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How to Teach Turn-Taking in Elementary Music

Updated: Mar 24

Turn-taking is an important skill that really comes to bear in elementary school. It requires patience and waiting- something we see often in music class. However, simply telling students to wait or be patient for a turn is not actually teaching them anything. We need to prepare kids and teach adjacent skills that will help turn-taking go smoothly!

We know what can happen when students don't get a chance at something others do- disappointment, anger, resentment, and tears.

And while you might not be able to completely ward off any negative feelings with turn-taking, that's not really the point. Teachers are there to help kids process feelings and experience them in safe spaces.

Investing your time in teaching adjacent skills will save time later, stop you from being a broken record ("You need to wait." "Wait your turn." "It's not your turn yet."), and, most importantly, give kids practice processing natural emotions while developing important social skills.

In this post, I'm going to share 8 strategies you can start using in your music classroom to help teach those adjacent skills.

Let's jump in!

Tips For Teaching Turn-Taking in Music Class

1. Acknowledge that the game/activity requires turn-taking.

Prepare your kids as soon as you begin, not after you explain or demonstrate what they're about to do. Briefly discuss why taking turns is important. Mention that it means we all get chances, we want to share the fun, and as much as we want to enjoy ourselves, we want our friends to enjoy themselves, too.

2. Keep track of turns!

Yes, I mean write down who has taken a turn. I've been in too many situations where it becomes "he said, she said" about who did what- and I don't trust my memory. Writing down turns helps with fairness and gives you a neutral way to explain that yes, James did have a turn last week, and no, Molly did not.

3. Tell students that not everyone will get a turn today, but that they will get a turn another time.

You want students to have equal opportunities in your classroom. Yes games and activities are fun, but we do them for more reasons than that. We use them to teach and assess skills and give students practice in different musical situations. So it's important to include everyone.

I personally make sure all students have a turn in every major activity we do, which often means we continue it next class. What can students say if they didn't get a turn today? "Next time!" or "I'm glad I got to see my friends take their turns today! I can ask them about it at lunch of recess."

4. When to take turns away?

Avoid taking turns away for non-related reasons. For me, I give all students turns as long as I can trust them to be safe and respectful. This might mean reteaching the expectations either to the whole class or one-on-one to someone so they can succeed.

But say a kid didn't follow instructions earlier for whatever reason. I'm not going to punish them by withholding their turn in a future activity; that's an unrelated consequence. This establishes an environment of trust and fairness.

However, if a student has shown you can't trust them with instruments, safe body movement, etc...

5. Take a moment to reteach them the expectation.

Let them try one-on-one with you, or reteach the whole class and ask the student to model for their peers (this can be a great motivator and prideful moment for kids). Emphasize that you have trust in all your students and that you believe they can meet the expectations.

And if their behavior changes, let them participate until they show you again that they're not ready. Use that exact language! "I can tell by your choice to [ex. hit the bars really hard] that you aren't ready for this activity today. You can try again [ex. next week]."

6. If your game has multiple roles, consider a turn being a chance at one of those roles, not necessarily both.

Admittedly, we have limited time with kids. There's a difference between being fair and being a pushover (for lack of a better term).

So when we do Doggie, Doggie (or my St. Patrick's Day version), not every kid will be the guesser AND the secret singer.

In Beat Detective (student stands in the middle and guesses who is the one changing the beat we're all keeping), not every kid will be the beat keeper AND the guesser.

And because you're keeping track of your turns, you know who's done what!

7. If a student doesn't want a turn, don't force it.

Sometimes they're self-conscious, sometimes they're just in a bad headspace. Don't make a big deal out of it. Circle back if there's time, or say, "Okay, we'll try again next time."

If you're repeating the game next week, check in and ask them if they want to try. Still a no? Encourage gently. If it's just not going to happen, then that's their choice. Next class if they bring it up, remind them that they decided not to and that the activity is over.

8. If a student complains or whines about not having a turn today...

Remember they are kids. They are learning how to navigate emotions, rules, and just plain life. "It's okay to be upset about not having a turn today. We know that sometimes we have to wait until next time for turns." Giving huffy behavior more attention can backfire. Keep your tone calm and move along.

It's okay to...

1. Hold boundaries. State what's happening or what happened in a calm voice, acknowledge feelings, and explain what's going to happen next in class.

2. Say no to student's turn if you cannot trust them to be safe and respectful. But make they they understand the expectations so they can try another game next time.

3. Make a mistake. "I thought we'd have time for everyone to take a turn today. It turns out that we can't do that. Next time, we'll finish turns."

Try not to...

1. Take a turn away for a non-related reason. A kid came into the room loudly and stomping? "That's not how we enter the room. You lost your turn in our game for today," is not an appropriate response. Maybe this seems obvious, but I've heard adults respond to students this way.

2. Alternate boy/girl. (Keeping track of who's had turns really eliminates the need for this, anyway.) Why? It's arbitrary and only reinforces gender stereotypes. And you may not have only boys and girls in your classroom.

3. Stop an activity for everyone when it's really only a few kids causing an issue. Punishing the group for the behaviors of a few is just unfair in elementary music. Reteach expectations, ask for student to model them, and try again.

Activities and games should be fun for everyone. These strategies will help with that while also managing behavior and teaching related skills.

Any other turn-related debacles you need help with? Reach out on Instagram or email me!

Happy music-making!

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