Stephen Louw

Triggers in the classroom

How to grab attention

In 1974, the comedy duo Cheech and Chong's skit Sister Mary Elephant reached number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 - the only non-music spoken word recording to crack the top 40.

In it, Sister Mary Elephant (played by Cheech Marin) is a substitute teacher in a secondary school classroom who is having difficulty maintaining attention. Her technique for getting the class' attention is the object of the humor. Here's the first 20 seconds in case you haven't heard it.

Maintaining order

The skit is funny, but as a teacher, listening to Sister Mary struggle to maintain order is vexing because it's something I admit to having experienced myself. Perhaps every teacher has.

The reasons for the students' lack of attention in Sister Mary's class is painfully obvious. I'd like to say that in those classes where it's happened to me I wasn't being quite so obnoxiously boring. But for whatever reason, there have definitely been lessons where maintaining the students' attention has been a real struggle.

I have found this problem to be particularly common in lessons with young learners, who are more easily distracted than the older students, or at least less able to pretend to be interested.

Now classroom management is a complex thing, and identifying the reasons for the students' lack of attention is sometimes hard to do while things are descending into chaos. The real issue is what to do about it when it happens.

As you may know, at Chichester College we have our own in-house specialist young-learners trainer who, conveniently, was able to share some insights on this. For those of you who know us, you'll have met Sunee and been blown away by her passion for working with the littler students.

Has Sunee ever had this problem? I asked her.

"When I first arrived in Thailand, I was teaching a grade 2 class at a Catholic all girls' school in a small town in the south. They were a swarming mass of girls who took no notice of me. Those first six months were probably the most taxing on my voice and my sanity in my 21 years of teaching. They just ignored me!"

Good, then. It happens to everyone, or at least everyone who is trying to make their lessons fun and engaging.


If it is a common problem, there must be an easy solution. And there is! We call them classroom triggers, but you'll find lots of references to them on the internet as ‘attention getters'. The principle is simple: you have a phrase or command that your class recognises as a signal to be quiet or to focus on the teacher. Screaming ‘SHUURRRUUUP' like Sister Mary Elephant might do it, but there are easier ways.

For a trigger to work, the students need to be taught to respond to it. So whatever your trigger is, it needs to be set up before you need it. Ideally, a trigger should demand a response from the students, and the response will serve to (re)focus students' attention on the teacher.

I have a sister who is a kindergarten teacher, and she says that when she needs to get the class' attention she makes an animal sound which the students find funny, so they laugh, their attention is redirected (onto her), and she can go on with the lesson.

So what kinds of things work as triggers? Screaming Shurrruuuup and making animal noises are two possibilities. Back to Sunee for some theoretical grounding.

Sunee's theory lesson

"Triggers need to be quick, easy and playful to maintain a positive atmosphere in class. They must also involve the students in some way get get the best results. There are potentially four kinds of triggers that work in young-learners' lessons:

1) Sounds.

a) Whisper (and have the students whisper back)
b) A funny, new sound (like a bell, an app sound or an animal sound)
Sometimes you can let the students choose a trigger word or sound before the start of the lesson once they know how triggers work, and if they enjoy using them.

2) A visual cue

a) A noise meter (like a speedometer on the board that shows noise levels)
b) A traffic light (green for talk, red for stop)

3) Actions

a) One example is ‘water and ice' (water = the learners flow, ice= everyone freezes - the kids love this)
b) Clap a rhythm (and the children copy it)
c) Breathing exercises
e) Songs with their actions (like the ‘This little finger' song)
Songs are longer than most triggers, but they work with classes that are really zoned out, and they also help to break the lesson up for young learners who suffer from seat-fatigue.

4) Call and respond

a) Call out a prompt and your learners answer with a choral response. For example:
Teacher: 1, 2, 3 eyes on me
Students: 1, 2 eyes on you
b) A countdown (with students calling the countdown with the teacher)
c) Everyone do as I do ( for example, "hands up" and everyone copies)

To get triggers going in the class, find points in the lesson that most need to have students' attention redirected, such as the commencement of feedback on a task, or instructions for a new activity. Start by using triggers at these points so the students see a reason for their use, then you can start using them more generally when you feel the class needs to be reined in."

Putting it into action

Thanks Sunee, you are a star. Back to me. It's important to remember that classes respond differently to triggers, so it's useful to have a variety and to rotate them as needed. Some classes respond really well to call-and-respond triggers, while others respond beautifully to a countdown. In one class I observed, the teacher used a jazz chant that the children liked, and all she needed to do was start the chant, and the children continued it from there - the stray attentions were then drawn into the chant as it gathered momentum. However, she told me that a parallel class she taught would not response to the chant at all.

If you want to see these kinds of triggers in action, have a quick look at this cool (though staged) presentation from Playworks.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.



Completely agree. I've taught in both the UK and the Thai education system. I too managed to 'almost' have control of my classes in Thailand by having fun activities and providing rewards and even old fashioned punishments like detention (agreed with parents).

Being alone with 35-37 eight year olds in a Thai school is a huge challenge of your sanity. No matter what you do, you'll find that the pupils show more respect towards the Thai guy fixing the aircon than the 'farang' teacher. I've seen Thai kids fight, heard them swear in English (quite a lot) and refuse to stop talking to their friends during a reading exercise (teaching reading to Thai kids can be a nightmare if you have a large group of low level pupils).

The reason for all of this is not always the teacher's fault. Nor is it really the pupils' either. It's the system as a whole.

Let's be honest. Thai kids have more 'respect' for Thai teachers for two basic reasons.

1. They speak the same language and can reason with their pupils.

2. Thai teachers tend to have big sticks they beat the kids with for as much as rocking in their chairs. We've all seen this.

Number (2), in my opinion, undermines any real hope of a western teacher controlling a large class of primary pupils if teaching alone. The pupils only react to this negative reinforcement. If they don't fear you, it's time to go nuts and do as they wish.

In my time teaching in Thai schools in the Thai system, I could manage to control most of my classes, but some were simply impossible. Sure, countdowns work for about 1 second. TPR can last a minute or two (if alone with very large groups).

Some subjects are easier than others to maintain control (Phonics/general English). Reading and writing or academic writing can be an absolute nightmare if you teach in a school with kids who only get 2-3 hours per week of English tuition. I've worked in schools that gave the kids books that were far beyond their capabilities. Books that merge several tenses, regular and irregular verbs and about 30 new vocabulary words for 7 year old Thai children. And the school gave us 50 minutes to get them to read 250 words and answer 3 pages of comprehension questions. All this, when the brightest pupils in the class are still getting to grips with using regular verbs in the present simple ("She like dog.") Yes, I suggested they change the books. I might as well have asked the cat.

The system is a mess, to be honest. If you see a job with classes of over 35 primary aged pupils with no assistant away! Particularly if you'll be using books way beyond the abilities of the pupils.

On a positive note, you can make a difference if you 'hang in there' and become creative with your lessons. But if you're forced to do 'pages 42 -45' of the reading and writing book today, when this book is clearly aimed at native English speaking pupils and not your 3 hours per week mob...don't look back!

By Wilf, Bangkok (15th February 2018)

Triggers? Sounds very Pavolovian. Maybe it works with dogs, but what is the attention span of a dog? Once you ring a bell or do a countdown, if you still expect your students' rapt attention for 5, 10 or 30 minutes, you're in the wrong profession.

By Guy, California (12th February 2018)

Hey, Steve. Thanks as a reader for taking the time out to write these articles.

How much experience do you have of teaching Thai children day in and day out? How much experience do you have of working with Thai management day in and day out? I only ask this as some of your ideas are great in theory, but simply wouldn't work in reality (within the Thai system).

One of the biggest things I had to contend with was classroom management. Being in control of 35+ kids with no assistant and speaking in a language that 70% of the kids simply didn't understand. I learned through experience. I got pretty good at it, and then I could focus mostly on teaching and the kids interacting. It was exhausting but completely worth it.

We had a lady from Kentucky come to take on a teachers' management role at my old school. She did six months and left. She said everything she'd learned in the States didn't/couldn't really apply here. Would love to know how to adapt these ideas for such a different culture.

By Tracy, Nomadicway (26th January 2018)

Setting clear boundaries using “triggers” from day one I believe is important. Once the kids have parameters that understand and realize they are in a safe atmosphere to ask questions and speak freely with positive support. My most effective method is simply stopping the lesson and being quiet. Positive reinforcement Is also extremely important in my humble opinion.

By Sam , Saraburi, Thailand (19th January 2018)

@Jim Beam

I find your resoonse kind of odd to be honest, and points at a flaw in your thinking, if I may say so. Am I correct in saying that you think this kind of approach is below that of a male? That’s absurd! Some of the best children’s performers are male. Yes, such techniques may not apply to a certain ability level or age group of student, but I think the sign of a good teacher is diversity: having the ability to tailor their approach to the audience at hand. I suggest you rethink your hiring processes perched on your pedagogical ivory tower. Just a kind thought, mind ;)

The article only offered a few ice-breakers and attention grabbers, nowhere in it did it say to don a monkey suit and play tarzan for the duration of the lesson...

By Nonplussed, Siam (19th January 2018)

This thinking pulls on traditional pedagogical thinking. Nothing new here. Question is any grown man teaching children this age, that would respond to - elephant noises needs to kill himself. Teaching K-2 is women's work and I don't necessarily mean that in an entirely bad way. At least for the women.

If you are the type of male that would take such a job. I'd never hire you for mathayom.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (18th January 2018)

Re post by Nonplussed, Siam.. I could not agree more. My classes are the same. The Thai teacher solution.. "Just put up with them."

By John Barry, Bangkok (18th January 2018)

All great in theory, but my students are mostly obnoxious, over-priviliged, rude, uninvested in their studies, and dismissive of foreign staff in general. The Thai mgmt don’t seem to offer any solutions either.

The kids are fearful of Thai teachers yet are dismissive of foreign staff, especially male gender. We’re talking about young kids here - they don’t start off life like that either, these attitudes are acquired whether via subtly xenophobic media, myopic parental world-views, or even how foreign staff are treated in their school system. This novelty Krusty the Clown role stems from somewhere and most are in on it and it doesn’t look like changing soon. This leads me to believe it’s cultural dissonance. Any of those suggestions in that article would be scoffed at in my classes.

Not to mention a precribed syllabus that is completely at odds with the happy-clappy sing-a-song approach the school stakeholders want us to pursue. The complete setup is thrown together without any thoughts regarding the whole, it’s a jigsaw of knee-jerk pieces thrown together and the foreign teachers are expected to be magicians to pull rabbits out of their arses and make them native speakers? Seriously, a ******* joke!

By Nonplussed, Siam (18th January 2018)

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