Simple Hand Signals that Work in the Classroom

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Using hand signals in the classroom will transform the behaviors and interactions of your students.

I know that’s a bold claim, but I’ve been using hand signals for classroom management successfully for years and it’s the secret weapon to changing the entire dynamic of your classroom.

Classroom management is how your classroom “runs” and how students interact with their environment, their peers, and you.

So on the first day of school, you set specific expectations, rules, and procedures in place to ensure your classroom runs like clockwork.

But what happens when unexpected issues arise like…

  • the inevitable bathroom emergency after lunch,
  • the productive sneeze, or
  • the almost right answer from a struggling student?

These situations can wreak havoc on an unprepared or inexperienced teacher.

That’s why you need a simple set of posters and corresponding nonverbal cues to ensure students are having their needs met, staying engaged, and encouraging each other without disrupting whole group instruction or causing unnecessary interruptions.

Hand Signals for Classroom Management

There are a number of different ways that you can use hand signals for classroom management, but my 3 favorites are for students needs, encouragement, and discussion.

Hand Signals for Student Needs

Hand signals in the classroom

Every single student that walks through the door of your classroom will eventually need to use the restroom, grab a tissue, or replace a broken pencil.

These things just happen.

So, I taught my students four nonverbal signals at the beginning of the school year that could used at any time. 

The basic needs signals were the ones my kids would hold up for me to see.

In addition to explaining what each number or hand signal meant, I also created visual cues in the form of hand signal signs that I posted at the front of the classroom.

These signs or posters were a great way to remind students how to communicate with me during class discussions without interrupting the whole class.

We used these consistently in my classroom, and each specific one meant something different…

  • Holding up the number 1 meant “I need a tissue.”  (This is kind of gross, but think about the nose-pickers and then the number makes sense.)
  • Raising crossed fingers meant “I need to use the restroom.”  (Think about it like a kiddo crossing their legs when they need to use the restroom.)
  • Holding up the number 3 meant ”I need water.”  (This is American Sign Language for the letter w.)
  • Raising a pencil in the air meant ”My pencil needs to be sharpened.”

Now let me clarify a couple of things about how I guarded instruction time…especially with the pencil signal.

If you have been teaching for any length of time, you know that students will do anything to get out of their chairs.

From younger students to high school students, every learner wants to find a way to get up.

And once the first student gets the “go ahead” to use the bathroom, they all suddenly have a bathroom emergency.

So to negate this, I made sure to clearly set forth the expectations and consequences of trying to “manipulate the system” from the very beginning of the school year so that students clearly understood what they could and could not do.

Students knew they were expected to grab a pencil before class started if they needed one.

If a student had a pencil break while completing an activity such as writing in their journals or filling out a ticket out the door, I would bring them a new one or allow them to get up and get one when they held their pencil in the air.

If for some reason the pencil wasn’t actually broken, they didn’t get a new one.

Implementing the use of hand signals for classroom management as a non-verbal communication method of basic needs between me and my students was absolutely amazing.

However, it wasn’t until I started incorporating hand signals into our discussions, that the entire dynamic of my classroom changed!

Hand Signals in the Classroom to Engage Students

interactive hand signals in the classroom

My favorite interactive hand signals were used during large and small group time to get everyone engaged in the lesson.

These were especially important for my active learners because the motions got their bodies involved in learning, and helped them stay focused.

I would ask a specific question and when a student gave the answer, I’d say, “What do you think, boys and girls? Do you agree or disagree?”

Then, my students would…

  1. Indicate “I agree” by holding up the ASL letter “y” and shaking it back and forth.
  2. Indicate “I disagree” by crossing their arms in front of their chests & making an x.

These simple questions allowed my students to stay engaged with what we were learning even if they weren’t answering a question, and it allowed my shy learners to become part of the conversation without having to speak out in class.

It was also an ideal assessment tool.

I could simply look at the hands and immediately judge who was paying attention and who knew the answer.

Then I would allow students to take the discussion even farther by having students explain why they agreed or disagreed with the answer that was given.

This was such a fun way to incite interesting conversations and debates about the correct answer.

And my students learned the value of respectful disagreements!

Hand Signal to Build Classroom Community

While helping students communicate basic needs and become more engaged in their own learning through the use of hand signals was fantastic, my absolute favorite interactive hand signal was one that my kids used to encourage each other.

​As teachers, we know the value of classroom community, but it isn’t always an easy thing to create with a group of unique personalities.

So one of the things we did in my class when a student was unsure about an answer or afraid they were going to answer incorrectly was encourage them to keep going.

This “keep going” signal was made by forming a fist with each hand and then rotating the fists in a circle in front of your chest. (Think of it like a boxer hitting a punching bag! )

I modeled how to do the signal with my students and then I would use it frequently with my young students.

But one of my favorite moments came when I looked up to see a student encouraging a peer by using the signal before I had a chance to do it.

Whenever I saw my students do this, I was elated because the kids were saying “you can do it” to their shy, anxious, or confused classmates without ever opening their mouths.

Then when a student did get the right answer after persevering, we would all celebrate that student by clapping for them and celebrating their success!

This created an encouraging and loving classroom community while simultaneously minimizing student behavior issues.

Hand Signal Posters for Classrooms

Because I believe so strongly in the power of hand signals, I had to create hand signal posters for the classroom in an array of styles, designs, and signals with a variety of skin tones.

These are designed to coordinate with any classroom theme, but they seamlessly blend with the other classroom decor items in my Rustic Wood Collection and Rustic Coastal Collection

The truth is, hand signals WILL work if you use them, but it can be hard to remember which signal represents what.

So I suggest printing your favorite version of my hand signal posters and posting them next to your whiteboard at the front of the room or in a prominent location.

Then consider adopting the same hand signals across all classes and grade levels (or even across the whole school) to create consistency and alleviate confusion for students and teachers. 

This is what we did when I taught third grade and it made teaching (and classroom management) so much simpler for all of us!

Overall Benefits of Classroom Hand Signals

There are so many more benefits than those that I have shared, but here are the ones that I think are the most meaningful.

Fewer Disruptions

I began noticing fewer disruptions and management issues with my “frequent fliers.”

You know the ones…the kids whose hands fly up as soon as someone else asks to get a tissue, go to the bathroom, or sharpen a pencil.

My students raised their hands to answer questions or give me a signal.

If I saw a signal, I knew exactly what my student needed. Thus, I could simply nod or shake my head without ever having to miss a beat teaching.

Quick Assessment + Discussion

I was able to assess my students’ understanding based on whether they agreed or disagreed with a specific answer.

And I was able to get even the most hesitant students involved in the conversation by simply asking if they agreed or disagreed.

Classroom Community

Encouraging students and helping them learn how to persevere is truly invaluable.

Incorporating the “keep going” signal creates an encouraging classroom environment and teaches students respect for one another.

​So in a nutshell, do I believe using hand signals for classroom management is important?


If you add these into your daily routine, you’ll find more benefits than I’ve even listed.

Yes, there’s a learning curve for you and your kids, and you might occasionally forget the signals. (That’s why you have the hand signal posters on the wall!)  

But, I promise if you use these hand signals for classroom management, you’ll reap positive benefits!