How to Stop Side Conversations in Three Easy Steps

Every teacher has a pet peeve or two when it comes to student behavior. For me, it’s students talking while I am talking. I never allow the problem to persist, yet as second semester progresses, I am, for some reason, still struggling with side conversations. I pride myself on my classroom management, yet I am having trouble with a couple of my classes and their apparent love of talking while I talk. Or when their classmates speak. Or during critiques. Or pretty much anytime else. Let’s be honest–nonstop chatter gets annoying, and it needs to stop.

I needed to fix this semester’s problem before it got worse, and I decided to go back to the classroom management basics. It’s good to revisit those strategies on a semi-regular basis, but particularly important when problems begin to creep up. I think I have the issue under control at this point (fingers crossed), and honestly, it wasn’t too difficult.

To stop side conversations, you need three things: a plan, a little bit of patience and persistence, and a positive attitude.

The Plan: Escalating Interventions

Escalating interventions are the most basic classroom management strategies, increasing your effort level as needed to stymie unwanted behavior. Begin by making eye contact and using physical proximity. If that’s not working, engage students by name and make them part of the discussion. If that’s still not working, directly address the problem. You may choose to do so during class, after instruction is over, or even after class. I don’t like to write office referrals, but the  option needs to be there as a last resort. It’s simple–nothing more than classroom management 101, but it needs to mix with some stubbornness and consistency on your part.

kids having conversation

Patience and Persistence

Remember some students need to be taught how to behave. This also goes back to the basics: you need to have clear expectations, model the desired behavior, and reinforce those behaviors in a positive way. This takes persistence, but it is well worth it.

It also takes persistence to consistently address troublesome behavior. Every time a conversation happens during your demonstration, stop and correct the behavior. Yes, kids may have less time to work. No, you may not get through all of the content you wanted or needed to. But that’s a small price to pay to fix behaviors that could otherwise plague you the rest of the year.

When side conversations creep up, stop talking until they stop. Send students back to their seats to practice again. Call them out. Stand closer to the offenders. Any and all of those strategies can work. But whatever you do, do not talk over your students. Once you get started down that road, it’s tough to change direction. Be patient and persistent in correcting behaviors until protocol for proper behavior has been established and consistently followed.

students taking selfie

Stay Positive

Remember to keep a positive climate in your classroom–for me, classroom climate is the most important tool to curbing unwanted behaviors. I don’t think punishments and book-work solve the problem long term, and threatening those types of things (if you don’t plan to follow through) can actually make things worse.

Try not to become overly emotional. Yelling at students will likely exacerbate the issue. This is a problem to solve–nothing more. Don’t let it escalate into some kind of personal, emotional battle or power struggle. A calm, collected teacher is more likely to have calm, collected students, and modeling behavior–even with subtle body language and a quiet voice–can do wonders to help your students.

Can you turn things around if these problems already exist? Of course! It takes just 3 easy steps:

  1. Simply and clearly address the problem with your class.
  2. Share your expectations for their behavior, and model that behavior.
  3. Follow through with your plan using patience, persistence, and positivity.

Side conversations are undoubtedly annoying, but they can be taken care of with some simple steps and consistency on your part. Even if the problem has persisted this far into the year, it isn’t too late to turn things around!

What are your biggest pet peeves and annoyances with student behavior?

What are your favorite strategies for stopping side conversations?

Tim is a high school teacher from Omaha, NE. His teaching and writing focus on the development of creativity, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking skills.


  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    Heehee, I’ve started using “cones of silence” which are kid’s orange safety cones I got 4 for 6 clams at Big 5. The hardest thing is remembering who I have warned about talking during studio work time. My classroom is pretty big and relatively self-directed to get materials, etc., plus I cruise around the class helping different students out, all of which can sometimes result in less art production which bugs ME! So I started putting a cone of silence in front of whoever was off-task talking. Now if I have to talk to them again, I just tell them to Van Gogh to the desk in the hallway or give them an office referral. Because I have a lovely visual reminder…oh, and the student does too, the cone of silence helps us all “make art not friends!”

    • Tim Bogatz

      Haha! I love this!

    • Janet S

      Hi Melissa,
      I was wondering what grades you use the cones for? I wonder if it would work for middle schoolers. Does the Cone of Silence mean actual silence, or simply to keep voice appropriate level, or on task conversations?

      • Melissa Gilbertsen

        I teach 7th and 8th and they seem to like it pretty much. The cone might mean silence if being off task for this student is an issue (way irritating me and/or others) or it might be a visual reminder to keep voices to appropriate level. It depends on the situation. My big issue is I hate being an enforcer which crabs me out instead of focusing on the one-on-one help my students need. But I also detest lost work time!! Arrrgh, I’m sure I will figure it out 5 years from now as this is my first year, but it makes me batty.

        My question for other art teachers is am I normal (?!) for trying to keep voices off while we are independently working? I hate off-task conversations as it means there’s little quality art production going on. I do encourage art-related discussion, as long as it is quiet and to the point. I try to remind them that their peers have good ideas and can give advice – instead of only me. I hear that many other art teachers don’t care about talking but it seems like it would cost us time working. I would love to hear how other teachers see this issue.

        • Wendy

          This is my challenge with my k- 4 students. They love to use art time to socialize. My rule is focus on the work: a little bit of talking if it’s about the project is alright but this is getting abused and then I have silent work time. I explain that there brain does best when single tasking but I still don’t get the focus. Suggestions?

      • Melissa Gilbertsen

        Well, it depends on what’s okay for your independent work time. I have middles and find talking escalates too quickly = less productivity, so I’m more silence while working. The kids that talk after a warning get a cone on their table and can’t talk or I take a point for the day from the student for participation. If you’re talking, you’re not on task, therefore you’re not participating. I am using Michael Linsin’s ebook “Smart Classroom Management for High School Teachers,” which is also well suited to 7th and up. You could choose to have the cone as a table warning of too loud, but probably have to create a poster to show what levels you are cool with and then practice it with them. Another way you might use it is it serves as a warning to individual students/entire table and then instead of warning again, give them the consequence, ie; move to individual seat by themselves; lost daily point for studio behavior (daily mine have 2 for listening, 2 for participating – check Linsin book for more details); or detention…it’s whatever you may find would suit your management style.
        I took the Classroom Management class here on AoE this summer and I’m feeling more confident about how I will be approaching discipline this year. Again, it’s got to work for your expectations. I have 45 min classes so if we’re not doing discussion stuff, it’s silence and focus! Hope this helps!

  • Lauren

    Excellent recommendations Tim!!

    I always simply state,”Waiting on you.” until they are silent and I remind them that “I will not talk over you”. I also reinforce the fact that they, the students, expect me, the instructor, to listen each and every time they have a comment or questions (they like to be heard! we all do!!) AND I DO therefore I expect the same in return. Most of the time, this nips the side conversations in the bud.

    • Tim Bogatz

      Lauren–that’s a great point about kids’ expectations for you, and a great reminder that we can give to them. Thank you!

  • Ms. Gina

    Can you describe how you would model the behavior? My intention is always not to go on teaching until they are all quiet, but then I start to have students who have been waiting say “can’t the good kids just do art”.

    • Tim Bogatz

      Modeling behavior is usually proactive for me–demonstrating and talking them through the steps of how I want them to enter the classroom, for example. I also will say something before I start a presentation to the effect of “remember that I need your full attention because . . . ”

      You can also call out kids who are doing things right–the whole “catch them being good” thing, and compliment or reward those kids. You could even say “I love how Jessica and Jennifer have been listening this whole time, so they can get started”, then use that opportunity to remind the rest of your class what good behavior looks like.

      Lastly, I wouldn’t just wait until they are all quiet. Tell them why you are waiting, and what your expectations are. Then, once they meet those expectations, remind them why you were waiting and remind them of what they should have been doing before you proceed with your lesson.

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