Using Hand Signals in the Classroom

Veteran teacher and TeacherVision Advisory Board Member Sara believes that using hand signals is an effective strategy for classroom management and engagement. She shares her thoughts on the importance of using hand signals as well as some of her favorites here.

hand signals in the classroom

Why Hand Signals are Important in the Classroom

We’ve all been there: you’re in front of a classroom full of 28-35 learners of all skill levels. You have a curriculum to teach and objectives to meet, but the disruptions won’t stop. Some students need to sharpen their pencils or go to the bathroom. Others just won’t stop talking. Of course, you want to fulfil all of the student’s needs, but you just stand there, frozen and not sure what to address first. The stress and anxiety of these situations can be debilitating. Attending to student needs while managing behaviors, content, and administrative tasks in the classroom throughout the day takes real talent and the ability to multitask. Even seasoned teachers get overwhelmed by it all. It’s time to think outside the box and consider using hand signals for classroom management and increased engagement.
Teaching students hand signals will help you as a classroom teacher alleviate the stress and anxiety that typically comes with wanting to “do it all” and appear as if you have it together all of the time. They can be taught to students of all ages, work for students with special needs, and reduce the number of classroom disruptions with daily use.

How to Teach Hand Signals

I start off at the beginning of the year by teaching managerial hand signals to my students. You can even do this on the first day back to school! I explain each signal and its significance and then ask learners to practice them in model scenarios. If you teach high school students, you can include this review when you go over the syllabus. If you teach younger students, like first grade, for example, this review can be a fun activity for whole class engagement and help you get to know your students better.
I reteach and review the signals throughout the beginning of the school year. I sometimes create printables or classroom hand signal posters to use as visual reminders. By the third week of school, my students have the important hand signals down. I try to praise students’ use of the signals throughout instruction so that they know that it’s important that they use them. I also stress to them that they will usually get what they want if they appropriately use the signals in an attempt to keep an orderly flow of the classroom environment.

Teaching students hand signals will help you as a classroom teacher alleviate the stress and anxiety that typically comes with wanting to “do it all”

Basic Hand Signals for Classroom Management

Try using the following hand signals for simple and effective classroom management!

  1. Pencil - Students can request a pencil during a warm-up by silently pointing one finger upwards. As the teacher scans the room to see who is on task, they can easily see who needs a pencil.
  2. Tissue - “T is for tissue,” and the number two, so students can raise two fingers if they need a tissue. Depending on the teacher’s rules for classroom management, either the teacher can bring the student the tissue or give them permission to go get it when appropriate.
  3. Bathroom - In my classroom, students can request to use the restroom by holding up three fingers and waiting patiently until I notice and allow their request. With my high school students, I give each student ten bathroom passes per semester; if they don’t end up using them, they can turn them into extra credit for their semester exams. I don’t like to turn bathroom requests into battles, so I make sure that my students know when it is appropriate to ask. If they are working on independent work, for example, I am more likely to notice and approve their request than if I were lecturing to the whole group. It’s important for students to understand that, with the exception of emergencies, there is a time and place to interrupt.
  4. Paper/Task Supplies - Students who need additional supplies during partner, small-group, or independent work can request their need by placing four fingers up and waiting for the teacher to recognize their request.
  5. “I Need Help/I Have a Question”- This is an easy one! Students who need additional support or who have a question during partner, small-group, or independent work time can request the help of the teacher by simply raising their hand and waiting silently and patiently until the teacher can show up to assist. Now that you’ve established other silent signals, it will be easier for you to know who needs academic assistance and who can be helped more quickly.

Academic Discourse Hand Signals

These hand signals are the major keys to quality, whole-group discussion. As an English teacher, I teach these hand signals to students within the first week of school and commend my students on using them during their first experiences with whole-group discourse. These signals help students learn not to interrupt each other and reinforce the skills needed for successful accountability talk.

  • “I agree with your statement.” Indicated by a simple thumbs-up.
  • “I would like to build on what [another student] said.” Two fists building on top of each other.
  • “I would like to disagree.” Two thumbs down.
  • “I can/will repeat.” Two fingers held up (i.e. “Scout’s honor”).

"Hand signals can help students with special needs express themselves more freely."

Using Hand Signals with Students with Special Needs

In conjunction with other nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and the use of printed pictures, hand signals can help students with special needs express themselves more freely. For example, academic discourse hand signals can keep conversations more inclusive and equitable by allowing shy or nonverbal students to express their opinions visually. Some students may have physical limitations that prevent them from using ASL, but they can easily raise a finger or two to signal their needs. You can even create hand signals that students with special needs can use to indicate that they need a break when they are frustrated or some other nonverbal cue you can give to a student instead of reprimanding them in front of their peers. The possibilities are endless.

The Difference Between Hand Signals and Basic Sign Language

Some of your students may already know American Sign Language (ASL) because they were taught as babies or they took classes on their own. They may already know some basic signs, like “please” and “thank you.” The hand signals I teach my learners are not parts of basic sign language, and it’s important not to imply that they are.
ASL is not just a series of gestures. It is a complete language with the same linguistic properties as American English but with different grammar rules. Furthermore, ASL is expressed through both the hands and the face. American Sign Language is an important component of Deaf culture; it allows deaf people to communicate with each other and other people who speak the language.

The Benefits of Using Silent Signals in the Classroom

By now, it should be clear how using silent hand signals can benefit your classroom. In conjunction with other successful classroom management tools, the use of silent signals can:

  • Eliminate unnecessary disruptions during independent work, class lectures, and group work
  • Allow a teacher to visually assess student needs quickly and efficiently.
  • Prevent students from wandering around the room in search of tissues or materials, thus reducing distractions

The addition of academic discourse signals in higher grades can also:

  • Reinforce the need to take turns
  • Encourage students to express their opinions, whether they agree or disagree with the current speaker
  • Make students more aware of opportunities to build upon others’ thoughts and opinions
  • Signal that a student needs something repeated or would like to repeat something for the benefit of the class

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