How to Use Hand Signals to Improve Your Classroom Management

Veteran teacher and TeacherVision Advisory Board Member Sara believes that using non-verbal hand signals is one of the most effective classroom management strategies. She shares her favorites and how she uses them in her classroom here.

Updated on: September 26, 2019

How to Use Hand Signals to Improve Your Classroom Management

We’ve all been there - a classroom full of 28-35 students, all with varying needs that have to be met by you because you are the adult in the room. At times, the desire to fulfill all of the students’ needs at once or even within one class period can be debilitatingly stressful and create an anxiety that is like no other in the professional world. We just want to take care of our children - why is that such a hefty task to hold while teaching?!

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. Teaching students the following hand signals will help you as a classroom teacher alleviate the stress and anxiety that typically comes with wanting to “do it all” while “having it all together all the time.” I start off at the beginning of the year by teaching managerial hand signals to high schoolers (yes, they need this support, too!). I explain each signal and it's significance and then practice them in model scenarios. This is embedded in the Syllabus Review Day, which is comprised of a “Day in the Life” model of how the class will flow each day and what we will do depending on the instructional activities that were planned throughout the week.

By the third week of school, my students have these hand signals down - both the managerial and the academic discourse signals. I try to praise students’ use of the signals throughout instruction so that they know that it’s important that they use them and that, generally, they get what they want if they are appropriately using those signals in an attempt to keep the flow of the class swift and steady.

Hand Signals for Classroom Management

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

Pencil

Students who need a pencil at the beginning of class and during the hook or beginning set can request one with pointing their finger upwards and keeping silent during the process. As a teacher, I am always scanning the room at the beginning of the lesson to ensure that all students have the materials that they need in order to be successful on the initial instructional task, so this is easily seen if students request it in a timely fashion.

Tissue

Students who need tissue can hold two (T for two and T for tissue is how I explain this to my students) fingers up in the air and request their need efficiently. I as a teacher normally bring the tissue box to them so that I am not transferring germs from my own hands to the tissues they are placing near their own face and hands.

Bathroom

Students can request, at any time, to use the restroom by holding three fingers up and waiting patiently until I notice and allow their request. I typically don’t fight this “battle of the bathroom” with high schoolers because if they are missing content they can converse with a partner upon their return back to the classroom. I do give students 10 bathroom passes per semester and if they don’t end up using them, they can turn them into extra credit on their semester exams. Pro tip: Just don’t make the bathroom a battle between you and your students.

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.

"I Need Help/I Have a Question"

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.

Academic Discourse Hand Signals

These hand signals are the major keys quality, whole-group discussion on topics that you as a teacher are placing in front of students to dissect and argue. 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 (the first week discussions are typically centered around building norms and getting to know each other).
  • "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").

Do you use hand signals in your classroom? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

Sara Willey is a seven-year veteran teacher and administrator from Clarksville, Tennessee. She has taught in Title I schools her entire tenure as a professional and she has a heart for working with disadvantaged and underserved student populations. She has experience teaching English at the high school level and before she became an administrator, being in the classroom was her ultimate passion and where I felt the most comfortable. When she isn't teaching, she enjoys cooking and home decorating, reading, exercising, and napping.

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