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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Whole Class Behavior Management Systems in Elementary Music

Behavior management in elementary music can be tricky. With such short class periods and so many different classes to teach, the traditional behavior management systems we see other elementary homeroom teachers using don't usually work well in the music room. And don't even get me started on the benefits of encouraging intrinsic and relational motivators over punitive systems that rank or rate student behavior...

My whole class behavior management systems have shifted over my decade of teaching. My goal is to find the right balance between giving students regular, concrete feedback and positive reinforcement to teach and foster positive character as a part of a team where each member is responsible to the whole, and staying away from too many extrinsic, punitive rewards that do not lead to lasting change and create inauthentic, competitive rating systems. Today I want to describe for you my current approach that tries to strike that balance!

In some ways, I would love to throw out "behavior management systems" entirely. I am always working towards fostering positive character in each of my students, developing relationships with them, and creating a positive classroom environment. But for young students, especially those who come from backgrounds of trauma and high social / emotional needs, concrete systems are an important part of teaching them those character traits and giving regular feedback on their behaviors and attitudes.

One unique aspect of music that I always emphasize in my classes is the team aspect. Outside of PE / sports, it is very rare for a student's ability to succeed in a task to be so dependent on other students' success! That's part of the beauty and magic of the music-making experience. So while philosophically I go back and forth on whether it is "right" to continue to use these whole class management systems, I think it is important to find ways to focus specifically on that aspect of their musical growth.

So here's what I do (I promise I'm done philosophizing now...):

1. I have letters velcro-ed to the wall that spell "MUSIC".

Every class starts with that word. If the class as a whole is off-task, not giving their best effort, etc despite some initial reminders, I take a letter down. I tell my students that this should be an instant cue for them to get back on track (and it usually does work that way). It's a non-verbal way for me to cue students to consider their behavior without disrupting class.

On the other hand, if the class as a whole does something extraordinarily well, beyond the standard expectations, I will add a letter. This gives me a concrete way to reinforce hard work, teamwork, and exceptional music-making beyond just a verbal "good job" from me. If they've lost letter(s) I of course add those back first, but I also have additional letters that I can add beneath MUSIC to eventually spell MUSICALITY.

2. Classes move up a "keyboard" at the end of each period.

The number of letters they have at the end of each class translates directly to how many keys they move up on the piano visual. The word MUSIC is 2 piano keys. Any additional letters are 1 piano key each. If the class has lost letters, they get 1 piano key (if they lose all of the letters then of course that would be 0 keys, although that has never happened except with a substitute).

3. Classes earn incentives when they reach certain goals.

I've adjusted these over the years but currently I have 3 "levels" towards which classes are working. They first go up just the black keys to earn a music-related YouTube video of my choice at the beginning of the next class, then they go up just the white keys to earn a day of centers, then they go up all of the keys chromatically to earn a "music party" where the class votes on their favorite music activities to do as a class for one period.

I explain to my students at the beginning of the year that these are opportunities for us to celebrate our hard work and change up our usual routine every now and then. I make it clear that each class is working at different paces and it is NOT a race. I explain to my older students, for example, that I have different expectations for them than I do for my younger students. Some classes may need more reminders (via positive reinforcement) for simpler things like listening to directions, fully participating in singing games, etc, while other classes can meet those expectations without needing so much prompting and reinforcing. I make a bigger deal of their progress each period with classes that need more support, but barely mention it with others who are more intrinsically motivated. Somehow my students seem to understand that!

For more specifics on the "incentives" I use:

  • Here is a post with some of my favorite YouTube videos to use in elementary music (and I share a lot of other favorites on Facebook!)
  • Here is a post with some of my favorite center activities (don't miss the links at the end of this post to more rhythm centers and more pitch naming centers)
  • Here is a post on some of my most commonly-requested activities for the music parties and how I manage the logistics etc so it doesn't dissolve into chaos. 

All of this is part of a comprehensive set of expectations, systems, and procedures that I have established to help foster each of my students' growth and develop a positive classroom environment. You can read more about all of that in this post:

I would love to have you join in the conversation- leave a comment below with your thoughts and questions, and be sure to sign up here for the Organized Chaos newsletter to get timely ideas and exclusive content sent straight to your inbox!


  1. Hi Elizabeth! I am a first year general music teacher in Dalton, GA, and first, I want to say that I love your posts! They have already helped me out a lot! I had kind of an implementation question, I guess. Since we are already a month into school, I am afraid that I am letting some of the classes walk over me, particularly 4th and 5th graders (especially since I have 30 in every class!). Is it too late for me to introduce something like the music velcro letters? If not, how would recommend I introduce that technique? If yes, what other strategies would you suggest?

    In addition, and just to give you some context, my main issue is with one fifth grade class in particular, and every other 4th and 5th grade class can just sometimes get a little out of hand with disruptive talking and things of that nature.

    1. Nope, it is not too late to introduce a new system! Just set it up and then introduce it to the students as, "here's the new system we're going to be using from this point forward". No need to dwell on why you're implementing something new or make it sound like the implementation of the system is a punishment for their poor behavior. If anyone asks you why you're starting a new system, just tell them you decided it was a good idea. I implemented it mid-year myself when I first started. I'm happy to help however else I can- email me at caldwellorganizedchaos @ any time if you want to chat further! Hope it goes well :)

  2. Hi Elizabeth-

    Did you use velcro for the piano keys as well? I'd love to try this system this year for my class :)

    1. No, it's an oil drip pan- the white keys are white contact paper and the black keys are painter's tape. I drew on the lines for the white keys with a permanent marker :) I use magnets for each class to move up the keys.

  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    I love this idea. I notice you use this for K-6. Would you recommend it for grades 7-8? I am teaching grades 2-8 and am wondering if I should use the same system or have a different one for the older kids. Thanks in advance for your insight!

    1. Hi! I would use the same system for the 7th and 8th graders too, I think it will work just fine and it will be a lot easier for you to manage and stay consistent with if you're keeping track of one system instead of 2.