Upper Elementary Classroom Management for Music Teachers

Classroom management is a deeply personal subject for each of us. It is the aspect of our teaching that determines whether we leave school with a headache, or a smile. And it is often the thing teachers view as their biggest struggle in the music room. 

You’ll find a lot of different approaches to classroom management, and they all bring their own values to the table. Each teacher’s approach is as unique and individualized as the teacher and students it serves, so be sure to edit and adapt the ideas in this post for your own needs.

In This Post

In this post we’ll look at a brief overview of what’s happening in the life of a 4th - 5th grader, including the student’s development and what motivates them.

We’ll also look at best practices for the teacher’s demeanor, lesson structure, and activities. Lastly, I’ll give some quick tips on implementing these ideas.



 
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Laying the Groundwork:

The subject of classroom management is vast, so it’s important that we start with the same definition of classroom management, and assumptions about the teachers using it.

Definition:

Classroom management is just the process by which we create a safe and successful learning environment for our students. Another way to think about it is behavior motivation, rather than behavior control.

Assumptions:

Everything in this post is predicated on two very basic teaching assumptions:

  1. I assume we like our students
  2. I assume we enjoy teaching

That’s it.

All the classroom management techniques, tips, and tricks in the world will fall flat without those two items in place.


Development of 4th and 5th Graders

To understand how to create a safe and successful learning environment, it’s a good idea to take a look at who we’re teaching. What is their life like? What do they value? How do they view the world?

Keep in mind, these are generalizations. Every child develops at his or her own unique pace. These are meant to be guidelines that give us a framework for developing a successful learning environment.

What's Going On: Cognitively 

  • These students are concrete and literal thinkers, though they think logically and more like adults than they did in the younger grades. They may struggle with concepts that are too abstract or hypothetical.
  • These individuals can reverse logic, or think about the steps of a process in something other than chronological order (something they struggled with in younger grades).
  • These individuals begin to use inductive reasoning (going from one small experience and applying the findings to create a larger concept) They may still struggle with deductive reasoning (moving from a general concept and applying it to specific situations)
  • Students in upper grades verbalize their thoughts in order to process them.

What's Going On: Socially

  • They understand that other people may have different points of view from their own, but still may struggle with empathy for those viewpoints
  • These students are more likely to play with friends than alone
  • The thoughts and opinions of peers are highly influential to upper grades, and they often look to social signals from their friends to define their own self-confidence.
  • Upper grade students tend to prefer same-sex friendships.

What's Going On: Behaviorally

  • These students are fixated on accomplishments - they want to master ideas and skills that interest them.
  • They begin problem-solving and negotiating to get to their end goal.
  • These individuals are intensely interested in rules, fairness, and behavior standards.
  • Students in upper grades are skilled at self-evaluation and critique.
  • These students immensely enjoy competition.
  • Students in upper grades can sit still for longer periods of time than their younger siblings, but need physical challenges as their bodies and muscles are growing.

*For more information on the development of 4th and 5th graders, look up information about Erik Erikson’s stages of psychological development and Jean Piaget’s developmental stages.


Motivation for Upper Elementary Students:

  1. These students are motivated by their peers. Remember that social relationships play a huge role in this developmental stage.
  2. They respond well to measurable goals and clear expectations. Remember that students at this age are accomplishment oriented. If you spell out exactly how to succeed, students will try to succeed.
  3. They crave choice. These students love to take ownership of work they are proud of. They also want to explore new skills and ideas to master.


What to Do: Classroom Management that Works

There are no quick-fixes for classroom management - no magical wand or wonderful sticker chart that will create the perfect classroom culture.

Instead, here are some best-practices for music teachers dealing with classroom management in upper grades. Though these are not quick fixes, I've found them to be powerful habits and mindsets that lead to a safe and successful learning environment for my upper elementary students. 

Build relationships

Don’t throw out your “getting to know you” activities after the first day. Instead, make it a goal to craft personal connections with your students every single lesson. One way could be to use your warm up routine to ask relationship-building questions. And answer the questions yourself as well!

Building relationships with students can be a challenge due to our high number of students we see as music teachers. However, simply saying hello to students you see them outside of class, (using his or her name and making eye contact) is a small way to build that relationship.

Practice routines. And then follow through.

How do you want them to enter the room? How do you want them to give verbal input in your class? How do you want them to play, transfer, or share instruments? Practice each and every routine you care about.  

Students at this age are watching their authority figures for consistency. When you follow through, it sends the message that you are fair and trustworthy. In contrast, if we let some behaviors slide or blow other behaviors out of proportion, it erodes our relationships with our students. Remember that 4th - 5th graders are concrete thinkers. If they are given an expectation to follow, it’s important that they see you enforce it. Inconsistency builds distrust.

By the way, any time of the school year is a good time to practice routines. If your music class is out of control at some point in the middle of the year, give yourself permission to take some time back to practice routines. It will be worth it!

Refocus

The vast majority of the time, the behavior problems that keep us up at night are caused by a small group of students, not the whole class. Taking a moment to do a sweep of the room can be an eye-opening experience. Likely when you feel that you have lost the whole class, you’ll happily notice that you’ve only lost 3 - 5 students. Simply noting this can drastically change your perspective and your plan for how to help get back on track.

Call out the good you see, before the bad

Establish a habit of giving constant praise during your music class that is both truthful and deserved. Comment on everything good you see, from how students enter the room to instrument  technique. If you notice minor off-task behavior, call out students who are excelling, rather than the students who are off-task. This should be done in a way that is kind and genuine - never sarcastic.

Take out the leader

Most of the time within that small group of students, there is one single influencer. Focus your energy on building a strong, positive, respect-based relationship with that student. Since these students are motivated by their peers, one strategic relationship will take care of the bulk of your classroom management woes.

You can work on this relationship by making a goal to have a short conversation about something non-music related at the beginning or end of class, or in the hallway. If you have no idea where to even start your conversation, use strategic warm up routine questions and then make a mental note of this student's answer. Then ask a follow up question later to start your conversation.

>>> Read: Warm Up Routine for Elementary Music

Keep students ridiculously busy

We’ve all heard it before. A good classroom management strategy is a good lesson plan.

It’s the gospel truth of classroom management.

Focus on student-centered activities that require maximum student involvement. Look for fast-paced activities that keep students actively engaged in your lessons. If you can include some group work, student choice, an appropriate challenge, and accountability your lesson plan will be upper grades-ready!

When you give instructions for group work, make your expectations crystal clear at the beginning. Also provide some sort of accountability, such as sharing their finished product with you, the rest of the class, or through technology like Seesaw or your school's website. You can also ask students to self-evaluate their behavior at the end of the project.

If something goes wrong in your music room, look back through your lesson plan and ask yourself: “What exactly was the child supposed to be doing instead?”. If the answer was something like “sitting quietly” or “listening while I talk”, consider that developmentally students may not be ready to meet your expectations in that way every single time.

Carefully crafting an engaging and action-packed lesson will go miles for classroom management.

Have a Heart-to-Heart.. Then Hand the Problem Back to Them

I had a fifth grade choir that was consistently off-task. One day I stopped the lesson and told them I was having a problem. It was difficult for me to teach when they were talking over me, and I respected them too much to yell over them. So what could we do? Why was there so much talking when it wasn’t an appropriate time to talk?

Their answers were incredibly thoughtful and honest. Through our conversation I found out that most of them were confused about following along with the score.

When I asked what we should do about it, their answers were simple: They needed me to call out measure numbers more often, and give them a chance to catch up if they were lost. So that’s what I did. And we had a great rest of the class.

These students can self-regulate and problem solve. If you have a poor learning environment in the music room we can safely assume that you, the teacher, are not  blurting out at an inappropriate time, physically harming classroom equipment, or saying hurtful things to students. That is what (likely a small group of) students are doing. So don’t put the sole pressure on yourself to come up with a solution. Let the students do it. Often, they’ll come up with a better solution than you could!

Reach out to Parents and the Grade-Level Teacher

If you are fortunate enough to know ahead of time which students in your class will require extra support, go on the offensive. Actively look for a positive behavior the student showed in class. It doesn’t matter how small. Then reach out to the student’s parents and let them know the positive behavior you saw, as well as your excitement to have their child in your music class. Keep the conversation brief and friendly. Taking this kind of active step to partner with the “home team” is an investment worth making. It will also make it easier if you need to make another phone call of a different nature later.

When it comes to reaching out to grade-level teachers, my experience is they are relieved to hear another adult is struggling to help the same students with whom they struggle. In my first years of teaching I was concerned reaching out would make me look inferior to the grade-level teacher. In reality, it strengthened the relationship and improved the environment in both our classrooms.

Check your biases.

We all have them. And they can be difficult to face.

Race, gender, age, socioeconomic class, looks, overall demeanor…. Admitting to your biases doesn’t make you racist or misogynistic. It makes you informed, and it can help you navigate those moments when you need to act on behalf of creating a supportive learning environment for every student.

Don’t take it personally.

This is perhaps the most important mindset shift to make.

The fact is, upper grades cut up. They are still children. They poke fun. They make light. They might blow things off. That’s normal. Just like you don’t take it personally when a Kindergartner can’t sit still, don’t take it personally when upper grades display difficult behavior.

Focus on the literal behavior itself, not your emotional interpretation. For example, instead of saying, “they don’t respect me”, try something like, “they verbalized opinions about this musical activity”. Instead of, “This kid was acting like a goof and trying to destroy the instrument”, reframe it to, “Jason was using incorrect instrument technique”.  This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it reminds you that you cannot assign a motive when all you see is an action.

Don’t act out of emotion. When you are in a power struggle, students win when you lose control. Acting from a place of unchecked emotion (yelling, trying to “get even”, embarrassing a student, using sarcasm, expressing anger or frustration) is unhelpful to your relationship with the entire class. If students experience that nothing can phase you, it eventually becomes less fun to try and get a reaction.



Quick Tips on Classroom Management for Music Teachers

Here are some “grab and go” ideas you can implement right away in your upper elementary music room.

  • Students are influenced by each other. Utilize group work.
  • Keep your lessons fast-paced and age-appropriate
  • Plan your transitions carefully. This is normally the time we lose students’ attention.
  • Plan times for students to talk. These students process by verbalizing.
  • Use more instruments! If you don’t have a shiny instrumentarium, use found objects or body percussion.
  • They can’t talk if they’re singing.
  • Give the story behind your songs. Help the students make personal connections with the music.
  • These students are focused on what they can accomplish. Emphasize activities with creativity and student choice.
  • Call students by their names, and pronounce their names correctly.
  • Catch minor offenses early on. When you see them happen, make eye contact and give a neutral, friendly smile to the student who is off-task.
  • If you have to redirect student behavior, make as small and private of a conversation as possible.
  • We don’t teach music. We teach kids.

There you have it. 

My take on classroom management for upper elementary students.

When passionate teachers develop caring relationships with their students, we have the basis for a safe and successful learning environment. With these mindsets and practices in place, enjoy teaching the amazing age groups of upper elementary! 


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