Needs Focused Teaching

Seven Ways to Get Students to Follow Your Instructions



i) Make sure you have their full attention before giving instructions

Make sure they are looking at you and not fiddling with a pencil, turning around, looking at a book, etc. One quite ingenious way of getting eye contact is to hold your pen up in front of you and then move it slowly so that it is in front of your face. The pen will attract the student’s gaze and they will then follow it until their eyes are in line with yours. It works – like magic!

ii) Be congruent

Congruence is the process of making sure that the silent messages we give through our facial expressions, body language, voice tone, pitch and volume clearly match the actual words we use. When you’re being congruent, all aspects of communication are in sync. In short, we clearly mean what we say.

Our students will read everything about our approach, our gestures and the way we look at them before we actually start to speak and if we get any of these crucial aspects wrong they will have decided to listen, switch off or retaliate before we even open our mouths. It is the silent messages we unconsciously give that are often at the root of students’ decisions to behave as they do.

Are we giving them the message that we are tired and worn out? If we do there’s a good chance they’ll either ignore us or push a little harder to tip us over the edge when we ask them to do something they’d rather not. Are we giving them the message that we’re angry with them? If so they might well turn against us completely. Tougher students might retaliate there and then while the more timid ones might hold a grudge and seek retribution at a later date. In either case, they are unlikely to behave as we would like and at best we will get reluctant compliance.

The way we give instructions has a massive impact on how students respond to them. We can give the impression that we are a pushover, a threat or a leader depending on the silent messages we give out. Use assertive body language – claim your space in the classroom, adopt an open stance, use a calm, measured speaking voice and avoid frowning, scowling or pointing.

iii) Make sure your instructions are clear and unambiguous

Students need to be told exactly and specifically what you want them to do.

“John, you need to stop tapping your pen, stop swinging on your chair and look this way.”

…will have more chance of getting the desired outcome than:

“John, stop it!”

A request like this leaves us open to questions…

“Stop what, miss?”

…and then before we know it, we’re into an argument.

Avoid vague terms like ‘quietly’, ‘properly’, ‘sensibly’ and ‘respectfully’. What is sensible to them isn’t necessarily so to them. For example:

“Get on with your work quietly please.”

Straight away we have opened the door to more confrontation. For one student ‘quietly’ means ‘whispering’ while for another it means talking in their normal speaking voice. Another student might take this as meaning there is no real rule on noise levels at all. And what you probably meant was ‘work in silence’!

In each case, a student who is challenged for making too much noise or swinging on their chair will almost certainly protest that they are “working quietly” or “sitting properly”. It’s not surprising that vague instructions like this don’t always result in the behaviour we want to see and are often a source of arguments. Wherever there are ambiguous instructions there will be a student breaking the rules.

To make sure the students keep within the noise levels or sit appropriately we want we would need to clarify what we mean by ‘quietly’ or ‘properly’. Younger children might need a tangible representation of the word – they could be shown a ruler and told to use their ’30cm voices’ or their ‘partner voices’ instead of their ‘yard voices’ (yard being the big concrete thing they play in, not the imperial measurement). For older students we might simply clarify our instruction by demonstrating the volume we are referring to.

To get a student to stop swinging on a chair more explicit instructions are required:

“John, sit on your chair like everyone else so that all four chair legs are on the floor.”

It may sound pedantic but it avoids opportunities for the ‘I am sitting properly’ arguments.

iv) Smile

It takes the sting out of your instructions for students who rebel against authority and it shows you are confident.

v) Ask them to confirm that they heard the instructions

“Darren, what did I just ask you to do?””Kyle, tell me what I just said please.””John, repeat the instructions please so I know you heard me.”

This is the key step because once they’ve told you, they can’t ever come back at you with “I didn’t understand” or “I didn’t hear you”.

vi) Give them a reason

In 1978 a group of research psychologists investigating human behaviour tried to determine the factors which make people more likely to do favours for others. They set up an experiment involving a photocopier machine and tried three different approaches to get people to let them jump the queue:

  1. Request only: “Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier?”
  2. ‘Made up’ or irrelevant reason: “Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier because I have to make some copies?”
  3. Real reason: “Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier because I’m in a terrible rush?”

So a third of the time they just asked to skip the line, a third of the time they gave an irrelevant reason (of course they were there to make copies!), and a third of the time they actually gave a real reason (‘I’m in a hurry’).

The research yielded interesting results. When the researchers gave a reason for wanting to queue-jump they were allowed to do so far more than when simply making the request without a reason. The most surprising part of the study was that it didn’t seem to matter what the reason was – a totally irrelevant reason (‘Can I go first? I have mice at home’) worked just as well as a legitimate one.

The point we can take from this study in relation to our classroom management strategies is that when making a request for a student to do something, we should back up it up with a reason:  ”Can you do this please… and this is why it would be a good idea”).

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good reason… “Get on with your work because otherwise you won’t get it finished” should work just as well as “Get on with your work otherwise you’ll have to finish it at break”; and will undoubtedly stimulate fewer arguments and protests.


“Help me by quietening down please, I have a hangover headache”

…rather than snapping “Be quiet!”

“Line up please, because we’re running out of time.”

…rather than “Line up please.”

Giving them a reason for doing something also means you can attach importance to the instructions without coming across as officious and bureaucratic:

“When you come to see me at lunch time get here for 12:30 so we can sort this out without it interfering with your lunch too much.”

…rather than

“See me at lunch time, without fail.”

Play around with it and see what happens… but don’t get carried away or you might get in trouble (“give me your dinner money because I’m badly paid” will almost certainly make you unpopular on yard duty).

vii) Use ‘closed requests’.

Starting a request with ‘thank you’ before they’ve done what you’re asking them to, gives the clear impression that we expect them to respond positively. We all know the effect of positive expectations so it comes as no surprise that requests phrased in this way tend to give favourable results, often having a quite magical effect on students.

“Thank you for lining up straight away.”

Sometimes people don’t pay attention to the information they are receiving; only the structure of phrasings and sentences.  If you can fit your request inside a structure that people are used to complying with, there’s a good chance that they’ll comply. By following up with some quiet 1:1 praise we can cement the fact that the student has successfully followed instructions.

“Thank you for doing as I asked – it makes my job much easier.”

For more classroom and behaviour management scripts and responses like this to help you succeed with challenging students, jump over to our breakthrough teacher resource:

It’s available right now. Click Here for access

Fathi says 12th December 2013


Great ideas. Thanks for sharing

Lalitha Srikanth says 12th December 2013

Thanks for your wonderful workable suggestions!

CKing says 12th December 2013

In addition, usually visual aids can be helpful as well especially for students who need additional aids to process information.

Mads says 11th December 2013

Great advice. I have a suggestion for expecting compliance that people find odd, but have tried and works. When a student hands me a report card at the start of lesson, I, in a very surprised voice, ask why on earth they need to be on that ?! I interrupt before they get started on the reasons, and tell them to just write an A in (or whatever is highest expected grade) and my subject, date etc, and just say “that way I can quickly sign it at the end when the lesson is over to save you hanging around”. I do this very matter of factly, as If I haven’t really needed to think about it. I have never once had to change the mark to a lower one. Students just accept that they are expected to do well as I have indicated they will. There is no room for discussion. They want the A, so they have to behave so I don’t change it and the exta bonus is they don’t have to wait around at the end for me to write it in and decide how well behaved they have been, which is rather demeaning really. They keep their head down so I don’t notice them all lesson other than to answer questions when asked!!

I’m not saying it will work for everyone, but it does for me!

Carole says 11th December 2013

Thank you for these – they are so “do-able” – looking forward to seeing the results!

Noor says 11th December 2013

Thank you for sharing ideas. I think I might try the pen trick. It looks interesting.

Chesneylynn says 7th March 2013

I can see where i’ve been going wrong! Something so simple could get rid of that horrible ‘knot’ feeling I get when I feel I’ve spent the entire day repeating instructions the children haven’t followed. I’m a supply teacher, and using instructions in the way you have suggested will give them less room to ‘play-up’
Thank you!!

Katgancr says 4th March 2013

thank you! I love your ideas

Mrs Macca says 1st March 2013

I find it powerful to follow up a request by saying ‘Thank you for understanding what I have asked you to do’. They usually grudgingly acknowledge that they have understood, and then comply, or, if they say they do not understand, it gives me an opening for a detailed explanation of what they should be doing and why, which soon has them complying just to shut me up!

Nandita says 1st March 2013

Loved the follow-the-pen idea. I sometimes sing “I want listening” in tune to “Frere Jaques” and it works well too (often before I reach the 3rd line – maybe they just want me to stop hurting their ears!)

Jeannie says 28th February 2013

Thank you so much for all of your WONDERFUL suggestions!  I will try the pen trick.  The mystery student thing is working quite well for my classes!  I am a 45-year-old 1st-year teacher (8th grade science), career-changer (lateral entry, MBA in Healthcare Mgmt, 17 years in that field, where I spent most of my career training adults), and I can’t begin to tell you how much I look forward to your new ideas.  After I recommended your site to my principal, he sent it out to the entire staff – so I am sure it is spreading around our entire (huge) school district by now.  You rock! 🙂

Songsaturnseven says 28th February 2013

I am always grateful for the good tips you share, and have learned a lot from you. Thank you for sharing. 

Tatigeri says 28th February 2013

Thank you for your valuable comments.  I don’t intend to be authoritative and unkind but I don’t always thank them or explain why we do things.  I tend to assume that children know how to behave but as we all know most of them like to push our buttons.  However I do have beautiful individuals (maybe 40 %) who know how to behave and why they come to class which is to succeed. I am grateful to their parents for having instilled in them good manners and a desire to better themselves

margot says 27th February 2013

Thanks for the great tips! Sometimes it hard to admit our class is a reflection of ourselves and the message we are giving! 

George says 27th February 2013

Thanks, very helpful.

Hey-Dee says 27th February 2013

Have pinned it – thanks! Sensible and practical advice as always!

Sammy_luces says 27th February 2013

I’ll share it!

Vellapani says 27th February 2013

Good suggestions.  I tried them and they worked!

Peta says 27th February 2013

Will bear these in mind! Thanks for some raising some pertinent ideas.

Terry says 27th February 2013

Thanks Rob. Despite being a seasoned secondary teacher, sometimes the mix of a class can be quite disturbing and its good to have a fresh reflection on why something is not working. I’ve picked up on a subtle message I may be giving one of my classes from one of the points in this blog. Here’s to you.

Mariethe63 says 26th February 2013

Thank you so much Rob for what you are doing for the profession. I am a retired teacher but I still read your articles and watch your videos because I am the president of a knitting club ( yes!!) and they are the noisiest group I have ever heard and your startegies work wonders! I have never tried the ‘pen’ but will do next time I address them!
Seriously speaking,I give the link to your productions to many young teachers I know because They are so unhappy some times and They need help which they find with what you do! SSo , thanks again and carry on with your good job!

MPal says 26th February 2013

Always good to have these top tips clarified. I just need to remember to use them! Thanks

Babanath Hsn says 26th February 2013

Wonderful strategies if sincerely followed since I strongly feel these tips are like a gust of fresh air into a sick bed-room. Thanks a lot.

Nataliya says 26th February 2013

Thank you for your ideas and i try to use them in my siruation here in Ukraine.

Simon says 26th February 2013

Thanks, as ever. You do a great job, Rob.

Linda Gordon says 26th February 2013

I’m going to try the pen trick and see what happens. I like your other ideas too. Keep them flowing !

Maryna Pt says 26th February 2013

Excellent advice, just what I need and to be reminded of. Thank you so much.

Regards, Maryna Potgieter

Rebecca Ithaca says 26th February 2013

I like the pen trick for getting attention and the idea of giving a reason (even if it is completely stating the obvious) and in a positive way: Thank you for getting right to work so you can finish before lunch.

Patty Smathers says 26th February 2013

I use the “thanks” in my requests often, and it does work!  I am a substitute teacher, and it is a difficult job.

MissJean says 26th February 2013

I’ll try the swinging on the chair comments first thing tomorrow with my worst offender. Thanks for the tip.  I usually tell my lot  a story about a boy I knew when I was at school, who broke his neck falling badly from a chair.  That doesn’t work…… 

Laura V Mora Alpizar says 26th February 2013

Thanks! I am starting my work as teacher and your ideas are helping me a lot!

Heather Thomas says 26th February 2013

For kids who are off task, I usually use the “First…Then…” Method. First we are going to finish our journal, then we will can get a drink of water/silent read/etc.

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