One of the most challenging aspect of teaching music to children is handling disruptive and off-task behavior. A perfectly planned lesson with engaging material, exciting activities, and meaningful learning objectives can turn into a moment of questioning one’s career or sanity with just a few children disrupting a class.
When I was an undergrad, we learned classroom management in the Ed department, from a former social studies teacher. While he was an excellent teacher, many of his suggested techniques were difficult to apply to an elementary music classroom.
Seating is the first place where norms of most other classrooms cannot apply to a creative elementary music room. Desks and tables do not allow room for movement activities, instrument ensembles, and collaborative work.
What does work in the music room?
- Rows – Some teachers use staff lines created out of vinyl tape (for hard surfaces) or Velcro strips (for carpet). Rows are nice for giving assigned seats and making a seating chart. This can certainly help with management issues, by separating groups that talk too much.
- Circle – If you ever have the chance to design a new music room, ask for a large circle in the carpet! Circles allow all students to see and hear each other, and create a natural flow into activities such as circle games, rotations, or taking turns in the center. Plus, with a visible circle on the floor, you can teach your Kindergarten classes to simply “follow the leader” to find a seat!
- Semi-circle – The semi-circle combines many attributes of the circle with the ability to all see to the front of the room. This is an excellent setup if you choose to use chairs or stools instead of having students sit on the floor, as the chairs can remain against the outside while leaving space in the middle.
- Scattered – Many activities call for students to have plenty of personal space. You can achieve this with little vinyl circles (there are several commercial options available) or by training the class on how to find their own space (stretch out arms without touching). Be sure to establish boundaries, so students don’t make choices like sitting behind instruments!
At the beginning of the year, it is important to establish a routine for your students.
- Greet at the Door – Regardless of how busy your schedule is, there is nothing more important for setting a positive tone than welcoming students to the class. This gives you a chance to greet them, give seating or opening activity instructions, and show them you are happy to have them there.
- Opening Activity – Many teachers establish an opening song, warmup stretch routine, or even silent meditation as the students enter. Experiment with different routines for different age levels, but give your routine several months to see if it is helpful. The goal is to clear away baggage (frustrations, fears, anger) that the students bring with them from other classes or their home life, and have everyone ready to make music and learn.
- Transitions – Children are naturally excited by much of the music classroom environment. They are not naturally careful. Anytime you are changing positions, especially when moving to instruments, it is important to not only discuss but practice the transition. The time spent up front to do this will save time later.
One thing that can ruin a class morale is when some students refuse to participate. Yet musical activities, especially singing and dancing, can feel very intimidating to students who are new to it.
- Inspire – Often you can achieve full participation by simply launching into an engaging activity, and starting with the most enthusiastic students. The first reaction to those refusing to participate can be to ignore, and focus on those having fun. See how many you can snag with an excellent lesson.
- One-on-One – Take aside those students who won’t participate and quietly explain your expectations, while acknowledging their feelings and concerns. Assure them that you won’t single them out or embarrass them if they are participating quietly with the class. A little heads up can really help them be prepared to be fully involved next period.
- Set the Class Expectation – Despite student hesitations or attitudes, the bottom line is that your class is an expected part of their education, and they have an obligation to do their job. A good strategy is to begin the year by doing a “My Job, Your Job” review of expectations. Let the enthusiastic students set the tone that everyone is expected to participate, and then hold them all to that expectation.
Respect is a very vague term, that is rightly criticized by many as being meaningless to our students. However, we can teach students exactly what we mean by respect, and use it along with participation as the foundation of our class expectations.
- Respect the Space – Teach students how to handle instruments carefully, practicing specific tasks such as removing xylophone bars.
- Listen to Each Other – Describe the different types of activities in the music class. For example, if one person is talking to the group, others should not interrupt, and raised hands should be used. On the other hand, if students are asked to collaborate in small groups, it is expected that they only avoid talking over their own group. Role-playing these situations can help students understand when it is appropriate to speak.
- Only Give Positive and Encouraging Comments – Teach students how to give each other feedback and suggestions without using hurtful phrases such as “I don’t like it.”
Children thrive on structure, and want to know what will happen when they don’t follow the expectations. If we don’t explain and follow-through with consequences, the students will understand that there is no authority.
- Keep it Simple – Consequences do not need to be draconian or cruel. Often, the best consequence is simply a “time out” or break away from the class activity. For the majority of students, this will be effective, as they will want to rejoin the class and the exciting activities you have planned. Also, whether it’s time out, writing a reflection, or something else, make sure the consequences you choose are easy to implement. If you make it difficult for yourself (such as finding students during recess to bring back in, or calling parents for minor issues), you may try to give more warnings and put off applying the consequence because you don’t have time to enforce it.
- Follow Up – Ask a student to stay after class, or visit with them during a time out, to discuss the behavior seen and better choices. Ask to hear their point of view, so they understand that you are listening. When appropriate (say, after 2-3 time outs for the same student), call the family and let the parents know what is going on. Discuss ongoing issues with your administrators, and ask for strategies that might work for that student.
- Be Consistent – It’s fine to give warnings/reminders, as long as you limit it to one. Being consistent can mean having many discussions and phone calls early in the year, but this will save you 10x the amount of teaching time later in the year. Also, be aware that students will quickly pick up on any variation in how you treat different students. While certain students may require specialized plans, be sure not to excuse minor misbehavior based on your own preferences of “good” students.
The creative music classroom is filled with intrinsic rewards in the form of exciting games, instruments, and challenges. However, it is always better to praise positive behavior than have to discipline poor behavior.
- Verbal Praise – A simple “Nice Job!” followed by some feedback on a project can really inspire students to keep working. Sometimes we can say “I like how ____ is sitting quietly” to indirectly remind others of the class expectations.
- Tickets – Many schools or classes use a ticket or “buck” system, where students can be rewarded with a quick slip of paper, which they can collect to turn in later for a simple reward item.
Nothing is more disheartening than the feeling of a class completely out of control. Yet most teachers will experience this at some point in their career at least once, if not multiple times.
- Stop and Take a Breath – It is pointless to continue on with content introduction when groups of students are being disruptive, disrespectful, or defiant. Often the simplest way to refocus the class is to stop, mid-sentence, and sit and wait. Many times the other students in the class will ask the disruptors to be quiet so that you can continue. This also gives you a new “starting point” for reminding of expectations, and a chance to identify individual culprits for using your consequence program. If a large group is arguing or talking, it can be hard to identify who should take a time out, but if you stop, get their attention, and remind them of the expectations, then you can immediately follow through with a time out for the first student that interrupts again. In order to truly have an impact on student behavior, it is essential to break it down into individual students, so that you can talk to them and their parents.
- Switch Activities – Sometimes waiting doesn’t work, and the class will continue to talk. Take this opportunity to find a highly-prized reward for students who are on-task. For example, send a small group of focused students to have free instrument playing time, or hand out tablets for music game time. When other students finally pay attention enough to realize what is happening, they will want to join in the positive activity. This is when you explain that these activities are rewards for focus and listening.
- Ask for Help – When you are overwhelmed, no one benefits. Ask your administrators and colleagues for solutions to help you get back on track. Invite the principal to come sit in the room and observe. If you do this proactively, the principal will hopefully understand that you are making an attempt, and will try to support you.
What are your go-to strategies for classroom management?