The first class with a new group of young learners can be a nerve-wracking experience for teachers old and new. Many of us spend the night before thinking about how to make a positive start to the year, with a mixture of nerves, excitement, and a desire to get started. However, sometimes things don’t always go as expected, and it is important to set a few ground rules in those early lessons to ensure a positive classroom experience for all, throughout the academic year.
Let’s look at a few common problems that can come up, and how best to deal with them at the start of the school year.
1. Students are not ready to start the class
The way the first few minutes of the class are spent can have a great influence on how the lesson goes. Students can be slow to get out their equipment and this can cause a lot of time wasting. To discourage this, start lessons with a timed challenge.
- Tell students what you want them to do when they come into class, e.g. sit down, take out their books and pencil cases, sit quietly ready for the lesson to start.
- Time how long it takes for everyone to do this and make a note. Each day do the same.
- Challenge students to do this faster every day. You could provide a goal and offer a prize at the end of the trimester if they reach it, e.g. be ready in less than a minute every day.
2. Students speak first language (L1) in class
One of the most common classroom management issues primary teachers face is getting them to speak English. However, young learners may need to speak their mother tongue on occasion, and a complete ban on L1 is often not the best solution. But how can we encourage students to use English wherever possible?
- Tell students they have to ask permission to speak in L1, if they really need to.
- 3 word rule — tell students that they can use a maximum of three words in L1 if they don’t know them in English.
- Write ENGLISH on the board in large letters. Each time someone speaks in L1, erase a letter. Tell students that each letter represents time (e.g. 1 minute) to play a game or do another fun activity at the end of the lesson. If the whole word remains they can choose a game.
3. Students don’t get on with each other
It is only natural that students will want to sit with their friends, but it is important that students learn to work with different people. Most students will react reasonably if asked to work with someone new, but occasionally conflicts can arise. To help avoid uncomfortable situations do team building activities, such as those below, at the beginning of the school year, and do them again throughout the year whenever you feel that they would be beneficial.
- Give students an ice breaker activity such as Find a friend bingo (see activity three in this post) to help students find out more about each other.
- Help students learn more about each other by finding out about what they have in common with activity four in this post.
- Balloon race. Have two or more teams with an equal number of students stand in lines. Give each team a balloon which they have to pass to the next student without using their hands. The first team to pass the balloon to the end of the line wins.
- Team letter/word building. Call out a letter of the alphabet and have pairs of students form the letter with their bodies, lying down on the floor. When students can do this easily, call out short words, e.g. cat and have the pairs join up (e.g. three pairs = group of six) and form the letters to make the word.
4. Students don’t know what to do
When the instructions are given in English, there will inevitably be a few students who don’t understand what they have to do. It is essential to give clear, concise instructions, and to model the activity before you ask students to start. To check students know what to do and clarify any problems:
- Have one or more students demonstrate using an example.
- Have one student explain the task in L1.
- Monitor the task closely in the first few minutes and check individual students are on the right track.
5. A student refuses to participate / do the task
This is a frequent problem that can have many different causes. In the first few lessons, this may simply be shyness, but it is important to identify the cause early on in order to devise an effective strategy. A few other causes might include:
- Lack of language required to respond or do the task. Provide differentiation tasks or scaffolding to help students with a lower level complete the task or have them respond in a non-oral way.
- Low self-confidence in their ability to speak English. Again, differentiation and scaffolding can help here. Have students work in small groups or pairs first, before being asked to speak in front of the whole class.
- Lack of interest or engagement in the topic. If students aren’t interested, they won’t have anything to say. Adapt the topic or task, or just move on.
- External issues e.g. a bad day, a fight with a friend, physical problems (tiredness/hunger/thirst). Talk to the student privately to find out if they are experiencing any problems. Allow them to “pass” on a task if necessary, and give them something less challenging to do.
It is important not to force students to do something they don’t want to do, as this will cause a negative atmosphere and can affect the whole class. At the end of the day, if a student skips one or two tasks, it’s not going to affect their achievement in the long run.
6. Students ask for repeated restroom/water breaks
It only takes one student to ask to go to the restroom before the whole class suddenly needs to go! This can cause disruption and stops the flow of the lesson. To avoid this, make sure you have rules in place concerning restroom breaks.
- Make sure students know to go to the restroom before the lesson.
- Have students bring in their own water bottles. You can provide a space for them to keep their bottles (label them with student names) in the classroom and have students fill them every day at the drinking fountain or faucet.
- Find out if anyone has any special requirements that may require going to the restroom.
- Provide “brain breaks” at strategic points in the lesson when you see students becoming restless.
7. Students don’t have the required materials
- Provide parents with a list of materials students will need on the first day.
- If special materials are required in a lesson, give students a note to take home or post a message on the school platform several days before.
- Don’t blame the student—whether they have a good reason or not for turning up to class empty-handed, making a child feel guilty is not going to help. Write a note for parents explaining why bringing materials to class is important.
8. Students are not listening / talking
If you have a particularly noisy class it can be difficult to get their attention. Set up a signal that you will use when you want them to pay attention to you. When they hear or see the signal, students should stop what they are doing and look at you. Some common signals are:
- Raising your hand. When students see you raise your hand, they should raise their hands and stop talking. Wait until everyone is sitting in silence with their hands raised. This works well with older children and teenagers.
- Call and response attention getters. These are short phrases that prompt students to respond in a certain way, e.g.
Teacher: 1 2 3, eyes on me!
Students: 1 2 3, eyes on you!
Introduce a new attention getter every few weeks to keep it fun. You can even have your students think up their own phrases to use.
- Countdowns. Tell students what you want them to do and count backwards from ten to zero, e.g.
When I get to zero, I need you all to be quiet and look at me. 10, 9, 8 …
Keep your voice low and speak calmly. This will encourage students to stop talking and bring down excitement levels.
- A short song or clapping rhythm. With younger children, it is effective to use music or songs for transitions between lesson stages so they know what to do at each stage. For primary-aged children, clap out a rhythm and have them repeat it. Start off with a simple rhythm, and then gradually make it longer, faster, or more complex.
How do you deal with these problems in the primary classroom? Are there any other issues that need dealing with in the first lessons of the year? Let us know in the comments below.