How Teachers Get Kids to Listen

The art of classroom management has always amazed me.

When I was a classroom parent ten years ago for my oldest daughter’s kindergartner teacher — a skilled veteran pro loved by all — Mrs. T. asked me to take over the class for five minutes while she went to the principal’s office. Within three minutes, 23 five-year-olds were spinning out of control.

When she walked back in and raised her hand, I was in awe. Eyes focused, mouths went silent, ears listened. I gained a healthy respect for skilled teachers that day.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about classroom management and discovered many tricks parents can borrow from experienced teachers who have mastered it. These are skills any parent can use to get kids to listen and follow directions at home. I’ll disclose two of my favorites first; then I’ll share others from a teaching approach called Responsive Classroom.

    • Set rules and routines. Kids thrive on rhythm and consistency — at home and at school. If they know their backpack must be packed and on the bench ready to go to school the night before, it will become so natural, you won’t have to yell or nag anymore. If they miss a night, a simple “Backpack?” with a look to the bench will usually do the trick.
    • Use hand signals. Kids tend to be visual learners so many teachers use these successfully. In our house, when an adult is on the phone, one finger means “be patient,” two fingers means “I’ll need 2-3 minutes here” and a full hand up means “stop, I can’t be interrupted.” No words needed.

Aviva Patz, a freelance writer on parenting topics, wrote a great summary of other skills parents can try based on an approach by Mike Anderson, a consultant in a technique called Responsive Classroom. Mike shares strategies for getting kids to listen, pay attention and follow directions. Aviva writes:

Most parents have uttered the words: “How many times have I told you… ?” at some point, but teachers rarely need to go there. They manage to hold a group of kids’ attention for hours every day. What’s their secret?

  • Get his attention to begin with. We often call out instructions to our kids when they’re playing or watching TV and then get frustrated when they don’t hear us. Make sure you have your child’s eyes and ears before speaking.
  • Tell; don’t ask. If you want your daughter to put the milk away, say so. But don’t phrase it as a question. Saying, “Sweetie, would you please put the milk back in the fridge?” makes it optional.
  • Follow through. If you ask your son to do something, don’t let it slide. “When we allow kids to not follow our directions, the lesson is that they don’t have to listen to what we say,” says Anderson.
  • Examine expectations. When your child is struggling with a task, it pays to consider: Did I explain exactly what’s expected and show how it’s done? “Sometimes it seems like kids aren’t listening, but in fact, they just don’t know what to do, or they find it overwhelming,” says Anderson. Walk your child through the task to make sure he understands.
  • Rethink rewards. When kids get rewards for performing a task, they sometimes develop a “What’s in it for me?” mindset and lose the incentive to do anything that doesn’t result in a prize. Explain at the outset the reason for the task: “You set the table every night because we’re all members of this family and we all do our share to help out.”
  • Keep the tone positive. When kids feel respected, they’re more likely to be their best selves. Instead of “Why do you always bring your muddy shoes into the house?” try “Let’s find a way to help you remember to leave your muddy shoes by the door.”

Nobody likes to be yelled at or nagged. The clearer you are when communicating your expectations, the more likely your kids will be to listen and complete tasks.

The art of classroom management? Feels more like a science to me.


  1. as a 78 year old parent of 3 children all in their 40′s i needed a “parent backpack” to help me. the p.t.a. and 4 parent teacher conferences a year is only a simple start to achieve what parents really want for their child. we need the “parent backpack” to use as a very practical roadmap.


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