5 Behavior Management Strategies for the Elementary Music Classroom
Updated: Jun 23, 2022
In this post, I'm sharing 5 unexpected behavior management techniques for you to use in your elementary classroom. These long-game strategies will help your students understand the why behind the rules you implement in your classroom and help build intrinsic motivation and other real world skills.
An added bonus? While I myself am a music teacher and will be using musical examples, these scenarios and techniques are applicable in just about any elementary classroom setting!
We might think ‘behavior management’ and associate things like whole class behavior systems, tickets, charts, or clips.
In my experience, these systems do not work in the music room. If you’re in the same boat, the strategies below are a great way to begin readjusting your system!
Why? Because they focus on:
a) changing your language,
b) general mindset, and
c) real world skill building- not public tracking, not rewards, and not compliance-based methods.
As I implemented and honed these strategies, I saw intrinsic motivation building in my students. It took time to do, and I plan to keep working on these same strategies next year, but I can already tell that they are going a long way in helping build student accountability.
Here are 5 strategies to try with your elementary students (in the music room, or even the general classroom!)...
1. Change your language
Start using the idea of choice when you communicate with students.
Ex. “I notice that you chose to...”
What we might have said in the past: “Nope. Try that again.”
This expresses your disapproval, but doesn’t relate back to what the student did. There’s no reflection element to help build accountability.
Better: “You threw the drum into the basket. Try that again.”
Narrating what you saw is a good move, but you can go further with connecting to action to the result.
Best: “I notice that you chose to throw the drum into the basket. We need to be safe with these instruments. Can you try that again in a gentle way?”
You’ve named the behavior, put responsibility onto the student, given a why, and offered them a second chance.
The best way to build responsibility and accountability is to give opportunities to practice it- especially in the music room, where there are all kinds of things they won’t see or experience in their general classroom.
Giving a ‘why’ builds a sense of community. It helps lessen the extrinsic motivators of fear of doing the wrong thing and desire to simply please the teacher by instead showing that rules are in place to help everyone be safe and have fun in their learning environment.
Think about it: you likely wouldn’t appreciate arbitrary rules. Kids need more stepping stones to connect the rule to the result, and that’s what you’re helping with.
2. Having realistic expectations
Expecting age-appropriate behavior from your students will help you anticipate their actions and give them strategies and signals to help them learn to self-regulate.
Ex. You are handing out scarves for the first time to first graders. Here’s a playout of how that procedure might go:
You get your bag of scarves and begin handing them out, one to each student. As you’re doing that, you mention that the students are about to move the scarves to the music and that you need to see the scarves being used safely. Once you’ve handed out a few, the students begin waving them in the air excitedly and giggling. It’s harder for the class to hear your instructions. Scarves are flying in the air. Someone asks you if they can switch colors. Finally, you stop and say, “We’re not behaving appropriately. I’m taking these back for now. How should we be using the scarves?”
These are realistic behaviors coming from your first graders.
But there is an unrealistic expectation coming from you: expecting these 6- or 7-year-olds to have learned and internalized what your rules are while at the same time keeping still and not using the scarves.
How to avoid behavior roadblocks like these?
First, before you teach a new procedure, take a few minutes to think about and anticipate what kinds of behaviors will likely result from it.
Second, understand that such behaviors are age-appropriate and not malicious.
Third, come up with a short list of strategies for your students (and you!) to help them manage the new procedure.
Ex. When preparing to hand out new scarves to first graders, anticipate behaviors like scarf waving, tossing them in the air, and asking for a new color.
Strategies for helping students manage these impulses and
keep your lesson on track:
1. Before handing them out, explain and demonstrate what you want to see and what you don’t want to see with the scarves. Physically show them what tossing scarves in the air looks like and what they should do instead when they receive their scarf.
2. Come to terms with your boundary of having students use the scarf they receive their first time. They get what they get- and if they don’t like the color, they can either put it back or use it anyway. (I’ve had only a few students ever choose not to use their scarf. Once they saw their peers having fun and moving around, they wanted the scarf back.)
3. Develop a visual or audible signal for when scarves need to stop moving. Demonstrate the signal, give them a chance to practice ahead of time, and remind them of the expectation when it happens for real.
What about older students who have had more time to mature and practice being a student in a music room?
You can expect more of them, which might translate to teaching the expectation, giving a single warning, and then giving a related consequence, like taking the scarf away until next class. In my experience, younger students need more consistent practice time and encouragement because they are practicing. Older students need stricter boundaries because, as you might expect based on their age, they want to test boundaries to see what is and isn’t acceptable.
But you know your students best. If honest mistakes are made, second chances can be appropriate.
3. Building and practicing trust
In your music room, you need to be able to trust students to use instruments and manipulatives and move around safely and respectfully.
This is another strategy where narration is really helpful. Naming a student’s actions and stating that you trust them builds self-esteem and a positive classroom culture. It also emphasizes that students’ actions are their choices, and reflecting on actions and choices can have positive effects for everyone.
Example for a younger student: “Today, I’m going to trust Harper to help me hand out shakers to everyone. She’s shown me that she is safe and respectful in class, and I know she’s going to do a great job being my helper.”
With older students, you might have a conversation about what trust looks like in your classroom and why it’s important. Many kids naturally want to help out and show they are responsible. Perhaps other students would benefit from chances to help if they knew more explicitly what completing tasks in a trustworthy way looks like. Especially in older grades, this validation and encouragement goes a long way in building up self-esteem and confidence.
Example for an older student: “Parker and Addy have been great role models recently, so I’m going to ask if they can help me move the xylophones to the rug. I trust them to be safe and set them up in the usual spots.”
What if you honestly can’t say that you trust certain students?
Trust takes time and practice to build, so it makes sense that some students will get to that point faster. But be careful about how you phrase your encouragement so students know that trust is a work in progress. And be sure to tell them this one-on-one and not in front of the whole class.
Example for a younger student who hasn’t been chosen yet for a special job: “I know you really want to help me collect the mallets. Sometimes I notice that when you use the mallets, you hit other students, and that’s not how we treat people in this room. When you can show me you can use the mallets in a safe and musical way, I’ll know you’re ready to be a helper. I know that’s something you can do!”
Example for an older student: “You are upset you haven’t been asked to help stack chairs yet. What I’ve seen from you is that sometimes you don’t use the chairs appropriately during class- does that sound right to you? I need to be able to trust you with the chairs before choosing you for a special responsibility. I’ll look for you to show me that next class. I know that’s something you can work towards!”
Sometimes everyone needs to stop, reset, and redo. Including your students.
If enough behaviors are derailing your lesson, restarting can be a good strategy every now and then. It’s not a bad thing, so when you say it’s time to stop, narrate what you see or ask students what they notice. Then calmly ask students to stand up, enter the room again, and begin your routines once more having restated the expectation.
You shouldn’t rely on this often, or else students will learn that they can behave any way they wish because they’ll be able to just “undo” it. One redo every 6-8 classes, depending on the age group, normalizes the idea that sometimes we’re just not on our game- without letting poor behaviors slide.
If possible, get your students to lead the conversation on why they’re restarting and what needs to happen next. Emphasize that being unprepared for learning can lead to less time with instruments, less time for singing or activities, and a feeling of disappointment. When you start the redo, call out positive behaviors anonymously or by name.
Example: “I see three students being great role models right now. They’re coming in calmly, finding their spot, and their eyes are on me. They are ready to learn, and that is so helpful. Thank you.”
Sometimes just a reset might be necessary.
This might be one minute of silent, lights off, calm breathing or listening to something soft. This might be you guiding them through your own feelings of frustration, and helping them see how to healthily handle big emotions.
5. Natural consequences
As much as possible, try to implement consequences that follow naturally from actions.
This can be tricky in a room where some natural consequences- like things breaking or noise getting really loud- just can’t happen.
But the natural consequence of a student putting a hand drum on their head is the drum being taken away, since the student has shown you that they cannot use the drum correctly (assuming you’ve taught and practiced what ‘correctly’ looks like).
A student talking to a friend during a movie? You separate them.
A class consistently talking over you? Less time for the good-bye song or closing activity.
Time wasted by ignoring quiet signals? Not everyone getting a turn in the game today; you might need to reteach what should happen when the signal is given
You might be wondering what an unnatural consequence looks like.
These are unrelated to the root of the negative behavior.
Take the student who puts the hand drum on their head.
Root of the negative behavior: being unsafe with the instrument.
Unnatural consequence: Taking the drum and separating the student from their peers.
Why? Separation is not related to being unsafe by wearing the drum on their head.
Student who talked during the movie.
Root of the negative behavior: distracting their peers from learning.
Unnatural consequence: Taking away a turn from them in the activity.
Why? The activity is learning time, and they deserve to be included in the learning time. Taking that learning away doesn’t reinforce why talking during a movie is distracting. It’s just a meaningless power move.
The class that consistently talks over you?
Root of the negative behavior: signals might need reinforcement, lesson pacing might be off, you might need to adjust your opening routine, or perhaps there’s an instigator
Unnatural consequence: Telling their classroom teacher to take away recess time from the whole class
Why? It’s another meaningless power move- you have the power to do it, so you will. What’s the connection between taking away recess (we shouldn’t be doing that anyway!) and teaching students how to be respectful in the classroom?
The class that ignores quiet signals?
Root of the negative behavior: signals need reinforcement or reteaching, students can’t hear the signals, students need more positive feedback when they do make good choices
Unnatural consequence: Taking away the fun thing you had planned next
Why? It doesn’t address the thing the students need help with.
To sum it up...
These are strategies that I plan to continue working on next year.
And if you are interested in building trust, positive culture, and lifelong skills in your students, I'm going to encourage you to pick out a few things in here that you've learned and implement them in your classroom. (Yes, it's okay to start small with one little part of one of these strategies!)
If you do, I'd love to hear from you! Let me know which ones resonate with you, or which ones you'd like clarification on.
You can reach out to me on Instagram or via email (see below for links). I love connecting with fellow educators.
Hi! I'm Sarah, and I’m all about meaningful and joyful elementary music education. Here’s where you can find me…
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