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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Behavior Management for Music Teachers

I've written a lot about behavior management on this blog, and get a lot of questions on social media about the topic, so I am rounding up some of my thoughts into one place today. Behavior management is a HUGE topic with a lot of factors to consider. I hope these ideas give you a helpful starting point if you are looking to make some changes in your own classroom.

Let me start by saying that "behavior management" is not my favorite way to describe the topic I am discussing. It is, I think, the most commonly recognized, and also fairly succinct, so I am using it here, but really what we are talking about is not "managing" the behaviors of our students but rather encouraging the development of our students' character. Right? If all the teacher cares about is handling whatever behaviors the students choose to exhibit in their classroom with the least amount of disruption to their instruction, they are never going to have a very happy or productive class. So, while I am using the term "behavior management", please understand that what I really mean is


The foundation of "behavior management" is really relationships. No classroom is run on systems alone. The systems provide structure, but it is the relationships fostered amongst students, between students and teacher, and beyond the classroom walls that truly foster healthy emotional, moral, social characteristics that then lead to appropriate, supportive, productive behaviors.

It's important to understand that before we start talking about any sort of system. In many cases, that relational foundation (and effective and engaging teaching) is all you need to encourage appropriate behavior and foster the development of students' character in the classroom. When I worked in a very high SES school who highly valued music (and all of education), that was pretty much what my classroom ran on. I had high expectations for my students but I also loved them dearly and cared about them as human beings, and I fostered the same relational attitude in my students. End of story.

Now, however, I work in a much different environment: a title 1, urban-ish, low SES school with a low sense of value for music class (from staff and parents, trickling down to students). I do not want to make any generalizations here about the particular characteristics of each school and how that affects the students' attitude towards music class and their behaviors in class, but in my case those are some of the contributing factors to the change in my systems. In my current school, relationships are still 90% of my "behavior management". However, my students also need concrete structures, routines, and procedures to demonstrate and remind them of what appropriate behaviors are. There is a whole lot more I could say on the why's and the how's here, but let's leave it at that for now. 

With all of that said, here are some of my thoughts on how I think about the way I speak to my students to better develop my relationships with my students and foster positive character traits. Click on the picture to go read each post.

The Phrase I Want to Stop Using in My Classroom ("worry about yourself")

Talking to Children to Encourage Self Identity

Two Words That Transformed My Behavior Management

Fostering Relationships with Students as a Specialist

Whew! OK. So now let's talk concrete systems. 

The first is really just an extension of my previous points about speaking to students- it's a way of building relationships and fostering a positive classroom community by giving students regular opportunities to feel heard, and practice listening to one another, through circles. Read about the 3 types of circles I use- community building circles, problem solving circles, and applied learning circles- in this post:

The most important element of my concrete procedures that I have implemented in my classroom to reinforce and demonstrate appropriate behaviors (the key in my student population being the appropriate expression of emotion) is the 3-prong individualized behavior reinforcement strategy. One component is the "rest area", which I present to my students as an opportunity for the students to reflect on their behavior and make positive changes on their own. The second is positive reinforcement through the "happy note", which I rotate through all students equally (as opposed to choosing "the best student" each time). The third is the "behavior slip", which is a note I send home when I need reinforcement of a particular, recurring difficult behavior outside of my classroom. Read more about each one here:

The second most important element is the routines I have established, particularly for transitions. Routines are so important for young children, especially for those who don't experience a lot of structure outside of school. Predictability gives all of us a sense of control and comfort. Read the posts below for more on my class routines for transitions:

One of the more difficult aspects of behavior (and relationships) for my students to master has been working in a group setting. So much of their learning in school is independent- they are handed an assignment, which they might do well on or not, but it doesn't affect the performance of the other students on their own assignment. In music this is often not the case- the success of one student depends on the success of the group as a whole. This is quite frustrating for most of my students! A big part of developing the social skills, beyond the fundamental relational component I already addressed (obviously HUGE for this), is practice. And concrete demonstrations of the importance of teamwork. I've created a "team system" in my classroom, which has since been expanded to the whole school. The particular way in which I use the teams in my classroom is a very intentional evolution over time as students develop their social skills and character, but the basic system has been highly effective in giving students a concrete demonstration of the importance of teamwork. Read more about the team system in this post:

The final element of my concrete systems and structures are the "rules" I use to establish the fundamental expectations for how everyone will relate to each other in my class, and the ways I reinforce those expectations for the whole group. These are probably the least important elements of the systems I have in place to concretely demonstrate the character traits I want to foster in my students, but they do provide more of the structure, routine, and rhythm to the class that provides students with a sense of control and predictability. Read more about those below:

My Three Classroom "Rules"

"Letter System" to Reinforce the "Rules", earn incentives

But what about those individual students who have different social, emotional, or behavioral needs? As a specials teacher I find I'm often left out of individual behavior plans that other school staff create for students, and even when I do find out what support staff have come up with, the plan isn't one I can realistically implement in my room. Here are some specific ideas for individual students that have been effective for me:

Sometimes you can't pinpoint one or two individuals, but the particular mix of students in certain classes can create extremely difficult groups. If you're struggling with a class that is highly negative, extremely needy, or very scattered, here are some specific strategies that I've used successfully:

Looking for more thoughts and ideas on the topic? You can catch up on all of my posts on the subject of "behavior management" here. Have some thoughts, ideas, or questions to share? PLEASE leave a comment! I love hearing from you!

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  1. I just stumbled across your blog today and wow! What a goldmine! I am moving to a brand-new school and classroom in my district next year so I'm looking to explore some new management and incentive techniques with all my classes. I love the houses idea that you've mentioned in a few of your posts... Do you award any sort of incentives in your classroom for color groups (like how the whole class uses the letter incentive system) or is it more just organizational? Or, is that something only handled on a school wide level?

    1. So, the house thing has been an intentional evolution over time with the end goal of removing as much extrinsic motivation as possible for positive behaviors. When I first started the color groups in my room, whichever team had the most points at the end of each month got to use one of the pillows from my reading corner at their seat the following music class. Once we went school-wide I stopped giving any specific incentive in my room beyond giving them points towards the school-wide tally. Now this school year we have been working towards phasing out the extrinsic motivators (i.e. points), so while the principal used to give popsicles to the winning team each month, we no longer give any prize for the most points even though we are still passing them out and tallying them each week. The students haven't made a peep but are continuing the positive behaviors we were trying to reinforce in the first place! The current plan is to get rid of the point system completely at the end of this school year but keep the "houses" for friendly competition at assemblies etc and for team-building events. I hope this answers your questions- please let me know if I can help with anything else! Thank you for the lovely comment. I'm so happy you are enjoying reading.

    2. Incredibly helpful! I love hearing about how successful this has been in your classroom and school. Thanks for the quick answer!

  2. Yes! Such great, thoughtful information about classroom management. It is always about relationships. When my students act up, I no longer to react, but rather to ask "what do you need from me right now?" That simple question disarms them and helps them to understand that I'm there to help them in that moment.

    1. I'll never forget the time this year when one of my 1st graders kicked two other students out of anger/frustration. The two of them responded by calmly suggesting that he sit down for a minute, and then approaching him and asking him in a very concerned way why he had kicked them. The way we respond to "acting out" can make such a huge difference (and I often need to be reminded of that)!

  3. I've always loved reading your behavior management posts. It is precisely those relationships that will cause your students to remember you fondly years later, or even come back for a visit :) Thanks for sharing! #fermatafridays

    1. Thank you! I've enjoyed your thoughts on behavior management as well- your use of humor in the classroom is similar to mine. You gotta have fun!

  4. I just found your blog and wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us! I've just started to reflect on the past school year and plan for the next September and your behaviour management posts have inspired me to change things in the fall.

    1. Thank you so much for the comment- I'm so glad you found some helpful content for you! Behavior management can be such a frustrating topic sometimes but I've seen a really big change in the behaviors in my classroom and my relationships with my students over the last few years implementing these ideas, so I hope you find success as well! Please reach out via email, blog comment, or social media if you want to chat further about making it work for you and your kids!

  5. Your are amazing and inspiring!! Thank you for taking the time to write all these things down for us to utilize!! Where did you get your Cookie sheet for you behavior management board?? My classrooms are due for a new system and I wanted to do it last year but I’ve struggled to find something big enough?! Thanks for your help!


    1. Thanks so much for saying that Danielle, I'm so glad you found some helpful ideas! I got an oil drip pan at Walmart- it's in the auto department (it's meant to go under your car). Let me know if you have trouble finding one! I got some pretty funny looks walking through the store with that thing but it has been awesome and I've been using it for years now :)