Getting a KICK out of Classroom Management
with Young Learners – David Dodgson
When teaching young learners, classroom management is one of the most important aspects of our lessons. Good classroom management ensures we can create a positive and secure environment for learning, which in turn allows our young students to be enthusiastic and motivated about their lessons. Poor classroom management leads to every teacher’s worst nightmare – out of control students who don’t take our lessons seriously and have a negative effect on everybody’s chance to learn.
So, how can we manage our classroom space to ensure learning English is a positive experience for learners and teachers alike? Well, the first thing to remember is that there is no one right answer. Different classes and different students need a different approach and what works well in one class will not necessarily have the same effect in another. However, there are some points we can bear in mind to help us get a KICK out of working with our young learners.
K – Know your role (not your enemy)
One error I made when I first started teaching children was to view them as a threat. It was almost as if they were they enemy, always attempting to destroy my carefully planned lessons and I was therefore overly strict and trying to stay in control. This, of course, was not the right way to approach the lessons as it meant I wasn’t giving my students a chance to show me they could behave.
After spending some time around young learners, I ‘softened up’ and took a more friendly approach. However, I soon found this is not ideal either as it caused some students to not take my lessons so seriously as they saw me more as a friend or big brother instead of a teacher.
So that is why I say ‘know your role’ – make sure the students understand you are first and foremost their teacher. Lessons can be enjoyable but they are still lessons and the students must be prepared to work hard. As a teacher, you need to have the authority (not in a super-strict, domineering way but rather a controlled effective way) to manage the lesson and ensure the students both feel comfortable and eager to learn. How? Read on…
I – Invite student input
One of the most effective ways to help students feel enthusiastic and secure in their learning environment is to give them a voice in important classroom decisions. Even with primary school classes, this helps the kids feel valued and listened to. I do this right from the start of the school year when we establish our class rules. I explain my rules to the class (only a few, short rules so as not to overload them) and ask if they agree that these are good rules to have. If not, I ask for their suggestions, thus initiating a useful discussion about what rules are for and why they are important in schools.
Then, in the interests of fairness, I give the class the chance to set some rules for me. After all, I have given them some rules so why not allow them to do the same in return? The only criteria I give them are that they shouldn’t go against the school rules and they mustn’t take away from our learning time (to stop suggestions like “You must show us a film every week!”) I put the students in groups and give them some time to come up with some ideas. They then discuss them as a class as choose which ones they want to have. Usually, they decide on rules like “Do not give us homework on Fridays” or “no surprise tests!” – rules I am happy to abide by to set a good example for them.
It’s not just setting rules either. I also involve my students in other decisions as well: if we have a choice between doing two or more different activities, I ask them which one they would rather do; I offer the choice of working in a group, a pair or individually; they can choose if they would rather submit a project as a poster, a PowerPoint slideshow, or a video… These are all choices that help my students feel involved and help me have effective lessons.
C – Consistency is key
Whatever class rules and routines you have, being consistent is always important. One mistake I made early in my teaching career was to make too many changes when things weren’t going well in class. I would try to change the rules in the middle of the school year or change the way I approached activities but this only caused more problems. Some students were confused by my sudden switches in approach and others lost respect for the rules and me because everything changed too often. Of course, we need to make changes and be flexible from time to time but if we chop and change too often and at seemingly random times, it can do more harm than good.
We need to be consistent not just in the rules and routines we have but also in how and when we apply them. It’s all very well having a rule like ‘put your hand up before you speak’ but if you sometimes allow a student to shout out an answer or speak out of turn, the rule will soon lose its value for everybody. Gentle reminders about rules and routines as and when necessary are always useful. Sometimes, a brief ‘hands up please’ will be enough. Other times, stopping the lesson and talking to the whole class may be necessary but the important thing is to ensure you are consistent.
Routines for starting lessons and moving between activities are also very helpful, especially with younger children. Such moments act as a signpost for students, which can be vital if they are beginners with limited language. My students, for example, know I will always write the materials we need for the lesson on the board before the lesson begins (this helps save time and avoid unnecessary books taking up space on their desks). They also know that when I raise both my hands I want them to stop whatever they are doing. Whatever you do, make sure it is part of a regular routine in the lesson and it will be easier for the students to understand and remember.
K – Know your limits
Finally, it is vital to know the limits of what you can do in your role as a teacher. Whatever approach you take in class or whatever systems, routines and rules you have, you must be mindful of what is acceptable in your school or in the eyes of your students’ parents. It is all very well having your own rules or your students’ rules in class but they should avoid going against school rules or cultural expectations.
For example, I know in my current school that sending a disruptive student out of the classroom is not an option as it is against school policy so I find other ways to contain such (thankfully rare) situations. On the other hand, I also know that as a native speaker, my employers and my students’ parents want me to speak English with the kids as much as possible so they are happy to hear that I limit use of Turkish is class considerably (which also helps cut down on chatting between students!)
It is also important to be aware of your limits when making promises of rewards for good behaviour or successful completion of a task or series of tasks. If you tell your students you will show them a fun YouTube video relevant to the current in-class topic as a reward for their hard work, you should make sure that the necessary equipment is working, the Internet is available, you allot enough time in the lesson and that showing the video is not going to cause a problem with the school administration. If you can’t keep your promises, your students will be disappointed and that will not help maintain a positive environment for learning.
As I said at the start of this post, there is no single right answer when it comes to successful classroom management. However, if we can bear the above points in mind, working with our learners and within the parameters set by our schools, and be consistent and responsive, we can get a KICK out of teaching our classes and our kids can get a KICK out of their language learning experience as well.
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