Smart Teachers Keep Their Class Focussed Like This

Smart Teachers Keep Their Class Focussed Like This

Ever wished you could instantly focus an unsettled (or ‘fussy’) class on their work?

Imagine this:

  • It’s a cold, grey Thursday morning
  • It’s windy outside (only people who work in schools will get this reference…)
  • Your class are super-excitable
  • And now keeping them focused on their written work feels like wading through treacle

You find yourself nagging at your class.  Issuing endless reminders about staying on task and working quietly.

It’s all starting to feel a bit… negative.  And it’s only 9.30am.

But what can you do?  It’s not like there’s a magical 3 step process that’ll get all your students to settle down and concentrate on their work.

Is there?

Well, here’s the good news: there is.  It’s easy to follow and works in most classrooms.

Here’s exactly what to say and do to start using it today.

Step 1: decide on a deadline (no more than 15 minutes)

The first thing we do is bring our pupils back together for some whole class input and set them a deadline.

Why? Because there’s something magical about deadlines.  Deadlines focus people and make things happen.

Most importantly, we’re going to set a short-term deadline.   No more than 15 minutes away, whatever the age of your pupils.

If you’re thinking, “That’s not very long?”… you’re right.

And that’s the point.

The immediacy of the deadline will encourage our students to take action now.  To sharpen their attention.

(I’ll explain how to present the deadline in the next section.)

Bonus: if you have an interactive whiteboard (IWB), make that deadline big and visual.  Drag out a countdown timer from your IWB toolbox and put it on the screen.

It’s going to sit there, like a ticking clock in a thriller, showing us how much time there is until the bomb goes off.

Tick… tick… tick…

(No visual count down timer? Don’t worry.  Once work begins, reproduce the effect by giving your class a verbal time check every 5 minutes.  For example, “The clock is ticking, you only have 10 minutes left now.”)

Step 2: set a specific, measurable target

Now we’re going to go around each table / group and set a specific, measurable target.

This target needs to be clear and simple: your students need to be able to look at their work and know whether they’ve achieved it at a single glance.

Here are some examples:

  • Writing X number of sentences or paragraphs
  • Completing X questions on the page
  • Finishing a diagram or picture

Each table gets their own differentiated target.  The target should be challenging but achievable.

We address each group and set their target with this simple formula: In X minutes, you need to…

For example:

  • Green group, in 15 minutes you need to have written 1 paragraph.
  • Red group, in 15 minutes you need to have written 2 paragraphs.
  • Blue group, in 15 minutes you need to have written 3 paragraphs.

We also set accountability for the target. We tell the class we’ll be reviewing their progress when the timer runs out.

This tells our pupils we won’t forget about the target.  We’ll be looking at their work to check progress.  (This is why it’s important to be able to glance at the page and see whether the work has been done.)

Say something like:

“In 15 minutes, I’m going to be looking for one student from each table who tried the hardest.”

(Notice we’re deliberately repeating the phrase ’15 minutes’ to reinforce the deadline.)

Bonus tip: say ‘tried the hardest’ rather than the ‘worked the fastest’.  When you talk about ‘the fastest’, pupils tend to produce scrappy work, which isn’t the aim.  Focus them on effort rather than speed.

Now hit ‘go’ on the countdown timer on your IWB and watch the magic happen.

Step 3: hold them accountable

After the time runs down, bring the whole class back together.

(If you need help with us, check out our article on stopping your class in their tracks.)

Now take a quick walk around the classroom and do exactly what you said you would – hold the children to account.

We’re going to separate this into two halves:

In public, we praise students who have focused on their work and tried hard.  Where it’s appropriate (and the pupil is happy), share their work with the rest of the class.

This needn’t take too long.  The aim is:

  • to make those that have tried hard feel good about their effort
  • to get that behaviour to spread, by encouraging the rest of the class to copy their example

Then we rinse and repeat.

We set each table their next deadline and target, just like before.   We promise to hold the children accountable, set the timer and off they go.

…but that’s not all.

Once our class our focused on their work, in private, we go around the two or three individuals who didn’t apply themselves and challenge them about their work ethic.

We do this in private, because it’s best to avoid drawing public attention to negative behaviours.

We use whatever strategy works best with each individual.  Whether that be quiet encouragement / reminders / warnings about boundaries / appeals to their better nature etc.

The formula is: praise in public, criticise in private.

Why does this approach work?

Sometimes, when pupils are distractible, they can feel like getting to the end of a long piece of work is unachievable.

It’s like standing at the start line of a marathon, thinking, “I’m never going to finish – so what’s the point in running?”

To combat this, we break that task up into shorter, timed sections.  These short segments feel achievable, the timed deadline adds pressure, the accountability encourages commitment.

We’ve taken an approach called ‘chunking’ or ‘segmenting’ usually used with individual students, applied it to the whole class… and then put it on steroids.

Key takeaways:

  • Set each group a short-term deadline: “Group A, in 15 minutes, you need to have…”
  • Reinforce the deadline with a visual countdown timer
  • Remind them about accountability, “In 15 minutes, I’ll be looking for students that have…”
  • Then at the end of the time, hold them accountable (praise in public, criticise in private)
  • Rinse and repeat


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