Centers, Management

Music Classroom Management for Centers to Calm the Chaos

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Elementary music centers are one of the best things to ever happen to my music room, but they can be tricky. Classroom management in centers is completely different than classroom management in whole group situations, because the kids are working independently. There are a lot of things going on at the same time, and it can be overwhelming. 

The good news is that classroom management in centers is not as difficult as it seems– you just need to put a few things into place before you get started. 

I know what you’re thinking, “But she doesn’t have a school like mine!”

Yes, yes I do. 

I do not work at some perfect, magical school. My school is an extra fun one. The kind of school where people around town actually say things to me like, “Why do you work there?!” 

Yes, that’s a common conversation.

Note: I love my kids and school. I have been there for years and keep going back. I share this because I want you to see that my school has a well deserved reputation for being difficult. I am not in some magical school where students behave just because they do. 

I have been able to implement centers with success despite all of this– and they are the best thing to happen to my classroom!

If you’re ready to get started with centers, you can start by downloading The Ultimate Centers Ideas list. It’s completely free and has pages and pages of ideas for activities that you can use with general music centers– plus, it’s organized by topics including rhythm, treble clef, composition, instruments, and more. 

Click here to get instant access free!

a graphic that says music centers classroom management with a photo of an elementary music center featuring a rhythm composition activity in a post about classroom management for centers from becca's music room

First off…

Before you can have good classroom management in centers, you need a classroom management strategy where students know what they are expected to do and what will happen if they do not listen. You need to have relationships with the students so that they will want to do well.

And most importantly, you need to establish consistency.

My students know how to behave because we talk about it every. Single. Day. 

Seriously– it was the last day of school and we were still going over the expectations.

They also know that if they are not following expectations, they will get a yellow card and will not get to participate. Then an orange and they have to go to the back. And then a red and I will call home and they have silent lunch.

I am consistent with that every single day of the year, first through fifth grade. The result? They know not to play in my room, because I mean what I say.

If your kids don’t think you mean what you say, they will not behave in small groups or whole group.

You’ve got to have the follow through. 

If you need help with that, check out this post about classroom management here.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk. Let’s move on…

a graphic that says how to manage your kids during music centers in a blog post about classroom management for centers by becca's music room

What to say before you do centers

Before we do centers, I always explain not just what we are doing, but also the expectations. 

We have four classroom expectation, but we also have four special center expectations: 

  • Work the whole time
  • Be respectful to your group
  • Do not leave your group
  • Voices on level 2

Before we even start, they know exactly what to do. I tell them that this is how they will earn their points today, and points = game time, so they want that. 

Also explain what the centers should look like when they are finished (everything put away? Just leave it for the next group?). 

Remember, if students don’t know what’s expected of them they can’t behave. 


How will you rotate? This is always the most difficult part for me, because there’s a lot of people moving at the same time. Lots of movement means the perfect opportunity to do something that you shouldn’t be doing. 

Here’s how our rotations look:

  • We have a timer on the board for centers. When the timer goes off, we hit a one minute timer. I say, “1, 2, 3, 4, put everything down, get off the floor and FREEZE.”
  • During the one minute, they clean up and FREEZE. 
  • If they are cleaned and frozen before the timer goes off, they get a class point. 
  • I tell each groups where they are going next. They point to where they are going.
  • I say, “5, 6, 7, 8, hurry don’t be late,” and students move the the station they were pointing to and get to work.

I always have students freeze because:

  1. It makes it easy to see who is ready to switch. If everyone is moving, you can’t tell who is cleaning and who is just moving.
  2. Less movement means less opportunity to do something that you shouldn’t do or go somewhere that you shouldn’t go. 

Seriously. Freezing is the best thing to ever happen to you if you have more rambunctious kids. 

Also important: I place myself in the middle of the room while they rotate, so that I am in the center of the action. If you’re standing to the side, you’re asking for trouble. 

Also read: The Card system for Classroom Management

a graphic that says centers classroom management for elementary music from a post on becca's music room

Classroom Management for Center with Materials

Classroom management for centers also includes the materials. 

Games, manipulatives, dice, pencils, worksheets, markers, flashcards, centers can have so many things. 

When we do centers, I put everything into clear plastic shoe boxes from Micheals. They aren’t super sturdy, but they are cheap and they have lids, so they work. 

I store these on the bookshelf in the front so that they are easily accessed when it is time for centers. 

My centers bookshelf. The boxes are currently empty, but they are behind the xylophone.

I put these at each center while I explain them to the students. I also put a colored hula hoop at each station so that they can see the red station or the green station, etc.

When students clean up, everything should be neatly in their boxes and their boxes should be in the hula hoop. 

What about having students respect the materials?

First of all, never put anything valuable in centers. If we’re using instruments, it’ll be the rhythm sticks from 1985 or the plastic castanets that are pretty break proof. 

In addition, we discuss before hand that we need to take care of the materials. If someone does not take care of materials, they sit out with a packet of worksheets. 

Also, if there is a station I’m more concerned about, then I will put myself at or near that station to supervise.

Also read: Keys to Classroom Management

Classroom Management for Centers on the first day

I typically do a teacher group with centers, but on the first day, I don’t.

On the first day of centers, we are looking at the procedures more than the activities. I pick all activities that students can do on their own because they are easy (think: matching games) or they are activities that we have used before. 

I move around the room to ensure that we do not have any issues with students not following directions.

Students who can’t do it

I hate to say it, but even with the best classroom management in centers, there will still be some children who will not follow directions. They are kids. That’s their job. 

I make packets of worksheets for those students. If someone is rude about who they are in a group with, then they will sit out THE WHOLE TIME with worksheets. I do not play about that. 

If someone does something during centers, I have two options. If it wasn’t that bad, they get a yellow card and sit out one rotation, then I let them come back as long as they have calmed down. 

If they do something very bad, then they will also sit out with a packet of worksheets. 

Since my centers usually involved games and instruments, they want to participate, and that’s typically enough to get them to behave. 

Worst case scenario

Unfortunately, you may find some classes that just won’t cooperate. I’m sure reading that made you think of a couple– writing it made me think of a couple!

Whether it’s because they won’t work together or they are just so bad that you can’t trust them… I’ve been there. I have a fifth grade class one year that was so hectic they were not allowed to stand in my room. 

In that case there’s a few options that you can do:

  • Do less centers– maybe have half of the room do one thing and half do another.
  • Have the students do centers but move the materials to the groups instead of vice versa. 
  • Do one of the centers activities with everyone doing the same thing. You can put them into groups or even do the activities whole group.
  • Have all of the students doing one thing that’s simple (think: worksheet. Color by note is great for this). Call a few at a time to come to the front to the teacher group. This allows you to still differentiate without too many people moving at a time.
  • Don’t do centers.

You’re not a bad teacher if there’s a class you can’t do centers with. That’s ok. You’re the teacher, which means that you know the best what will work in your classroom. 

Do you have any tips for classroom management in centers? Let me know by sending me a message on Instagram @beccasmusicroom. I can’t wait to hear your tips. 

Don’t forget to grab your free Music Centers Idea list to help you get started! 

Click here to download free!

Happy teaching!


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