Teaching very young learners is challenging at the best of times, especially if you are working in an unfamiliar language. There are no shortcuts to a happy, engaged class, but there are things that the teacher can do the make the learning experience better for everyone involved. Here is a short list to get you started.

1. Set a Few Rules

The first step to a well-run classroom is a set of clear rules. When making classroom rules, simplicity is best, especially when teaching very young learners.

  • Word them positively i.e., “Speak English, please.” not “Don’t speak Chinese.”
  • Don’t have too many.  2 – 4 are generally enough.
  • Get the students to make a couple of their own rules. Involve teaching assistants or school managers for translation if necessary.  The idea is that if they do break the rules, then the students are breaking their own rules.
  • Put the rules in the room and make sure they are clearly visible.
  • Always try to focus on and encourage positive behaviour.


2. Incentive Scheme

It’s important to give students a clear feedback system, and very young learners need a very concrete system of rewards and consequences. Each class can develop their own systems of rewards and consequences to suit the teacher and students’ styles. Broadly speaking, however, a classroom incentive scheme should follow these basic criteria:

  • Reward and primarily focus on good behaviour.
  • Be fair and consistent.
  • Have clear consequences and desirable rewards.
  • Use incentive schemes for everything. This means not only for games but for participating in activities properly, getting books out and put away quickly, etc.


Suggested Incentive Schemes

Here are a few ideas for incentives.

  • Use a ‘Star Chart’ to record positive behaviour.  This can record behaviour over a day/week etc, and a target should always be set beforehand (e.g. “If you get 5 points, I will give you…”)  The chart can be in the form of a grid (e.g., with stickers, stars, happy faces, etc), or some more relevant picture (e.g., raindrops from a rain cloud, candles on a cake, etc).  It is best if the children get to put on the points themselves.
  • Ten stickers on the ‘Star Chart’ results in a small prize.
  • For upper levels, split the class into teams (or tables), and award team points (or table points) for certain activities.  This encourages teamwork and peer correction if students misbehave.
  • Draw happy faces next to students’ names on the board as a reward for good behaviour.
  • Winners of games and activities may leave first, clean the board, help take materials back to the teachers’ room, etc. Others receive a sticker.


Suggested Consequences

On the flip side, we also need to look at possible consequences.

  • Three sad faces result in no sticker, and that student leaves last.
  • Five sad faces result in the removal of a sticker from the ‘Star Chart’.Sad faces.  Draw sad faces next to their name as a consequence of bad behaviour.
  • Draw sad faces next to their name as a consequence of bad behaviour.
  • Point out the benefits of winning (e.g. leaving first, extra responsibility, etc.) as a motivator.

Note:  Try to keep the scoring even.  If one student always wins or gets too far ahead, the others will lose interest.

3. Keep Their Attention

It’s important to keep very young learners’ attention, though it is not always easy. Here are a few trick to keep the focus on the teacher or current activity.

  • Mention how happy mummy and daddy will be if they behave well.
  • Try to ignore or not give too much attention to minor negative behaviour (if it does not occur too regularly).
  • Always try to keep your voice volume low.  This way, they will have to listen more closely during regular lessons. (Also, if the teacher ever has to raise their voice, it has more effect.)
  • Try varying the pitch, volume, and tempo of your voice to get the children’s’ attention.
  • To get the children’s’ attention, try using fun total physical response (TPR) methods such as “Hands on your head / shoulders / knees etc, and show me your eyes.”
  • Try using background music during some activities, and then suddenly turn it off, when you need the children to pay attention.
  • Give regular praise and encouragement for good behaviour (even to children who always behave well).
  • Try using non-verbal methods of getting the children’s attention (e.g., clapping your hands, hitting a triangle, putting your hand in the air until all the children do the same, etc).


4. Head off Naughtiness

Sometimes children act out, and there’s nothing we can do about that except to let students know it’s unacceptable. There are right and wrong ways to do so.

  • Never hit a child, or threaten violence.
  • Never call a child `stupid’, say `shut-up’, or use derogatory terms.
  • Always explain why you are scolding a child.  Asking the child why you are angry is also an effective device for discouraging future negative behaviour.

Consequences for bad behaviour are as important as rewards for good behaviour. Clear consequences offer students constant feedback, and go a long way to improving overall behaviour, so consider the following consequences.

  • Remove points from the behaviour chart for negative behaviour.  However set limits e.g., 3 sad faces will mean the removal of a star from the Star Chart, and make the students aware of this fact.
  • If in a team-scoring situation, rather than removing points from the team for negative behaviour by a child, give points to the other team or teams.
  • Make the child aware that you will have to talk to mummy, daddy, or the school manager if the negative behaviour continues.
  • Do not give the children treats (e.g. stickers, sweets, etc) if they behave negatively.
  • Have a `time out’ chair in the classroom for negative behaviour. This should be positioned in the corner of the room so that the child is facing away from the rest of the group.  Students should not remain there any more than 5 minutes and often it should be less than this. Students should then be brought back into the group.


5. Assign a Little Teacher

Kindergarten-age students can benefit greatly from inclusion of a Little Teacher. This is a system whereby on a particular day, one student is chosen to undertake a number of responsibilities.  The Little Teacher helps out in a number of situations, such as handing out the lunch, pencils and worksheets. He or she also leads the class when they move about the school, and they also lead a question and answer session at the start of the day.  Teachers should make up a rota so that all students know whose turn it is to be the Little Teacher on a particular day. Being Little Teacher helps to improve the child’s sense of importance and responsibility, in addition to driving language.

As you can see, a lot of teaching very young learners is classroom management. For a broad look at maintaining order in class, we also have Classroom Management in a Nutshell.

A version of this article originally appeared in Shane English Schools Taiwan’s Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL) program, which is part of all new teachers’ orientation.

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