For new teachers one of the more intimidating aspects of teaching can be the thought of controlling a group of young learners. What if they cry, scream, throw a tantrum? What if they don’t listen to me? What if they constantly talk in their L1? These are all valid concerns and can definitely happen in the classroom if we don’t take careful steps to avoid them.
Some teachers can fall into the trap of mitigating these through niceness. This seems sensible: if I’m nice to them, they’ll be nice to me! Of course, being friendly is important with younger kids, especially when you first meet a group of students, but it’s not going to stop them from misbehaving. In fact, without clear guidelines on what boundaries exist in the classroom, niceness can make your life a lot harder. Other teachers try to talk to the students about their issues, but this can be tricky with a language barrier and with younger students.
Four years ago when I first started teaching at another school in China I had a class of very naughty 7 year olds. I quickly realized that I was spending more time shouting at them than I was teaching them. I’d leave the class feeling drained because just getting them to focus and do the simplest tasks was an uphill struggle. I knew that I needed to do something to control them but I didn’t have a good idea of where to begin.
Now, after I’ve learned a lot more about teaching ESL, I relish the challenge of taking an unruly class and turning their behaviour around. It’s a satisfying feeling to see a student disrupt the class, deal with that problem and see a really positive change in the student in the next class. I just wish I knew then what I know now.
At York English we advise all of our teachers to create a behaviour management system for each of their classes. The first aspect of this is to establish some classroom rules.
It’s up to you to decide on what rules you think are appropriate for the classroom. Some teachers here have just 1 rule (“be nice!”) others have many. Personally I would recommend more rules for younger learners as they need to explicitly know the do’s and don’t. Rules should be: visual (shown on the board or classroom wall), known by the students (and drilled into them) and use positive language (“Speak English” rather than “No
[L1]”). Every rule also needs to have a consequence. This is the second part of an effective behaviour management strategy.
If a student breaks a rule there needs to be a consequence. Consequences could include: taking away points from a student (or their team), separating the student from their peers, extra homework, staying behind after class or even speaking to their parents after class. The latter is the ultimate punishment in my eyes and is always a better idea than sending a student out of the class.
After a consequence has been given, threaten the next level. Did you erase points initially? Erase more for a repeat offender and if that happens again, have a third level of punishment ready. Punishments need to be progressively more severe. Let the students know this and it’ll serve as a deterrent so hopefully you won’t need to actually use them!
All of this only works if you are aware of student misbehaviour. This means developing your ‘teacher radar’. You remember at school your teacher had eyes in the back of their head? Those skills were honed through practice. Whenever they turned their back they knew who was most likely to misbehave and actively listened out for it. They spotted when anyone was misbehaving because they knew that the more unchecked misbehaviour there was the harder their job would be. This can take time to perfect but thinking actively about this and being aware of when students are most likely to misbehave gives you a head start.
The most important thing to remember about behaviour management is: the more preventative measures you take the better. Being reactive to student behaviour is exhausting and frustrating so set out your expectations early on so that you get to spend more time in the classroom teaching! And as a final point, don’t let all this talk of student behaviour put you off! By and large, all the students I’ve ever taught, and especially here at York, are lovely, well behaved and eager to learn!