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When Your Students Won't Stop Talking

Updated: May 10, 2020

In my first few years of teaching, student talking was like popcorn. I gave the class instructions for some kind of work; let’s say journal writing and for a few seconds, they did it. Things were quiet. Then, like that first kernel of popcorn, one student said she didn’t know what to write, so I walked over to her desk to help her. While we talked, two more raised their hands—two more pops—and said they were stuck, too. I signaled to them that I’d be over in a minute, but in the meantime, someone else was closing his journal, finished already. Another pop. The two who were stuck asked him what he wrote about. I would get frustrated and asked the students to be quiet. My philosophy was that "the room needs to stay quiet so we can concentrate", I told them.

Someone else had a question. Another pop. I squatted by her desk, and behind me, a conversation started between two others. Pop pop. Another journal closed while a different hand went up. "Okay people", I said, this time louder. "Let’s keep it down". And with rascally smiles, they turned back to their journals to pretend to write some more. At this point, it had turned into a game. Someone needed to sharpen their pencil. Pop. Someone else decided to race them over to the sharpener. Pop. In a matter of seconds, the whole room had erupted, a huge hysterical bowl of popcorn, exploding all around me, and I couldn’t find my way out. And then I yelled.

If this sounds anything like you, you’re not alone. I hear it from teachers all the time. One of the things they don’t teach us in our education courses is just how much students talk, and how hard it can be to quiet them down in order to get anything accomplished. To find solutions to this problem, I read an article by Michael Linsin, the creator of Smart Classroom Management and my go-to person for most classroom management needs. In another article he helped me to understand the causes of excessive talking, what you should be able to realistically expect from students, and how you can fix the problem. The first, two quick caveats are:

One: I believe students need to talk. People need to talk. So if you’re shooting for a classroom environment where students sit silently and do rote seat work all day long, where they never have an opportunity to talk to their peers, where they never get out of their seats, and where the work is not engaging, you are going to have problems.

Two: A big part of good classroom management is building good relationships with your students. If you haven’t taken the time to get to know them as individuals, if you mispronounce their names, if you regularly use sarcasm or make them feel stupid for asking questions, then they aren’t going to want to behave well for you. And that’s a different problem. So this post is based on the assumption that you’re planning engaging lessons and you have a decent relationship with your students. Without those two, these solutions might kind of work, but you’re still probably not going to love your job. Your question will be the same one I had " why is it happening?"

Why It’s Happening

Before you can solve this problem, you have to understand its cause. According to Linsin, excessive talking—talking that occurs during independent work time or direct instruction—happens for two reasons.

Reason 1: They don’t believe you mean it.

Despite the fact that you specifically tell students not to talk, deep down they don’t believe you mean it. “Or they don’t care,” Linsin says.

“At some point,” he explains, “Your authority has faded. If you’re able to teach to a quiet classroom in the beginning of the year and now you’re not able to, or if it happened right off the bat, then somehow at some point, the students’ respect for you and for the process, for the classroom, and your authority has faded.”

So even if they hear you, even if they understand that you want quiet at a certain time, they don’t believe anything negative will happen if they ignore your request. If they come to you with this behavior, it’s likely that it has just been part of their conditioning. “Because so many teachers struggle with this problem,” Linsin explains, “many after a while kind of throw up their hands and just decide they’re going to talk over students, they’re going to do their best to keep things as quiet as possible during independent work time, so the students come to you (from) classrooms where the teacher asked them to be quiet but doesn’t really follow up on it.”

Reason 2: They don’t understand what “no talking” means.

This one is going to be harder for teachers to believe, but bear with us here: “No talking” may not mean exactly the same thing in different contexts, and if your students are talking more than you want them to, there’s a good chance you’re working with different definitions. “When they come to your classroom,” Linsin explains, “and they’ve had teacher after teacher say the same thing, yet continue to allow it to happen in the classroom, then students think, Well, he or she just means we need to kind of keep our voices down, or we’re mostly quiet, but if we have important things to say to a neighbor, then we’re allowed to do that. And so they’re confused as to what the definition of ‘quiet’ really is.”

In many cases, Linsin notes, the problem is likely being caused by a combination of both of these reasons. But notice that neither reason is a blanket statement about students being disrespectful. This is why I like Linsin’s approach: He puts control for classroom management in the teacher’s hands, rather than placing blame on the student. That’s not to say that you won’t have disrespectful students, but shifting the blame to them means you have no power over the situation. Blaming the students simply isn’t a useful way to address the problem. “When students are not doing something that you’ve previously taught them how to do,” Linsin says, “whether it’s talking or entering the classroom, and they don’t do it well, even though the students are responsible for their behavior, when most of the class is not doing what you ask, it’s on you. It’s about you. There’s some disconnect there, there’s something they’re not understanding.”


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