Have you ever had a class with so many difficult, disruptive students that you felt that you could barely even teach? What can you do to get past it? How can you get control of a group when you are completely outnumbered by children that are hurting with issues beyond your control, and the administration is already doing all they can to help you? In this post, I am going to address this problem with my best advice, and some advice from others as well.
Last week, the question below came in as a blog comment from a teacher that is struggling with a situation such as this. I posted my answer below, as well as some advice from others that was posted on my Facebook page/Instagram as well. All questions and answers are posted anonymously to protect their privacy.
Question: “I am a music teacher of K-2 students. I taught K-6 music for many years before changing to my current position. Sadly, poverty, addiction abuse and neglect are a large part of the lives of many of my current students. Many students are hurting and angry. I am encountering behavior issues that are a challenge and would like some tips. I use the Kodaly music method which means I meet them at the door and we are active and singing from the moment the kids enter the room. We change activities every 4-5 minutes so I do not think they are not bored:) I only see the kids once a week for 40 minutes. Most of my kids are engaged and learning. However, I have a few in every grade whose behavior is very disruptive. Some kinders will come in and within a few minutes start screaming, climbing on risers/ chairs and running and jumping off, abusing instruments, etc. The behavior is so loud that the others cannot hear me. Even though, classes are active and moving there are times when I am teaching from the board , reading music, sight singing, rhythm examples etc. and I need them to hear my example and I need to hear their responses. I have clearly defined boundaries and expectations. We earn rewards as a class and I also choose a star student at the end of each class. I try not to reward this negative behavior with attention, however, I do try various strategies. I try ignoring it, talking to them about what they are feeling, giving brief time outs, whispering in their ear about their choices, rewarding better efforts with special music activities, giving them jobs to do for me, sending them on errands, rewarding others who are behaving, etc. These are all things the principals and counselor have suggested. They are very supportive but are overrun with behavior issues each day. They say to call to have the child removed but often it is a long time until they arrive. How do I keep my class from being hijacked by one student when this happens? I feel very frustrated that the one time I see them, they are robbed of their lesson. I know the best way to stop this extreme behavior is to not let it start to begin with:) However, sometimes certain kids will arrive "hot" and primed to blow and I have no time to try to calm them. Many teachers will not bring these students if they are already upset, but some will send them in to me. I feel very frustrated that the time is limited and then not productive when this happens. It is especially hard when we are preparing a musical and the lesson is taken over by a student. I really appreciate any advice you can give!”
Wow, it seems like you really have a big challenge there! I wish I could tell you a magic formula, but it sounds terribly difficult and you have already named the things that I would have told you to try! It's too bad that so many of them come "hot" and ready to blow when they arrive. What about a few minutes to calm down with some soft music and some mindfulness activities before you begin? Keep in mind that with children that have so many issues and challenges, you will probably not get as much done as you might like. So take it in stride, and give yourself permission to give them what they need. I don't think that ANYONE would fault you for that!
Also, it sounds like your music curriculum is fabulous, but is not working for your group. I would adjust your music so that it includes selections that they can relate to and enjoy! You'll probably get more cooperation if you use music that they REALLY like! Maybe you can do the same activities and lessons with music that is meaningful to them? Ask them what music and artists they like. See if they can help you plan some activities. Perhaps if they have some ownership in their lessons, they will be more invested in them.
Let them spend some time talking about what is bothering them. I know that you are supposed to be teaching music, but if their emotional needs are not being met, are they going to learn anything anyway? Also, maybe they could write a rap or new lyrics to an existing song to express the situation that they are in. Or, perhaps you can find some songs that address the problems they are experiencing?
I had an extremely difficult class when I taught second grade last year, and I tried (what seemed like) a HUNDRED positive things to help them behave. Nothing worked, until I finally put my foot down and became "Mrs. Meanie." I kept a list of names on my white board and just started putting tally marks next to each name when they misbehaved. Each tally mark represented a minute of recess lost. I really HATED to do it, but it was really the only thing that they cared about! And guess what? It worked!
The kids in my difficult class stopped “ganging up on me” just as soon as I was able to hold them individually accountable for their behavior in a way that was meaningful to them. And I really do believe that the group was much HAPPIER because the class was calmer. Kids know that they are not supposed to be in charge. Kids like rules, and they like them to be enforced, because then they all feel safer. They all know exactly what will happen every day.
I recommend that you find SOMETHING that they like and save it for the last five minutes of your class. Make a poster for each class with names so that you don't have to write them down to keep track of who is misbehaving, because that takes too long. Laminate it, and then start making tally marks next to names with a dry erase marker. It could be a favorite music activity or a treat of some kind, etc. Be strict and relentless about who loses this time so that you are totally consistent, or it will not work.
When it was time for my kids to give me that time that they "owed," they had to sit quietly for that minute or I would not erase that tally mark. I just set a timer for one minute and then erased one tally mark by each name for each minute that passed, provided that the kids were behaving. Then, in order to get up and join the group, they had to tell me what they had done wrong, or they could NOT go.
"I discovered http://wholebrainteaching.com and, even though I had already been teaching for 30 years, I got a lot of great ideas about classroom management, engagement, and keeping kids on task. Most of the stuff on their site is FREE! I'm NOT an affiliate & so I get nothing for promoting this. It's just good stuff. :) Hope this helps."
"As far as abusing instruments, out of sight = out of mind. Kindergarten students don’t have a lot of impulse control. Cover large instruments like xylophones or large drums with a thin sheet or fabric. Put instruments away unless you are using them. Use one or two instruments in a lesson. Use them as a focus. Demonstrate how to play them, get their attention with it and allow those who are listening and obeying the chance to play the instruments. Otherwise no instruments. My rule was mallets it sticks on your shoulders while I’m giving instructions. After a warning, I simply come and take your mallets away. I do not bend on this rule. Use puppets and musical stories to draw their attention in. Children love to be read/sung to and a puppet is an added benefit. Use your Kodaly games and play parties as rewards. Remember your training of relaxation after concentrated thinking. That’s what those games are for. Singing games as well as movement games that allow for all play, not ones where students 'get out' or there is just one who is 'it'."
"Don’t forget to take the time to directly teach and practice expectations. How do we enter the room? What does good listening look like, sound like, etc. think of everything that needs to be done in your class and teach and practice that behavior. You’ll get to a LOT more music instruction in the long run."
"I work with the same population of kids as you. The number one thing is to build a positive relationship with the kids! It’s hard to see them once a week and build a strong relationship. I suggest going into classrooms during non music time so students can see your face. ☺"
"I am an artist in residence in schools. I have a limited time with students I do not know, of all abilities that I do not know, so I start the class with 4-7-8 breathing so we are breathing together. The students like it, and the counting brings us together."
"If the regular teacher knows a child is having a bad day, and doesn’t want to take them because it’s their prep or they just need a break, maybe see if they can take the child directly to an administer or buddy room rather than having to call and wait. I’ve also noticed that a lot of these types of kids will actually sit and do well on a computer or iPad. If you have one, you could try putting them on an educational website like abcya while you teach the rest of the class. And my last suggestion that I didn’t see you had listed was to call the parents. See if they can come in during your class and give you tips/advice on how to improve behavior. A lot of times parents will realize something is amiss, and maybe a doctor/meds should be in the works. Make sure you’re documenting the behavior and get the child study team at your school involved. Maybe they could assign an older kid as a mentor to the younger one who can also help out."
"Sounds like you are doing a great job musically and are rewarding good behavior. Unfortunately you are going to halt teaching music and teach discipline first before they have the privilege of learning music. I’m not an expert in elementary level teaching but if I were in this position I would start with what many elementary teachers do after recess and lunch to calm the kids down. They put them in a line before they can enter the room. When they are ready to go in properly they go to their positions and begin a lesson. If some are disruptive it’s back out to the line. So use a whistle to get their attention and some use the silent raised hand technique. It may be worth a try and be less frustrating once you establish discipline. The music lessons will ultimately go quicker and be more productive."
I have been teaching primary grades for 21 years, so I totally understand the type of kid you are talking about. I think that since you are the music teacher, it is only your job to maintain reasonable discipline. For kids with extreme behavioral issues, the teacher should be required to stay in the room with you and deal with the one or two extremely disruptive children as needed. Some kids respond to the promise of a sticker or hand stamp for good behavior, so you can try something like that as well.
Have a good week! :) Happy Summer Vacation!
P.S. If you liked those videos, click to see all my Music for Classroom Management materials that might help with an unruly class! :)