Whether we’re out on a first date, or interacting with new acquaintances at a party, most of us tend to dread silence and awkward pauses in conversation. While we may not welcome silence in social situations, Rob Barnes, author of The Practical Guide to Primary Classroom Management, would argue that silence, when used deliberately and strategically, can be one of a teacher’s most effective classroom management tools. So what is Barnes’s Dramatic Pause Strategy, and how do we put it into play?
The critical feature of the dramatic pause strategy is to use a deliberately-placed stop immediately following a strong attention signal (this could be a clap, a bell, a sharp rap on your desk top). The idea is to maintain your pause and silently insist by using eye contact until all chatter and fidgeting stops.
If chattering persists, say—and repeat—something like, “I can’t see everyone’s eyes.” Now pause, repeat the phrase with slight surprise in your voice, and insist.
A note about your signal: Let’s say your strong signal is to clap your hands…in this case, always be sure that the pace of your clap is slow and dramatic. Otherwise, your three loud claps will really seem like one. Clap your hands at a pace of one loud sound per second, followed by a one or two-second pause before instructions. If the pause seems uncomfortably long, you’re probably executing the strategy just right!
A common error some beginning teachers make is getting sucked into responding to student questions after they issue their strong signal. The key is to ignore these questions and keep strictly focused. If you want to add a gesture, make a non-verbal “stop” or “pause” signal with your hand so that the student sees it. You’re not being rude, you’re simply saying, “Not now.” The last thing you want to do is encourage students to gain your attention when you’re trying to gain theirs!You need full attention, nothing else.
Remember, if you put up with chatter and speak loudly over your students, they will eventually conclude that you are willing to compete with them. Some teachers actually pause for extra effect once they have got attention. They also stretch a mid-sentence pause as long as they can. This is only acting, but it has a strong controlling effect on a class.