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.



 
Classroom Management_8-28 Classroom Management.png
 


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! 


If you like this post, consider sharing it with your friends on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. 

My First Day of Elementary Music Lesson Plans

Today I'm giving a glance into my first day of school lesson plans, from TK - 5th grade. In the first day of music class, students are arguably the most attentive they will be all year. This puts a unique pressure on the first day's lesson plan to set the tone for the rest of our time together.

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music lesson plans for the first day of school
 


My Goals for the First Day of Music Class: 

Teach music in such a way that it is not a torture, but a joy for the pupil
— Zoltan Kodaly
  1. Establish expectations - From the moment students walk in to the moment they leave, the first lesson sets the tone for the rest of the school year. Even our youngest students are aware of the environment, our nonverbal communication, the physical space in the room, and the whole-class attitude. We establish expectations right away.

  2. Be musical - This is music class. The class shouldn’t be taken up with rules and procedures. It shouldn't be taken up talking about music. It should be spent making music.

  3. Have fun - Music is a legitimate subject in the academic world. It has an established theory and history and pedagogy like any other subject students explore in school. But music is also fun. I want students to experience that fun on the first day.

  4. Be creative in a safe place - I’m going to ask a lot out of students throughout the year. I’ll ask them to take risks. To be vulnerable. To create. To share some of their creations. To evaluate their creations. To try, fail, and try again. That type of creative learning can happen when students know they are safe and supported. I want that learning to start the first day.



The Lessons



1: Start with a Musical Experience

Warm Up (4 minutes):

First Day of School Visuals-07.jpg

Through this whole process I don’t give any verbal directions such as “now echo me”, or, “now copy my motions”. I jump straight in, and find that students copy very naturally.

I jump into my regular warm up routine right away on the first day of school. Here's a breakdown of what that looks like: 

  • Steady Beat: Students enter the class in a straight line, keeping a steady beat.

    • Younger grades copy my motions.

    • Older grades create a body percussion pattern of their choice.

CLASSROOM HAND SIGNS
  • Hand Signs for Sit and Stand: In Kindergarten and TK I introduce my class hand signs at this point. This is done without giving specific directions. I simply model the sign and over exaggerate sitting and standing. They naturally copy me for a few rounds of sitting, standing, sitting, standing, until they’re all giggling and out of breath.

    • Other grades review this step as well, but we don't spend much time on it since I don't need to teach it from scratch.

  • Sing a Greeting: From there we sing greetings based off tone sets we learned last year.

    • For example, with first grade I'll sing "hello, first grade" on sol mi sol mi. With third grade I'll sing "hello third grade" on mi mi re do. Students sing their response to me. I'll sing a question such as "How was your summer?" or "How are you today?" and students sing their response.

  • Body Percussion: We'll quickly echo a few clapping patterns or body percussion patterns.


Game Time (5 minutes)

The clapping or body percussion pattern we echo is the first four beats of our first song, and we've seamlessly transitioned into our opening game.

It's great to play games students remember from last year. If you’re new at a school, consider reaching out to last year’s music teacher. If that's not possible, just choose one of your favorite simple games or activities to start with. Look for songs or games that allow students to be active, as energy will be high at the beginning of the lesson.

Here are some of my favorites for the first day of music:

  • TK and K: All Around the Buttercup

  • 1st: Apple Tree

  • 2nd: Charlie Over the Ocean

  • 3rd: Alabama Gal

  • 4th: Built my Lady a Fine Brick House

  • 5th: Tideo

 

All of the sheet music is available for free in the Sheet Music Library. You can click the button below to grab the music for your classroom! 



2: Seating Chart
and Rules

This is the very first time I verbalize instructions in the lesson. Up until this point I’ve been simply doing what I want my students to do, and they naturally copy.

Seating Chart (4 minutes)

Music Assessment and Seating Chart

In the first month or so of school my students have assigned seats. This is so that I can wrap my head around which students are in which class.

When I feel I am familiar enough with names, students are allowed to choose their own spot each class.

You can grab this seating and assessment chart in the Resource Library.


Rules (4 minutes)

I prefer not to spend a lot of time in this area. Here's why:

When students come see us in the music room, they have already spent time in their grade-level classroom talking about rules and expectations. Likely, they’ll also hear a different set of rules in P.E., art, library, and the cafeteria. Memorizing guidelines from such a variety of sources is a lot to ask of our students. 

Realistically, students are unlikely to retain a list of area-specific, detailed rules. So instead I opt for two rules that I refer back to every class over the course of the school year.

  1. Always do your best.

  2. Respect yourself, others, and the classroom.

music teacher talk

I ask students to give some examples of  how to apply the rules to the classroom. In addition to the scenarios students offer on their own, I always guide the conversation to include some specific areas: 

Instead of me listing out every single class rule I can think of, I have students apply two behavior expectations on their own

  • What does respect look like when we're sharing instruments?

  • What does doing your best look like when you've had a bad day?

  • How do we respect other friends in our group?

  • How do we do our best if we feel nervous?

  • What does respect look like when we play classroom instruments?



3. Summer Vacation and Names (10 minutes)

TK - 1st: Bounce High Bounce Low

 
Bounce High, Bounce Low
 
Music Teacher Talk

It’s very rare that I change lyrics to folk songs. However, there have been TK classes that have played “roll fast, roll slow, roll the ball to Shilo” if I fear the bounce will be too advanced.

Bounce High Bounce Low is a song worth investing in on the first day!  I can bring it back for movement, singing voice, steady beat, and sol la sol mi patterns. It also gives me a chance to start putting names with faces. 

If students are standing to bounce, I ask them to jump every time the ball hits the ground. This keeps everyone engaged. If we’re seated, I ask them to move one hand up and down their arm (to “roll” with the ball).

With students standing in a circle, I go through the class roster and we play the game. Everyone gets a turn.


2nd - 3rd: Play Your Vacation 

Back to School Activities

(A section)

In second and third grade I want to jump into instruments on the first day. This activity works with any unpitched percussion instruments - I use rhythm sticks.

To play the game: 
Each person speaks and plays their summer rhythm, and the class repeats. Some rhythm examples are: 

  • "I went to the beach" (ta-di ta-di ta rest)

  • "I played video games" (ta ta taka-di ta)

  • "I slept in" (ta ta ta rest)

After four students, we do the A section again, and continue through the whole class. Having the class repeat each rhythm keeps everyone active, even though it makes the game last longer.


4th and 5th - Play Your Vacation:

In 4th and 5th grade we play the game exactly how 2nd and 3rd did. This version of the rhyme has an eighth note followed by two sixteenths (ta-dimi). 

back to school activities

(A section)

Tips for the Vacation Game in 2nd - 5th grades: 

  • I like to have the whole class try out a rhythm - and even share it with someone next to them - before they’re asked to do it individually in front of everyone. This goes toward my goal of making music a safe creative space.

  • If, for some reason a student doesn’t want to play alone the first day, I don’t make him or her.

  • I keep a groove on the cajon to help establish a sense of pulse, but I don’t correct anyone if he or she plays outside a four beat phrase.

  • As they play this game I video with my ipad. It’s useful for me to see which students naturally stayed within a four-beat phrase. This isn’t a formal assessment, it’s more like a temperature read on where we are rhythmically as a class.



4. More Music, More Movement (10 minutes)

By now, we need to move.

Here are some of my favorite songs for closing the first day of school:

TK - 2nd Grades

TK, K, 1st, and 2nd grades will all review or learn how to move in open space. This is a concept I'll reuse throughout the year, so I like to introduce it right away.

I also want to give another opportunity for students to create in my class, so I look for songs with creative movement opportunities.

Read more about how to choose songs for your music room here.


TK and Kindergarten: 

Walk and Stop.jpg

You Walk and You Stop
You Walk and You Stop is one of my favorite songs for introducing open space. I tell students it's very important to look for open space when we move. We run through a few examples of what open space is (somewhere no one else is) and what it's not (touching a friend) before doing the song.

If I sense the class isn't ready for locomotor movement, we'll still sing the song but students stay in their spots and jump, walk, wiggle, twist, etc. in place.

Either way, after a few rounds of the song students give suggestions for actions to add to the song.

Johnny Works with One Hammer

Johnny Works with One Hammer
If we have time, I add Johnny Works with One Hammer. This is especially valuable if students aren't ready for locomotor movement, since the song is incredibly active but takes place sitting down. 

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star First Day of School

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
I like to add a song that students probably already know to the first day. Many students already know motions to this song from doing it at home. While we sing they either copy me or do motions they already know. This is a calm, musical ending to our first day. 


Just From the Kitchen.jpg

First Grade

Just From the Kitchen

This song allows students to improvise movement the first day. I like to call students two at a time at first, in case anyone is anxious about moving by themselves on the first day. 

I can also add phrases like "everybody who likes pizza" or "everybody who plays minecraft" toward the end. 


Second Grade

Rig a Jig Jig

Rig a Jig Jig.jpg

The first few times we do this song, we'll play it like normal.

Then, we make a change. Students say their names in rhythm, and come up with an accompanying movement. At the end of each song repetition, they create a name chain with their partner by saying their name and showing their movement two times each. The song begins again. 


3rd - 5th grades

In 3rd - 5th grade, we’ll go back to the song we used at the beginning of class. This time, I ask students to create a body percussion pattern as a B section to the game.

Third Grade

Alabama Gal

 
Alabama Gal.jpg
 
Orff Rhythm Building Blocks for Alabama Gal

First we play the game like we did at the beginning of class. Then students create an eight beat pattern with their partner using the words "Alabama" (ta-di ta-di) or "gal" (ta, rest). They can choose a movement or body percussion to go with their words.

We practice this as a whole class a few times, and students make any changes they need. Then we add the B section after each repetition of the game. 


Fourth Grade

Built My Lady a Fine Brick House

Built my Lady a Fine Brick House

Just like third grade, we'll play this game a few times as normal. Then, students create an eight beat pattern with their group using these rhythmic building blocks: 

rhythm building blocks for Built My Lady a Fine Brick House

Student groups change with each round of the game, so with each repetition students create a new rhythm.


Fifth Grade

Tideo

Ti-de-o first day of school songs

 

Play the game like normal, then ask students to create an eight beat pattern with their partner using these rhythmic building blocks:

Rhythm building blocks for Tideo

They also have the option of adding body percussion or movement to their pattern.

Just like Built My Lady a Fine Brick House, students' groups change at every repetition of the song. I like this because it gives lots of opportunities for students to explore new combinations, body percussion, and movement.



5. Closing

What I'm Excited About. . . . (4 minutes)

Music Teacher Talk

If we're going to do awesome things in music, I need awesome behavior from my students. With a nod to the Responsive Classroom, I ask my students to think of how they are going to be able to do the things they're excited about. This ultimately comes back to the two rules we discussed at the beginning of class. Now, at the end of class, students apply them in a way that makes them excited about the whole year.

At the end of class I quickly ask students what they hope to do in music this year, and what we need to do to make those exciting things happen. 

  • In TK - 1st grade students raise their hand and sing something they're excited about. I ask what we will do to make it happen, and students raise their hands again to sing ideas.

  • In 2nd - 5th grade students finish the sentence, "I'm excited about _________ this year, so I need to ____________." (Example, "I'm excited about playing instruments this year so I need to show that I can respect them." "I'm excited about playing with my friends this year so I need to listen to everyone when we're working in a group.") They write their answers on sticky notes and attach them to the wall as they line up.



Lesson Plans

You can click the button or image to grab these lesson plans for free in the Resource Library. 

Enjoy! 


Lesson Plan Templates

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Happy teaching!