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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Teacher Tuesday: behavior management (part 1)

On today's edition of Teacher Tuesday, I want to introduce you to part of my behavior management system. Before we get into it, though, I want to tell you a little bit about my experience last year.

Last year was my first year in my current position. I had been on extended maternity leave and worked at an international school in South Korea before that (another story for another day...!). So it was a year of big changes for me, to say the least. As luck would have it, it was also a year of big changes for my current school. Because of some zoning changes and other factors, our school got a lot of new students coming in from some... shall we say... more challenging school environments. And many of these new students were not happy to have left their familiar school environment and friends- especially the older students. There was a lot of upheaval and confusion as everyone tried to figure each other out, and do so in a space that we were quickly outgrowing. Let's just say there were a lot of behavior problems. Coming in as a new specialist teacher is always a bit challenging (I bounced around a bit at the beginning of my teaching career, so I knew that going in). Starting my new job when the whole school was having a difficult year? More than a little bit crazy.

I did a lot of soul-searching (read: pinning ideas on Pinterest) over winter break. I knew I had to change some things about my behavior management system. Up until that point I had used one and only one system- the class sticker chart. If they did well, the class got a sticker. If they didn't, no sticker. When they finished a row of stickers the class got some "free choice" time to choose their favorite music activities at the end of the next music class. Done. Obviously it was a bit more nuanced in terms of how they earned or didn't earn their sticker, and I haven't talked to you about what my class rules are- but that's the basic idea.

One of the main issues I found with my old system was, for my current students, the feedback wasn't immediate enough- particularly for the older students. In my current position I see 4th-6th grade once a week for an hour. There was way too much happening in a 60-minute class to depend on a single sticker. I also found that my current students have a more difficult time dealing with the concept of the group being affected by one person's choices and actions. While I still stand by my desire to teach them that concept, especially in a music room, we needed some more scaffolding to get there.

Enter my letter system:

I'm sure most of you have seen examples of this type of system in other classrooms. You start the class with a word, and if they are misbehaving they lose letters. Often (as in my case) they can also earn letters for exceptional behavior or achievement. When I first started the system I had a rolling whiteboard at the front of the room, and I just wrote or erased letters in the top corner of the board. Once I got rid of the whiteboard, I switched to these velcro-ed letters. I laminated some black construction paper and pre-made letters and attached velcro squares to them. This poster is right at the front of the seating area, where we generally start and end class.

One of the first questions I got from the students when I introduced this system was whether or not they could earn letters above and beyond the original word "MUSIC", and if so, what would those letters be. I had already thought about the additional letters question, and the answer was yes, they could. The second question, though, I hadn't really considered. To be honest I was just going to write down little music notes or something for anything they earned beyond the word MUSIC. This did not satisfy my students. They felt it should spell something. Thus it quickly morphed into spelling the word "MUSICALITY". Those are the velcro squares you see in the second row. And yes, I did have one class get the entire word one time. They went absolutely nuts and the whole school knew about it by the end of the day.

I kept the sticker chart and the free choice time for finishing a row of stickers, but now they can earn different amounts of stickers depending on how many letters the class has at the end of the period. If they have the original word "MUSIC", they get 2 stickers. If they have fewer letters, but still have something, they get 1 sticker. Any letters above and beyond MUSIC are an additional sticker each.

I love this system. It has helped give students more immediate feedback throughout the class period, and gives them something to work for as well in the additional letters they can earn. If they start to get out of control, all I have to do is walk towards the poster or put my hand up to a letter, and usually I hear an audible gasp and we are back on track. I hear students regularly encouraging each other: "Guys, we gotta get that C back! Come on, stop talking!", or "Hey, she might give us an extra letter if we get this done faster! Focus!". Often if we get close to the end of a song or activity and they have been working hard, I will pick up the next letter and casually hold it where the students can see it. Just that little hint of positive reinforcement if often all they need to keep them focused until the end of the activity and it helps them stay on task when the finish as well. I can't tell you the number of times that I have seen a student elbow their friends and point to the letter in the middle of the song, and they both give each other a knowing glance. Gold, people!

Because they can earn more than one sticker in a period, it also means they get to a class reward more frequently. I may eventually tone that down a bit to make the reward more difficult to earn, but for now they need more regular encouragement to keep them motivated. And since the reward is still a musical activity, I don't mind that much.

I made several other changes to my behavior management system, and I still haven't introduced you to the basis for it all- my class rules- but this post is already long enough. I will cover the other aspects of my behavior management in a future Teacher Tuesday post. For now, I hope this gives you some ideas as you start to think about the new school year. This simple addition was a life-saver for me last year!

Have you tried a similar system in your classroom? How did it go? Leave me a note in the comments section or come share your ideas on my Facebook page to get a conversation started with other music teachers (click on the Facebook icon on the right-hand side of this page)!


  1. Our P.E. and art teacher did this at my old school and it worked well for them :)

    1. That's cool. Do you know what words they used? My art colleague uses the word "art" but I'm kindof glad I have more letters to work with :)

    2. I'm curious also! My team is trying to be cohesive this year regarding behaviors and rewards.

      Elizabeth, you are a genius! I hope you don't mind I'm going to 'borrow' some of your ideas :)

    3. Borrow away! :) Thank you for the kind words. I did see another art teacher who used "ARTIST" so they had more letters, if you need an idea for your colleagues :) Being unified, especially with behavior management, makes such a huge difference! Good luck preparing for the new school year...

  2. I also used the class sticker for many years. When they earned 15 stickers they got a class in which they got to choose their favorite music activities/games. A couple of years ago I switched to the "MUSIC" system. I have magnetic letters on a white board that spell "music." If they get chatty the "m" gets turned over into a "W" for a warning. If they continue they begin loosing letters. Each letter represents a point. They can earn extra points by performing well. At the end of class I add up all the points and record them. At the end of the month I add up each class's points and the class with the most points is the music class of the month. I make a big note out of bulletin board paper for each class. The first week of school every student signs their class note and then I laminate them. When they are the music class of the month, they get their big note hung outside their classroom door. At the end of the year I add up all the points for the year and the class with the most get a special ice cream treat from me.

    1. I like the upside down M idea- gives them a chance to fix it before they start losing letters! Sounds like you went through a similar progression to mine. Thanks for sharing!