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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: scattered and chatty classes

The helpless feeling you get when nothing you do seems to work with that one class can be absolutely horrible. Over the years I've had classes that leave me in tears, fill me with dread, make me want to take a sick day, or just leave me feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. It's disconcerting at best, and can leave you completely miserable if you let it get the best of you. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some strategies that have helped me improve my ability to work with some challenging classes with various difficulties- I hope they help you if you find yourself in the same situation! Today I'm focusing on classes that are so unfocused and chatty that you cannot get anything done.

At the beginning of this series I shared my advice to keep those challenging groups from making you miserable- if you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post by clicking here. Hopefully the solutions I'm sharing today will help you improve your relationship with your tough class, but that process is going to take time and you need to make sure you keep the situation manageable (for you and your students) in the meantime.

One of the points I shared in that post is to be prepared with a plan B, C, D, and E. There's a good chance the first strategy you try won't work! Remember that this is a process, and a very important one at that. Don't give up.

Scattered and Chatty Classes

Sure, some students have more trouble focusing than others. Some groups are a little bit more social than others and need more frequent reminders to raise their hands, listen, and stay on task. But every now and then I have had classes that are so scattered it feels like I'm playing whack-a-mole every time I teach them! I can't ever finish a sentence without being interrupted by someone calling out, and as soon as one student says something 3 others make a comment about that comment. While I'm reminding them not to call out, two other side conversations have started, another student gets up to get a tissue to blow their nose, and another is raising their hand to use the bathroom. Not to mention the upset student crawling around on the floor making cat noises... And as soon as I get everyone back on track and try again to start our first activity or explain something, the whole process starts all over again!

tip #1: change seating If you don't already have assigned seats, the first step should definitely to assign them. If you're already using assigned seats like I do, then my first thought is always to go back and look at my seating chart and see if I can try moving some students around to different seats to help them stay focused. Sometimes an easily distracted student I thought would benefit from close proximity to where I normally teach, actually does better in the back row. Sometimes I can split up people that tend to distract each other. If you want to read about my thought process for assigning seats, here is my post on that.

tip #2: start in silence One of the first things I try with groups like this is silent stretching. I tell the class in advance that every class will begin with silent stretching: they need to come in without speaking and walk straight to their assigned seat but not sit down. I will go to the front of the room and start doing some very simple stretches without talking, and the students should mirror my stretches. Because everyone already knows what to do there is no need for any speaking, and the stretching can help to calm and focus everyone's brains and bodies.

tip #3: remove distractions Talk to the homeroom teacher to see if they can make sure to give students time to use the bathroom before class, and warn students that you won't be sending anyone to the bathroom during music class unless it's a true emergency. If you have windows, try closing the blinds to eliminate the distraction of outside. Take a look at your classroom to see if you can remove clutter or reduce the number of visuals up around the room. Maybe there are noise distractions you can reduce- if there are classes that always walk noisily by your room during that class time, talk to their teacher about staying quiet when they go by your room. If the class next door is particularly loud, ask if there's anything you can do to soundproof.

tip #4: talk less This is easier said than done, but the more we can talk less ourselves as teachers the less likely students are to get off-task. Try using non-verbal cues for things like standing up, sitting down, lining up, and other things you do every day. Instead of explaining what you're going to do, just start doing it- instead of telling students you want them to copy your clapping patterns, clap a pattern and then point to them. There are so many ways we can always reduce the amount of talking we do! It's difficult because talking is what allows us to process what's happening next ourselves. The most important thing you'll have to do in order to be able to talk less as a teacher is to have the lesson completely memorized. If you always know what's coming next it's a lot easier to jump into the activity with fewer verbal instructions.

tip #5: give opportunities for sharing It may seem counter-intuitive but giving chatty classes a chance to talk can often help students be more focused for the rest of the lesson. My first year of teaching I started every kindergarten lesson by going around the circle and giving each student a chance to tell me one thing. Some students don't have anything to say at that moment and pass, but anyone who has something they wanted to say has a chance to tell me so they aren't distracted by that thought any more! For older students having some type of circle discussion (read about those here) every period gives them an opportunity to speak and be heard. Then you can always say, "you had your turn to speak, now it's mine" and it's much less frustrating for everyone!

tip #6: increase predictability If you aren't a structured teacher to begin with, you're going to need to get structured for groups like this. Have a set routine and stick to it so students know what to do next without you needing to tell them- maybe start with stretching, then vocal exploration, then a rhythm reading exercise, then a song, then a closing discussion- try to follow the same basic formula for your lessons as much as possible. Practice procedures for everything from entering and exiting the room, getting out pencils or instruments and putting them away, moving from chairs to floor, circle to scattered formation, and getting tissues and using the bathroom. Students will feel more settled if they know what to do and how to do it!

I hope these suggestions help you find a positive way forward together! They may not ever be your most focused class, but if you continue to work at it you're bound to see improvement in their ability to stay on task!

If you have any suggestions of your own or questions you'd like to ask about this topic, please leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to read more about how I handle "behavior management" as a whole, here are all my top posts on the topic.


  1. Thank you! This is just what I needed to read, along with the first post on "That class." I feel the same way.

    1. Thank you for commenting- I'm so glad you found the posts helpful. It can be so stressful and discouraging to have this experience but it's encouraging to know that I'm not alone!