Letting Students Zone Out

Oh NO! My students are staring out the window, putting their heads on their desks, and doodling — they’re BORED! We’ve all experienced the disappoint of unengaged students, or worse, the fear our principal will come in and think we’re bad teachers. A sleeping student is a signal that our class is dull, that the student is misbehaving, that the classroom is out of control. But what if it didn’t mean that at all? What if that nap actually helped that student learn?

I know it’s strange for a product focused on Student Engagement to tell you that zoning out is a good thing, but that’s what I’m about to do.

3 Reasons to Let Students Zone Out

Students are Overstimulated
We all get the picture — students are constantly inundated with stimulus from ear buds, smartphones, TV, peers, continuous access to media, heavily scheduled, etc. etc.

That’s possibly a reason in and of itself but some of you might be asking, “So what if they are overstimulated, isn’t stimulation good?”

Thus, reason #2

Silent Time Lets Us Refresh
Our brains can only take so much before they are full. You can’t just keep pouring water into a full pot or it overflows. When students are given permission to zone out, their minds can rest so they are ready for more.

We can also think of this in terms of wait time after we ask our students a question. Many of us are probably familiar with the 3-second wait whereby we wait 3 seconds before calling on a student. This kind of silent time is important for many reasons. It gives students the freedom to let the question sink in. Some students just need a bit longer to compose their thoughts. While they might not jump to raise their hands, they might be very much engaged so long as they are given the chance. Without that silent time to let their minds ruminate, they might give up on trying.

Quiet Time is Important for Emotional, Personal Development
While our primary focus might be to teach our students our subject matter, we cannot forget that our students are whole human beings who bring their emotional, social, and familial problems to the classroom whether we like it or not. When these outside concerns get no attention, they can bubble up in explosive or unexpected ways. On the other hand, if we allow students moments of silence and solitude, we give space for these emotions to stretch and settle.

Who’s Got Time for Silence?

I know time is sparse enough as it is, but I would wager that the 5 minutes you take for some quiet time will be offset by time you get back with fewer behavior interruptions.

So What Does This Look Like?

Silence in the classroom could take several forms, but here are some good ways to get started.

Transition Silence
Transitions are hard on many of us (just transitioning from being in the car to being out of the car was often a challenge for my toddler). Students don’t often get much time between classes — they have to walk through noisy, crowded halls, get their next set of books, take a bathroom break, and rush to your class just in time to start in on a new lesson. Meanwhile, as teachers, we’re desperate to get everyone settled down and keyed into what’s happening. Instead, make the first 5 minutes a given. Everyone knows they come in quietly and find their seats. This is not a punishment, it’s a chance to have some time to yourself. You can set whatever parameters you want. Maybe you tell students this is time to get out yesterday’s notes and review, or a chance to unload their thoughts from the last class and passing time. Maybe you play some quiet music to help them settle in and maybe you tell them it’s ok to shut their eyes for a moment. Now, when you begin class, you’re starting from a place of calm.

End of Class Silence
Students just absorbed a lot of information during your class and are about to enter an even bigger world of stimulation when they go into the hallway. By giving them some quiet time at the end of class, you can encourage them to write down any thoughts they have from class that they don’t want to forget, or just to rest their minds a bit before they rush off to the next thing. You’ll be doing the next teacher a favor and you might just find they remember more tomorrow.

Mid-Class Reflection
Especially if you have a content-heavy class, it can be difficult for students to sit still and concentrate for 40–50 straight minutes. If you give them some down time in the middle of class, their minds have a chance to fully absorb the first ½ of class.

Taking time for silence may feel risky; you may be worrying about whether you have time to do it, about whether it will work, about whether students will actually be quiet, or about what your principal will think. But if you make silence a consistent part of your classroom, students will get comfortable with the routine and the benefits will become clear. The important thing is not to use silence as punishment; instead it should be offered as a healthy respite from an otherwise hectic day.


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