Navigating the minefiled

How to manage the first few weeks of school

This blog has been written by Guest Blogger Belinda Dolan.  Belinda has been a teacher of music for more than 25 years teaching in State Schools and Lutheran education – Secondary and Primary.  She will commence teaching at Earnshaw State College this year and continue to tutor in the Arts Education at The University of the Sunshine Coast.

As each new school year begins I find that the number of anxious and disruptive children, or those with complex issues, increases and impacts on my ability to successfully start the year.  Navigating the barrage of emails from parents telling me how anxious their children are coming to music, which is essentially leaving the classroom, is to them.  I was overwhelmed for the children at the weight of the baggage that they had with them at such a young age.  It was my networking with other music teachers that reminded me that it wasn’t just me.  I knew that is was not my teaching ability – I’m pretty squared away with that – and it’s not my ability to manage my classroom as I have many management strategies in place.  I have questioned what this shift is and why it is happening?  I don’t have any answers, but if I was to continue producing quality education, I needed to learn how to navigate the changing face of our clientele, and decided rather than fight the parents to a duel, I will come up with some solutions to move forward.  Here are six simple, but what turned out to be really successful “things” that established calm and order in my music classroom while maximising learning.  These may be some tips that you might be able to adapt into your teaching space.

#1: Puppets

I have, over time, collected puppets of all shapes and sizes.  Having had a secondary background I had never known how to use them effectively besides what I had learnt at my Kodály training – “inner hearing”, beat keeping, story telling and other Kodály based ideas.  Then one day it dawned on me, what if I could get our disengaged to sing to the puppets rather than me or the class, making it their private singing time with the puppet?  Well it worked.  Children have looked after:

– Shilo the dog (purchased from Ikea) – but watch out he licks!!!  As I hand him to the child he licks a few kids along the way as I walk from his home to the child.  Having this interaction with other children normalises the use of the puppet in the room. 

-Rover – a beautiful beagle that I picked up at a Kodály national conference one year.  As Rover is larger, the older children tend to gravitate to him.  I show a very short video each year on how Beagles are escape artist. Funny enough I also show this video when we do the song “I had a dog and his name was Rover”.  The clip can be found at https://youtu.be/cdF6D9CSbp0. Rover has settled a quite violent child (violent to himself and others), yet he was so gentle and kind to Rover and cared for him like a real dog. 

-Beanie Kids.  I don’t know about you and your own children, but my two children (when they were younger) collected Beanie kids.  They had to have not just one but an absurd amount of them.   So what do you do when you are trying to downsize at home but you are a hoarder?  You take them to school of course.  These are a great size for Prep children and they have many purposes, including looking after our class mates.  As I have SO many of these Beanie kids I tend to feature two of them each week (I rotate them).  When the Preps start school, some of them are four years old and have never been away from their Mums.  So having some little friends helps our most venerable little learners, and they get to use the Beanies as their special music friends.  Just remember to reinforce that these puppets belong to the music room and that they can’t go out of the room – this avoids tantrums at the end of the lesson.

I have heaps of other special helpers that help out in class that I have purchased at specialty toy shops, Ikea or at conferences.

#2: Mats

This has turned out to be the most crazily effective thing that I have used in my classroom.  The children love using mats to sit on so much that I’ve had to implement the rule: if you had one last week you can’t have one this week – this avoids fights.  By using mats to the seating area, the children tend to stay on them.  They can be moved to the side for games and put back when it’s sitting time.  Using the mats creates an invisible barrier that miraculously keeps the children from rolling around the floor or moving around without permission.  In the lower years the larger mats…

are “share mats” which the children enjoy and the smaller mats…

(bath mats) are single child mats.  I also like to use this as behaviour management:  “If you don’t stop calling out, you will lose your mat!”  This really works.  These mats were purchased from Ikea (though Kmart have some as well) and range from $12.99 – $35.

#3: Velcro Dots

credit – Elizabeth Richards

These small velcro dots have been a lifesaver.  They attach and detach safely to and from carpet.  I often read of people spending hundreds of dollars on elaborate carpets to have their children sit in circles or other configuration. These dots eliminate the expense, are flexible and machine washable .  I have my last class of the day pick up the dots and bring them back to me.  This allows me to count them and make sure none are missing, allows the cleaner to vacuum the floor after class, and gives the children some responsibility.  These are also good for people who use a cart.  I bought mine from Elizabeth Richards – $16.95 for a pack of 10.  They come in a pack of assorted bright colours, and can be found at:  https://www.elizabethrichards.com.au/products/on-your-marks?variant=13672539488346

#4: The Pink Couchie

This has been a surprisingly successful purchase.  It has been a great inclusion to the classroom and has been called the “pink couchie”!  Often my children with needs, who don’t like to sit with the rest of the class, love to sit on the couch and participate from the side of the classroom.  They often think that I’m not watching and therefore are happy to participate.  The soft velvet material also serves as a textural soother when the child is feeling a little stressed and out of their class environment.  I bought this from Kmart (around $25) some years ago and it has been going strong.

#5: Routines and Consistency

The key to surviving in teaching is creating routines and being consistent with your expectations.  If something was not appropriate one week, it can not be appropriate the next.  The children in your class will see this as an injustice and issues in no doubt arise from this.

Children thrive on routines and it is really important that the routines stay consistent so that children know what to expect.  Many children with special needs enjoy knowing that there will be no surprises in the class and thus making their transition from the classroom to music smooth.  Here is the routine that I use (Prep – Year 6):

  • Students line up outside – regardless of the grade. 
  • Students move into room and sit at the designated area – mats live in the corner of the room and students are able to help themselves to these.  If they run (which they often do) they will not get a mat.
  • Rolecall.
  • Warm up – greeting, singing scales etc.
  • Aural Skills
  • Game
  • Rhythm lesson segment
  • Practice element
  • Melodic lesson segment
  • Other games, elements or activities

#6: Consultation with Class Teacher

Some of my best classroom management ideas or phrases have come from the classroom teachers that I work with.  Take the time to find out what works in their rooms, what expectations their teacher has, phrases that they use, and work around that.  Some of my class teachers use class dojo, stars, stop lights or a rating system.  Sometimes the teacher would have me rate the class behaviour after the session e.g. if they are good they can have one coin in the box.  These techniques all help to regulate the class and create a seamless transition – or consistency, from the classroom to the specialist lesson. 

I have made my own system called “Get out of Jail Free Cards”.  I give 1 second – 5 second reward to the children who sit nicely, give a correct answer to a hard question, can express themselves rather than hitting out or fighting, are kind to others etc.  The child can cash this in at any time.  I don’t let them save more than 30 seconds.  Most children like to leave 5 seconds early from class (before we start walking back to class).  They start walking back to class, we count out loud to 5 then we start walking back to class.  I can still see them as they walk and they delight in arriving before the rest of the class. 

I hope that you have found some of these tips helpful and might add some of these into your start of the year routine. 

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