My approach to that awful term “behavior management” with kids is different from most that I see. I’ve worked hard to find some ground between “You better do this or else!” and “Please be nice and I’ll give you some candy.” and “Whatever. I give up.” It can best be summarized as a playful, game-like approach. It’s light, fun, but also serious and most of the time, gets pretty good results. Here are a few of my tried-and-true strategies:
1) Give them something interesting to do worthy of their time and effort. Anything that involves the active body, that touches the heart, that stimulates the mind, that connects them with their classmates, is more often than not something kids like to do. When you're doing something engaging that you like, you don't tend to fool around or get off task.
2) Keep it flowing. With a minimum of directions and verbal explanations and a maximum of jump into the refreshing waters and start swimming—or at least splashing about— kids don’t have time to misbehave.
3) “Who can…?” hits kids where they live, because they love to see if they can do it and they love to show you when they can. Better than “do this!” and much, much better than “do this–or else!!!!”
4) Put them in a story. “Once upon a time, I had an amazing group of children who listened to my whole direction and never once interrupted. For the last 40 years, I’ve been looking for a group like that, but never found them yet. But I had a dream last night that you were the next group that I will tell stories about. Good luck!”
5) Keep it light and playful and game-like. But also be clear that you mean it. Kids have a thousand impulses different from adults. Their bodies are different, their minds are different, their energy level is different. Part of growing into an adult means learning how to manage their own behavior, keep their impulses reined into a low damage level. Making a game of how to focus their attention gets their attention.
6) Invite them to join your club. I want to teach the kids to take care of their things, so as soon as they take off their shoes to get ready for music class, I look behind them to see who is in the “Neat Shoe Club.” They never knew that this was a club they wanted to belong to, but now they do.
So this brings us to our Singing Time today. Singing every day with 100 kids is one of the greatest attributes of our school and one of the most satisfying things in my life. But in-between the end of one song and the beginning of the next are—Gasp!—20 seconds of nothing happening while I flip over the song sheet. Many of our kids find those 20 seconds intolerable and of course, immediately start talking to or fooling around with their neighbor. So today I formed my new strategy—The Ghana Club.
Here’s what I told them:
“James, Sofia, Tina (the P.E. teacher) and myself spent time in Ghana this summer and we were so impressed by the kids we met there. They were so musical, so good in dance, so fun to play with, so easy to talk to. But they also were incredibly respectful to adults and able to stand in line for twenty minutes in perfect silence and stillness when we were putting together some gifts for them. After we saw that, we said, ‘Hmm. I wonder if our kids can do that.’ So let’s try it. Let’s sing the end of the song again and see who can be perfectly quiet and still while we get ready for the second one. If you can, you can be in the Ghana Club!” *
The game was afoot! We tried it and it worked perfectly! Then we sang another song and they did pretty well again. At some point, Tina came in and I put her on the spot and asked, “Tina, who do these kids remind you of?” We sang a quick song and then they stopped and sat so quietly and attentively. With no prompting, Tina scratched her head and then said, “That’s amazing! They remind me of the kids in Ghana we met this summer!” Bingo!
Now it’s perfectly possible that the Ghanaian kids are like that because they’ll get hit if they’re not. I began a conversation like this with Kofi and there’s more to think about there. But what I think it mostly needs is simply a culture of adults willing to stand together with this simple value and teach children the importance of quiet attention and respectful listening. Believe me, the kids I teach need it and suffer from their constant unchecked self-expression. I think the Ghana Club can help them feel the power of attention and impulse-control.
* Note how many different strategies I combined in the Ghana Club invitation. Story, lightness, a "who can?" challenge and yes, something worthy of their attention and effort.