way.
He continued talking, but as he spoke his voice became quieter until he was almost whispering. As he spoke, his body language softened and he slowly made his way to the door. By the time he walked out of the room, he just waved and wasn’t speaking at all. He just signalled to the students to get back to work.
And they did. They were almost completely silent. More importantly, they stayed that quiet for about twenty minutes.
At the next break, I made a beeline to the teacher to ask what kind of Jedi mind trick he’d performed.
After looking at me like I was crazy, he just said, “Don’t tell them what you want them to do. Show them. Speak to them in the tone you want them to use and use your body to reinforce it.”
Duh! I didn’t say it out loud but I was convinced I had already done that. Spoiler Alert: I wasn’t doing that at all.
I set up the voice recorder on my phone (I didn’t want to video the classroom without student permission) and got the morning started. When I recorded the first fifteen minutes every day for a week I noticed something.
I WAS THE LOUD ONE!
Yep. I was making them loud because I was being loud. I was exciting and energizing and then told my students to be quiet.
For the next week, I very consciously tried to change my tone and body language. What a difference! I recorded myself again to prove I wasn’t being tricked into thinking it was working, but it really was.
You control your students more than you realize and when you’re feeling frustrated check what YOU’RE doing to make them behave a certain way. More importantly, no matter how many years you’ve been in the classroom, it’s still ok to ask another teacher for their opinion. They might save you from the headache (literally in this case)!
Three Ways to Control the Noise Level
Explicitly teach the acceptable sound levels. What does each level sound like in your classroom? What is too loud? When are the different types of noise acceptable? Practice these noise levels and point out to students how that sounds. You can use a voice recorder on your phone to share how these sound by playing back the levels to students when they’re doing it correctly.
Before each activity express which level of noise is acceptable and for how long. For example, you might require quiet for the first fifteen minutes while students write independently. Then when students are sharing their work with their fellow authors, they might be allowed to use productive noise.
Watch Your Own Noise Level
When you want students to speak more quietly, speak to them in a quieter voice. Bring your body language and gestures closer and smaller. Model what you want and your students will mimic you (without realizing it).
Publicly Thank Students Who Respect the Noise Level
Students love to be praised when they get caught being good. Make an example of the students who are able to control their noise level by publicly thanking them for respecting the noise level. That does not mean thanking only the students who are being quiet. Point out students who are being productive with the appropriate level of noise.
Try to catch the ones that struggle the most when they’re using the right level. They need to be caught being good.
Looking for More Ways to Beat the Noise Level
Sometimes the noise level is caused when students aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing. We started to refine how we give instructions so students would be able to know exactly what to do the first time. If you’re struggling with this too, try our post How to Make Students Listen Without Yelling.
Sometimes we use games as a way to practice different noise levels. This Would You Rather Game is easy to use and works well. You can find it in our Resource Library if you are already a ninja. Otherwise, we can send it directly to your inbox when you sign up to be a ninja.
Need More Ideas?
Are you looking for other classroom management strategies? We have several other posts that you might useful.
- How to Build Relationships With Students
- 3 Ways to Support Introverts in Your Classroom
- How to Save Your Sanity in the Classroom
- Build Community With Theme Days for School
- How to Keep Students Accountable During Project Based Learning
- Are You Accidentally Teaching Helplessness?
- How to Create a Sense of Agency in the Classroom
- Why Your Classroom Management Isn’t Working and How to Fix It
- How to Create a Community Culture in Your Multi-Grade Classroom
- Are You Feeling Like a Failing Teacher?
- How to Teach Students to Work in Groups
Do you have other ways to control the noise level in your classroom? Share your ideas with us in the comments below.