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How Special Educators Can Use Cues to Boost Classroom Productivity

From time to time, in every classroom, a student will disrupt the class in the middle of a lesson. In most cases, the teacher can say something to change the student’s behavior, and the class moves on. But this does not work for all students.

This is where cues are most useful. They can do more than words to help steer students back to learning or discreetly stop unwanted behavior with minimal disruption. A cue can communicate different messages such as a command, positive or negative reinforcement, or information.

Benefits of Cues

Cues can boost productivity by communicating messages, limiting interruptions, helping students prepare for change, and encouraging students to do more of the desired behavior.

Cueing benefits the class in the following ways:

  • Allows instruction to stay on track.
  • Builds student confidence.
  • Occurs quickly.
  • Limits calling attention to student.
  • Maintains discretion.
  • Boosts student self-esteem.

More than half of all students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their time in the general classroom according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students in special education — and all students for that matter — in an inclusive classroom want to avoid negative attention in front of their peers. Cues can alleviate negative attention.

Some children need extra cues to receive certain messages. For most students, switching subjects is a nonevent, but for some, it can be stressful.

For students in special education, cues can do the following:

  • Ease transitions to new activities.
  • Allow them to participate.
  • Provide them with a sense of security.
  • Help them associate the cue with a familiar activity or event.

Involving the student in selecting the cue empowers the student. It also avoids offending students, as some cues may be perceived as offensive or disrespectful.

Finding the Right Cue

The right cue also depends on the senses available to the child and the child’s preferences. A child who is deaf is more likely to benefit from all cues except auditory ones, for example. On the other hand, a child who is autistic may be too sensitive for auditory cues.

Teachers can use the following different types of cues:

  • Auditory: Make sounds or use simple keywords.
  • Movement: Move toward student or communicate message such as acting out putting on jacket.
  • Smell: Associate scent with activities or people.
  • Touch: Use familiar objects like a stress ball and a key to indicate going to the bathroom.
  • Visual: Use signs, gestures or cards with a picture, like a stop sign.

Children with multiple disabilities may struggle to understand spoken words. Adding cues to spoken language will help their understanding.

Creating Cues

Teachers can develop different cues for an entire class and for individual students. Before implementing cues, take these steps to ensure the cues work and the students follow through.

  1. Review classroom rules. Teachers expect students to be seated on time and to remain quiet while they’re instructing. Reviewing rules before creating cues will help make sure the cue matches the behavior.
  2. Ensure cue is simple. Students need to be able to learn the cue without much effort and recognize it.
  3. Match cue to behavior and student preferences. Many know that touching your lips with your index finger means to be quiet. So it would not work as a cue to sit down. Students may be sensitive to sounds, smells, objects and other items. For individual cues, work with the student to select a cue.
  4. Introduce cue. Students need to know what the cue is and what it means before it is implemented. If a teacher plays a music box in the middle of class without explaining what the cue means, how will the students know what to do?
  5. Practice cue. Teachers can make this fun. For a cue to sit down, for instance, have students stand up and walk around the room until they see the cue.
  6. Reinforce response to cue. When a student or students take appropriate action on the cue, praise them for the actions taken based on the cue. For example, “James, thank you for sitting down when I tapped my knee twice.”
  7. Share cue. Let others who work with the child or class know about cues to confirm they use the same cues. Do not forget substitute teachers.
  8. Be consistent. If the cue is used only some of the time, it will lose effectiveness.

Here are examples of classroom cues:

  • Music box: Completely wind up the music box before the students arrive. Whenever students get off task, play it until they’re back on task. If there’s still music left at the end of the day, reward them.
  • Clock: Tell students that you’ll subtract recess or free time if they’re noisy, based on how long the noise lasts. Eye the clock or watch as a visual reminder.
  • Hands up: Raise your hand whenever the students get noisy. They’ll raise their hands too. Take it to another level by counting to five on one hand.
  • Calendar: The calendar boxes let students know what activities to expect, such as a book for library, music notes for music and a paint brush for art.

Here are examples of individual cues:

  • Double-pat knee: Sit down.
  • Pick up cup: Lunch or snack time.
  • Rub back: Good job.
  • Get out coin: Coins are “change” so it can represent changing activity.

Using extra cues in special education allows teachers to maintain decorum and communicate with children who may not respond to verbal statements. “The key to any successful classroom management plan is to think carefully about the goals you want to achieve and act confidently,” writes Beth Lewis in “Nonverbal Strategies to Quiet Down a Classroom.

Learn more about the UTPB online Master of Arts in Special Education program.


Classroom: How to Develop Non-Verbal Cues for Classroom Management

ThoughtCo.: Nonverbal Strategies to Quiet Down a Classroom

Nevada Dual Sensory Impairment Project – Department of Educational Specialties: Using Cues to Enhance Receptive Communication

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