This post may contain affiliate links. You pay the same and I get a small commission. Yay! (Please see my/our full disclosure for further information.)
Classroom management is a term used to describe keeping a classroom full of children functioning throughout the day. This includes all of the rituals, routines, structure, and more that allows you to keep your classroom running. But classroom management for elementary music teachers is a a little bit different than for classroom teachers, so after this post you’ll have some tricks you your sleeve to help you with managing your class.
Classroom management is incredibly important, because without it, your classroom cannot function. No one can learn if someone is throwing chairs across the room. That may be drastic (hey, it happens), but also no one can learn if the kids are all talking the whole class and can’t hear you.
Now, classroom management for elementary music teachers is an art form, so I suggest that you pick one of these principles to start working on this week. Once that one becomes a habit, then you can add another, and so on.
PS If you’re reading this because you’re a new music teacher, sign up for my FREE elementary music minicourse! You’ll get videos and articles sent to your email about what to teach, creating a sequence, how to teach rhythm, how to teach melody, etc.
First off… Assume it’s your fault
The first thing to know is that as a teacher, classroom management is in your hands. As music teachers, we see all of the students in the school. Start observing your classes when they aren’t with you. What do they act like with other teachers?
Because here’s the thing– you can take the same class, give them a different teacher, and they will feel like a different class.
You may notice that certain classes behave better with you than with their teacher– or vice versa.
I once walked a second grade back to their classroom. Their classroom was on the other side of the hallway, but all throughout the hallway, they were silent, they were in line, hands to themselves— they looked like perfect little angels.
We get to their classroom, and the second they stepped over the threshold into their room, they lost their minds. They were all over the room, running up to their teacher asking questions, talking loudly, students everywhere.
I was in utter shock– I had never seen them act like that.
The only thing that changed was what teacher they were with.
Now, this can go both ways so when it comes to classroom management, take responsibility. Most of the time, it’s your fault. The good news? If it’s your fault, you can fix it!
If there’s a behavior you don’t love, look for a way to fix it. Don’t leave it or assume it’s the kids.
Now, I say this with a grain of salt. I am at a particularly difficult school, and because of that, some classes are just difficult. They won’t all be perfect. If you have 30 classes, and one is rough, then you can chalk that up to being a difficult class. It can still get better though, so look for ways to improve.
Most of the time, classroom management is your fault– and that means that you can fix it.
So… how will you do that?
Classroom Management is about Relationships
The first piece of classroom management for elementary music teacher is all about relationships. Rita Peerson said kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. I would extend that to kids don’t listen to teachers they don’t like.
Now, not every child is going to love you, but there are a few key things you can do to ensure that students feel like they have a relationship.
Learn names: This shouldn’t even be a question, but learn all of the students’ names. Yes, all 700. Or at the very least, cheat and have a seating chart. But students should feel like you know them, and for that you need to know their names. (Click here for a video about how to learn names.)
Focus on fun: When you are a kid and you make a new friend, you get to know each other by playing together. The same thing goes for your students– when you have fun together, you become closer. You have fun moments. Spontaneous things happen. Try adding one “just for fun” activity to each lesson. And at the beginning of the year, focus on A LOT of fun.
Have a consistent demeanor: This one is to help students learn about you– when you have a consistent demeanor, then students know what to expect from you. If you are sweet one day and yelling the next, the kids will be confused and they won’t know what to expect. Instead, try to have a consistent, pleasant demeanor. I know this one is easier said than done, but it makes a huge difference. You can read more about that from this book.
Talk to the kids: This isn’t revolutionary, but talk to your students. Listen to your students. Ask them questions that have nothing to do with class. Learn their interests. Use your duty posts, use your before and after class time, use every bit of it.
Keep it Interesting
Teachers say the best classroom management plan is a good lesson plan. Although when it comes to classroom management for music teachers that is definitely not the stopping point, it is a good starting point.
You lesson plan should be fun and engaging in order to make sure students are actively involved and not bored. When students get bored, they get off task.
How do you make your lessons more fun?
Change the pace: Alternate between having the students up and down, doing movement activities, working together, etc. We typically start with a movement activity, then a sitting activity, and the kids are up and down all lesson long. We also change activities a lot– I learned in my general music methods that students can concentrate about as long as their age. So a five year old can only focus for about five minutes. That means you need to do something different every five minutes.
Faster: Keep your pace up, and continue switching activities so that students don’t get bored.
Make sure they are doing something: Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, so make sure the kids spend most of the class actually doing something. Moving, singing, keeping the beat, playing a game, etc. Don’t let them get bored.
Group work: With older kids, I have found group work to be extremely efficient in making the class more fun. My upper grade students love to work together, so I am constantly looking for ways that they can work together to learn a song on the xylophone, create a movement for a song, create an ostinato, etc. If they can work together, they will have more fun. Plus, when they work together, they can talk so you don’t have to keep them quiet.
Don’t talk over the students.
I have gotten a lot of questions recently asking how I keep the kids from talking over me.
The answer: Don’t talk over them.
When you talk over the students, it gives them the idea that it’s ok for them to continue talking while you’re talking. It also means that they aren’t listening and have no idea what you’re saying.
You have to train the students to get quiet first, then you can talk.
The best way to do that is with a signal to get quiet and listen. Here’s some of my favorites:
- Hand: When my hand goes up, yours goes up and your voice goes off.
- Chimes: I ring the chimes, and students put their hand up until the sound stops (this means they have to be quiet and listen)
- Callbacks: You say something, and the students say something. And look at you. And are quiet.
If you’re looking for callbacks, here are a couple…
- Class? Yes?
- Hocus pocus, everybody focus!
- Macaroni and cheese, everybody freeze!
- Are you ready kids? Aye, aye captain!
- To infinity, and beyond!
- Holy moly, guacamole!
I like to change mine every few weeks because I get bored. This also gives me the chance to really practice the call back at the beginning of the week, and practice having the students get quiet and listen.
The key word? Practice. They have to practice so that they will get this right. And if they do it wrong, they have to try again.
The classroom management plans for music teachers
Although relationships and a fun lesson are crucial for classroom management for elementary music teachers, you still need a plan. Kids will be kids, which means that they will test the boundaries (intentionally or not). You need a plan for when this happens– what will you do? What will the kids do?
I’ve done a few different classroom management plans, all of which are outlined in this post. The main thing, though, is to have a specific amount of chances a student has. Why? Because when a student knows where they stand, it is much easier for them to understand what they are doing.
Have you ever had one of those days when you had to call on the same kid over and over and over and over again? Finally you got frustrated and didn’t let them play the game or called mom and they looked at you like you’re crazy? That’s because they don’t know where they stand.
Whichever system you choose, make it specific and take the guesswork out for you. If an action means getting a yellow card, you don’t have to decide whether or not they get it– they just do. Keep it specific and consistent.
As music teachers, one of the biggest tools up our sleeve is that our lessons are FUN. That means that an effective, easy consequence is for students to sit out of the fun.
Whatever classroom management system you use, one of your first tools should be having students sit out.
Always allow them the chance to come back and join the class, though.
Here’s my system:
- Yellow card: Student stays at seat but is not allowed to do any of the “fun stuff”
- Orange card: Move to the audience where you can watch but not participate. This is the back wall in my room. Older kids also complete a think sheet during this station.
- Red card: In the audience the rest of class, phone call home, silent lunch for upper grades.
It’s quick, it’s specific, and because I use laminated pieces of paper, it’s tangible.
With a yellow or orange card, a student can come back– usually quickly. With a yellow card, I will usually wait a minute or two and if they have composed themselves, they put it away. With an orange, it’s closer to 5 minutes.
Rules for the Classroom Management for Elementary Music Teachers
Don’t forget that you need to have some rules in place so that students know what they should and shouldn’t do. Shoot for 3-5 simple rules that can be applied to different situations. Ours are:
- Follow directions
- Be respectful
- Be responsible
- Be a participant
We go over these literally every day. When we are about to do an activity, we talk about ways that we can be responsible with our instruments or how we can be respectful to our group mates. When someone does something they shouldn’t, I will specifically say, “That was not respectful, and we are respectful in music class. Go get a yellow card.”
Whatever your rules are, make them specific and make them relevant. And most of all, keep them front and center.
You can grab a copy of my rules with the matching rhythms by joining the free resource library. Join here!
Let them earn something
In addition to whatever you do when a student misbehaves, you’ll also want the kids to work FOR something. Nobody– especially children– wants to work for nothing. You work for that huge paycheck. The kids need something to work for too.
As a class, we do teacher v. student points. When the class is working hard, they get a point. If I’m working harder than them (repeating myself, restarting an activity, etc) then I get a point.
I see my students for a week at a time, so on Friday we take their points, subtract my points, and whatever is left is game time.
During our game time, the students pick a game that we have played before to play for that amount of minutes. I shoot for them to have 10 on a good week (about 2-3 points a day).
If I have more points then they do, then they owe me points and we sit in silence. I tell them it’s however many points I have, but kids have no sense of time so it’s usually only a minute.
On an individual level, we also do Class Dojo. If students do a good job, they get a point.
If your school doesn’t have anything like that and you feel you need something extra to help, here’s a few ideas or music room appropriate rewards for individual students:
- Green cards: Give students who are working hard a green card. At the end of class, those with green cards can do something special like play a special instrument.
- Drawing: With difficult classes, we do drawings. I have them “put their name in the envelope” (literally I have strips of paper and they write their names on them and put them in the envelope). On Friday, I pull 3 names and those people go to the prize box. This is really effective with upper grades.
- Stickers. Just saying.
- Class Dojo: You can set up your own Class Dojo account and set up your classes yourself. When students hit a certain number they can get something special. Check it out (free) here.
- Music room coupons: Pick your instrument first, take your shoes off, special chair…. The possibilities are endless. Give kids their choice of a coupon and let them redeem it when they want to. If you do this, I would pick only a couple of students each day.
In addition to whatever you do, make sure you keep the praise coming too. Want the kids to sit criss cross applesauce? Find the one student who is sitting criss cross applesauce and say, “Thank you, Johnny, for sitting criss cross applesauce with your hands in your lap.” You’ve never seen kids move so fast.
Keep the tone of your lessons positive– shoot for 5 positive comments for any one negative one (Johnny we don’t throw instruments!).
Practice routines and procedures
The last component of classroom management for elementary music teachers is having rules and procedures– and practice them.
We already talked about the procedure for getting students’ attention. What about everything else? Do students need to raise their hand? Can they get up and walk up to you with a question? How do you line up? How do you get supplies?
The thing about rules and procedures is that there is no “right” answer– but you need to have an answer. If can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you have an answer.
Think through procedures for the following:
- Asking a question
- Going to the bathroom
- What to do with things kids bring to class
- Sending students to the nurse
- What to do if you finish your work
- Sharing supplies
Then think through routines and systems for the following:
- Lining up
- Making a circle
- Picking up supplies
- Putting supplies away
- Turning in written work
- Fire drills
- Rotating between instruments
Once you’ve established these routines, you will also want to practice them as they come up. So the first time we get instruments, we will talk about how to pick them up. Then we will practice how to pick them up. Then we will actually pick them up.
Excessive? Maybe. But with my fifth graders, they are so used to our routines that I can just call a row and they do what I want them to do. That is your goal– that by the end of the year or once students are older, they will already know how to do things, and you won’t have to put as much effort into it.
There’s a quote by Harry Wong that says you can either practice your rituals the first week of school or all year long. Wouldn’t you rather practice a few times and then let it be second nature?
Routines are important when it comes to classroom management for elementary music teachers, because we don’t see our students that often. Because of that, it’s even more important that we have rituals, routines, and habits that are consistent from day to day.
Alright, that is most of what you need to know for classroom management for elementary music teachers. There are a few more tips about classroom management for music teachers that I wanted to share that didn’t fit anywhere else, so here they are:
If you play before I say…
One of the best things that ever happened to me was finding this saying on Mrs. King’s Music Class, “If you play before I say, i will take your instrument away.” (Check it out here)
I immediately implemented this rule, and it is a game changer.
I tell the students this EVERY TIME we play instruments, and I mean it. If they make a sound with that instrument at the wrong time, it goes up.
I know that seems mean. It may be. But it’s also necessary to 1. Keep your instruments in good working order and 2. Save your sanity.
I do this with every class, every time. And every time SOMEONE plays and that someone loses their instrument. Once you take one, the rest believe you and it will be a lot better.
I typically just take it for a minute or two, and then give it back. But if there’s a second time by the same student, they lose it for the rest of class.
To help with this, we have a few “positions”
- Magic X makes an x with whatever instruments you have and is quiet
- Ready means hands are out in a playing position but you aren’t playing yet
- Rest means instruments are all the way on the floor and hands are all the way off
With the little kids, I have them put their hands on their shoulders so that I can easily see their hands and they are so far away from the instrument that it is hard to make sneaky noises.
Redirect them to something
When a student is off task, make sure you redirect them to doing something. Kids need something specific to do. Saying “Stop talking” is less effective than “Please track me when I’m speaking.”
Another reason why I like hands on shoulders– then instead of saying, “Don’t touch the instruments!” I can say, “Put your hands on your shoulders.” That gives them something physical to do. It also makes the class more positive because when you direct them to something, it is typically phrased as a positive instead of a negative (stop doing whatever).
Be ridiculously specific
As a music teacher, I am often thrown into classrooms to help or doing duties where I see teachers interact with students. One of the biggest mistakes that I see is teachers not being specific enough– especially with littles.
If you are going to move around the room, you need to take the time to express when students can and cannot go. Don’t assume that they magically know. Maybe they should know not to go into the instrument storage area– but if you didn’t say that, you can’t assume that they know.
This is one example of a million, but make sure that you are specific with directions. This is especially important for classroom management for elementary music teachers, because we only see our students once a week or every few days. That means there is a lot of time to forget.
If most of the students are doing something wrong, then you were not specific enough. Remember– you’re in charge, and if they didn’t understand, then you need to find a way for them to understand.
Take the following conversation, for example:
We are discussing holiday traditions, and one student said that her family eats Thanksgiving food for Christmas. I replied that we do the same thing. Another student yells out “Ewww!” Now, that’s rude and it’s blurting, so he has now broken two of our rules (be respectful, follow directions). I asked why he said that, and he said, “You eat month old food for Christmas?”
Assume good intentions
Along with that, assume that students are trying. Most kids most of the time WANT to be good. They want to do the right thing. They want to please you. Many, many times if they do something they shouldn’t, it’s often just a misunderstanding or miscommunication.
Before you jump down a student’s throat, take the time to understand why they did that– you’ll find it’s usually not malicious.
Now, we all have students that do push boundaries and intentionally do the opposite of what you say, but they are few and far between. Most students are trying to be good. Even the “bad” ones are still trying to be good– they just don’t know how.
Before you freak out, stop and ask the kids why they did a certain thing– it may open your eyes. It also shows the students that they are being heard. Which takes me to the next thing….
Remember they are people too
Finally, remember that kids are people too. They have thoughts, opinions, ideas, and feelings. They have bad days. They get upset. They get tired. They are human.
When you remember that– that is a little PERSON– it helps you to think of them in a better light. They are little people trying to figure out the world and do their best. Sometimes they don’t do what we want them to, but it’s usually just because they don’t know. So teach them. Love them. Have them leave you happier and better than when they came in. They are only little for a short amount of time, and they are little with you. Treasure that. Enjoy the moments.
Alright friends, that’s all– as if that’s not a lot. Really should just write a book at this point– we need to talk about for classroom management today.
If you have questions, the best way to reach me is on Instagram @beccasmusicroom or by email email@example.com
I’d love to chat about anything you need help with— especially classroom management for elementary music teachers. I may not be able to help, but I can always be an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on! Reach out with any questions that you have.