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Classroom Management in the Music Room: 3 Pillars of Management

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

The elementary music room is one of the most fun rooms in the school. And fun things like instruments, mallets, puppets, and scarves often go hand in hand with the potential for disorderly behavior. A strong classroom management strategy is key to keeping your lessons under control without taking the fun away. It’s 100% possible to implement new strategies, even in the middle of the year, to turn your classroom into a place of positive and organized learning.

As an eighth year music teacher who’s been all over grades PK-8, I’ve learned a lot about classroom management- sometimes the hard way, and sometimes by seeking out new knowledge about what might be best for my kids.

I want to say that I do not have all the answers. But I do run successful music classes with students of wide-ranging behaviors and abilities. And I’m proud to say that my management style and responses to behavior are some of the first things observers notice when they come into my classroom.

And before you get too far, I think many of these points can be applied to any kind of classroom. But as a music teacher, I’ll be using musical examples.

P.S. Did you know I have a YouTube channel where I do music teacher toolbox chats about topics like this? If you're not connected with me there, make sure you subscribe to learn more meaningful elementary music strategies!

Now, in this post, I’ll break down:

First things first.

My approach to classroom management begins with these three pillars:

1. Anticipating students’ responses

2. Routines and procedures

3. Responding to positive and negative behaviors

[And before we dive in, I also want to preface this with the fact that I currently teach grades PK-4 in a rural school system with classes ranging from 14-20 students. While I don’t think management can be a one-size-fits-all system, I do think that you can take these pillars as jumping-off points to help you find what works best for your students.]

Okay. Here we go!

Classroom Management vs. Classroom Rules

Wait. Don’t you need rules first before a management system? Shouldn’t rules be #1?

I would argue that the overarching rules of the music room are similar if not the same as general classroom rules, like not speaking or playing over others, showing respect, and being safe. It’s how these manifest in your room that’s different from a general ed classroom. And how they manifest is what becomes routines and procedures, which I group under management.

So what is management?

You have your learning targets and activities, you know how you want to teach them, and you have in mind your desired outcomes. Great start!

But I think we’d all agree that rarely is this path through class a straight line.

Does you classroom look like this?

Teach me your ways!

There are plenty of bumps and divergences in the form of poor behavior, distractions, and inattentiveness. (Note: these are habits that your management system is going to identify and readjust. Kids are not bad, but they sometimes make bad choices, and those are the bumps in the road- not the kids themselves!)

Fortunately, you can set up systems to reduce these things while helping students learn the content and how to self-regulate. You’re creating a positive learning environment where students eventually need little explicit direction from you, and consequences are logical and consistent.

And that’s management.

In my opinion, this is why a rule like “Pay attention in class” is all but useless without procedures and routines in place already. Management is not about controlling students’ behavior or forcing compliance. It’s about giving them opportunities to learn within certain boundaries, and responding appropriately when their choices affect the learning environment.

Setting up those boundaries is predicated on…

Pillar #1: Anticipating Students’ Responses

Responses to what? Well, to your learning activities. To your choice of material, like songs and dances. To seemingly benign things, like posters on the wall or the way chairs are set up. To a lot!

By anticipating how students may naturally respond, you can get one step ahead and not just deter unwanted responses but give them appropriate alternatives that are more in line with the boundaries of your classroom.

Mistakes we make in this area:

Assuming students will know what you are looking for

Not being clear enough

Giving them only a few chances to practice what you want them to do

Let’s use a practical example to start. (Don’t worry- we’ll have more examples in part two!)

What you might have done before:

Every day, music is playing as students walk in. They are supposed to come in, sit down, and listen. Keeping a steady beat in a non-distracting way is fine. Eventually you will sit in front of them and guide them through a movement activity or finding the beat in different ways. It is almost halfway through the year, so students should know what to do.

But many are talking when they enter the room, or they’re stomping loudly on the floor. You respond with, “No thank you,” and a head shake, but the behavior doesn’t change to your standard.

How many areas for change did you find in that example? Read it again. What would you change?

Got your answers? Continue reading!

What to try now:

No matter if this is a months-old expectation or a new one, meet them at the door and let them walk in after you reiterate the expectation. “Hi friends! There is music playing as you walk in. Please enter calmly as you listen to what you’re hearing. Show me the beat in a quiet way, like a two finger tap or patting your knees. We need to be able to hear the music; that’s our main goal. Let’s go!”

This anticipates students entering with too much energy*, talking to others, and being loud as they keep the beat. It also points out why you’re asking them to do this, which helps them frame their actions as vital to meeting a goal rather than simple being obedient.

(*Note: I want students to be excited and happy in music class. But too much energy can set an “out of control” tone that is hard to undo. We certainly use our energy in music class, but in ways that show we’re in control.)

(Is this resonating with you so far? If so, I know you’d get a lot out of joining the ADM community. In my email newsletters, I help educators like you apply specific music teacher toolbox strategies and teach you how to use new and interesting resources in your music classroom.)

As we were talking about above, this anticipation also does something else. It leads naturally to a routine you’re building (listening to music and keeping the beat) and a procedure students are following (how to enter the room).

In other words, from your active anticipation of student responses follow…

Pillar #2: Routines and Procedures

Mistakes we make in this area:

Telling students the expectations once, then expecting them to do it every time because they “know” it

Accepting “good enough” when they’re still learning the routine/procedure

Equating saying the expectation with students learning and internalizing the expectation

Time is the keyword here. Not just our instructional time, which as we know is valuable and limited. But practice time. We need to give students opportunities to practice our routines and procedures. Look at it as an investment that will save you time (and frustration) later.

What to try now:

In our entering the music room example, repeat the expectation next class, and again the next class. Gradually shift the responsibility to them by giving them prompts, like, “Music is playing as you walk in. Show me what to do as you walk into the room. If you don’t remember, silently look around to help remind yourself.” Visual cues, like a lip zip or tapping the beat yourself, can also be helpful. And the power of positive peers can’t be underestimated.

Yay! You’ve done some pre-lesson anticipation and begun to build or rebuild your routines. Everything is going swimmingly!

Eh, probably not.

And that’s okay! Again, management is about creating a positive learning environment for students to learn the content and practice self-regulation. What you are probably encountering now are students who are making poor choices despite your best efforts. First off, they’re kids, so take a breath and remind yourself that a) they’re young people learning to navigate the world, and b) you can’t control them or their actions.

But you can control…

Pillar #3: Responding to Behavior

I once saw a post on social media that fiercely discouraged thanking students for performing basic expectations. I guess the OP figured that thanking students for such things would aggrandize the action, making students think they had done some favor or gone out of their way.

If you’ve read up until now (thanks for sticking with me!), you can probably guess that I fiercely disagree with that idea.

As a teacher, you don’t just present information and give students opportunities for growth. You are also a model. Your behavior and language set the stage for what you expect from your students. Something as simple as saying thank you is a positive acknowledgement that at worst will be ignored, but as best will be a token of respect.

At the center of your responses to behaviors must be respect. No power grabs, no “pay your dues” attitude, no ego. Respect.

And now that you’ve set up some boundaries in the form of routines and procedures, it’s time to enforce them firmly but with respect.

Mistakes we make in this area:

Not allowing students to try again

Allowing our own feelings to get out of control

Forgetting to appropriately frame a consequence (because often consequences aren’t punishments, but they can seem that way to kids)

Giving illogical consequences to negative behaviors

What to do instead:

Give students chances to show they understand and can follow the expectation

Articulating your own feelings

Using the “I notice/so we’re going to…” response

Seeking students input

Using natural consequences and choice-centered language

What to try now:

In our example from above, let’s say it’s the second day your students are practicing walking into the room. And they’re by and large not doing what you’ve asked.

What do you do? Once they’re in the room and sitting down, stop the music and get their attention with a signal. Calmly explain what you saw and what the next step is. “I noticed that many of you are entering the room loudly, which means you and other cannot hear the music. We need to be able to hear the music in order to respond to it. We’re going to try that again. This time, show me silent voices, listening ears, and a quiet beat-keeping action.”

And give them another chance. When they’ve entered that second time, give feedback. Better yet, let them give themselves feedback. What changed? How did that affect the environment? And if it still wasn’t up to your standards, I’d say try it even a third time. But remain calm in tone and body language, and be encouraging. Point out what you noticed, and tell students they will have another chance to practice this again next class.

I admit that having students do this three times seems like a lot. If it’s your last class of the day, you and they might be tired and antsy. It is completely understandable to be frustrated, and the last thing I want to condone is toxic positivity. In this case, you try articulating your feelings. “Friends, that did not go well and I’m frustrated. There is an expectation when you come in the room, and many of you are choosing not to do it. That is taking away learning time from other people, and I don’t think that’s fair. What do you think?”

That sentence hits a bunch of positive points- modeling healthy emotional expression, using choice-based language, stating a consequence of the behavior, and asking for student input.

Here’s what we don’t want to have happen:

*spoken in a frustrated tone* “Well, I guess we can’t follow the rules today. No instruments, then. I’m done with this bad behavior.”

While this may be exactly what you are feeling and secretly want to say, it’s not in anyone’s best interest. First, chances are, it’s not actually everyone who can’t follow the rules. So you’re giving a punishment that is not just unfair to those who were doing what you asked, but you’re also being illogical. What does one have to do with the other? You missed a great opportunity to let them show good choices and understanding of expectations by taking away instruments for the day. And we really shouldn’t be giving students the power to change our lesson plans like that.

But, man, some kids do not deserve an instrument today!

What I’m hearing in that sentiment is that you feel you can’t trust certain students with instruments at the moment. And that makes more sense to me.

So don’t change your plans. Don’t relegate everyone to two-finger clapping or knee patting. Explain that we’re about to use instruments. Demonstrate the expectation for using them, then ask for student models to show their peers. Ask for more. As them to hand instruments to another good role model. Gradually let more and more people have an instrument. The first sign of misuse? Calmly stand up and take it away, repeating what you need to see; let them try again in a little while.

And the kids who are following expectations? Thank them by name, or give them words of praise as you circulate your classroom. Saying that you see five people following the instructions and then thanking them for helping everyone achieve the learning target can be another motivator. Because let’s face it- hoping for inherent motivation is not going to work every time. Some kids needs it explicitly modeled, and you almost certainly have a few good role models in your room.

Phew! You made it! Thanks for sticking with me. I feel strongly that classroom management can be done in an organized and calm way that benefits everyone and creatives a positive learning environment. Even if some of those strategies seemed new to you.

Speaking of... I wonder if there were some strategies in this post that you weren't expecting. If so, I do invite you to try them!

And, remember, there WILL be a part two with more examples and specific ways to use these pillars.

For now, pin or tweet any of these graphics to remind yourself of these approaches when it comes to managing your classroom. And share this post with a friend to bounce some ideas around!

If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me or DM me on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts you want to share, same applies. I love meeting fellow educators!

Happy music-making!


Music ed that switches things up while inspiring lifelong musicianship

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