Building a sane classroom after school
October 16, 2012 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I have been asked to volunteer with an after school homework program for young grade schoolers, and I need help with classroom management.

One of the elementary schools in my area has requested volunteers for the after school tutoring program, and I said yes. The problem: the students are out of control. Screaming, constantly interrupting or shouting "I need help!", breaking pencils, running around—the kind of out of control I thought was a movie exaggeration. I don't know how much of the problem is the students' home life (it's a very high poverty school), how much is that they've been in school for a very long day and are plain exhausted, and how much is their age (first and second graders), but I also don't have control over those things.

What I need, for my sanity, is a way to get the noise level in the room manageable, to have students not distracting other students by interrupting or running around, and having some level of order. I am perfectly willing to accept that there will be some noise and movement. I am ok with students who don't want to do their homework as long as they don't distract others; I'm not here to force students to do work but help those who want it. I am praying there is a way to do this that doesn't involve handing out gold stars, fake money, or other trinkets.

While it would be ideal if I had more assistance from adults, the reality is that the assistance I do have is very limited and liable to be called away to deal with an even bigger set of behavioral issues. Likewise, I don't have the power to evict students or send them home.

Give me your best suggestions!
posted by philosophygeek to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is everyone involved in the same activity, or are they all supposed to be working on their own thing, and you're walking around helping as
posted by Caravantea at 3:23 PM on October 16, 2012

Can you separate out a quiet area vs. a "free play zone"? Probably not separate classrooms but at least have one section set up with desks and tables that's meant for working and that the students there have to keep quiet (and other students can't just enter) and then another part that's for group play and talking, within reasonable levels.

How long are they there for? Can there be some part at the front end that's meant for shouting and running and game play that gets some of their energy out? I imagine if they're coming from an afternoon of sitting in a classroom already they would need some time to work that out. Then it gets progressively quieter as they're there longer along some kind of set schedule?
posted by marylynn at 3:35 PM on October 16, 2012

One strategy I use when I have to walk around the room and help individual students is to put a sign up list on the whiteboard. When students need help, they sign their name and I just go around the room in that order. It works because the students know I will get to them when it is their turn, so they aren't constantly harping for help. But you have to stick to it. If they see you going around to other people before their designated turn, there will be hell to pay.

Try to get some back up from the lead teacher (when they are around) that you are there to help and its ok if students don't want it, but they have to be quiet and respectful of those who want to learn. Maybe for first and second graders coloring pages, dot to dots or seek and finds would be good quiet activities in addition to puzzles or books. If you can't get this back up, work with the students who want to work in a corner of the room and give those students your attention. Ignore the ones who are misbehaving - many are doing it just for the attention. Once they see that your attention goes to those who follow the rules and want help, things may change. They may not, but at least the kids who want help are getting it.

Good luck to you!
posted by NoraCharles at 3:38 PM on October 16, 2012

In theory they are working on similar materials. The students are usually from the same grade, but a couple of different classrooms in that grade. That means there are generally at least two different sets of homework assignments, plus the variation inherent in Student A finishing X sheet in class but Student B not starting until he or she shows up in the after school program.
posted by philosophygeek at 3:39 PM on October 16, 2012

Do the students all arrive at about the same time, or is a situation where they trickle in one or two at a time?
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:06 PM on October 16, 2012

If you can, create a simple worksheet that should take them about 5-10 minutes to complete.

Call it a "game" or a "quiz" or a "contest" to differentiate it from the homework they are supposed to be doing.

Create some fun quiz-type questions for the kids to do. To make sure it takes 10 minutes, include, at the end, some sort of drawing or coloring element, or even connect-the-dots.

Make it as simple as possible, so it is easy to do and there are no excuses not to be doing it.

Hand it out at the beginning of the session, and get them to focus on it.

In this way you can get the class to quiet down. It doesn't matter if they aren't doing their homework, because they aren't doing their homework normally anyway, and if you do this a few times you will establish a pattern and some order in the class.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:03 PM on October 16, 2012

Step 1 needs to be getting the attention of the class and getting them into the same area (ie the rug). I like clapping my hands into an identifiable rhythm, and then asking other students to mimic me. Slowly but surely most if not all of the students will start doing what everybody else is doing and as soon as absolutely everyone is mimicking your clap pattern, say cheerfully, "Hurray! You did it! Give yourselves a round of applause and take a seat on the rug." Wait for students to take their seats. If there are any stragglers, walk over to those students and say, "Join me on the rug, please."

Step 2 needs to be establishing ground rules. A good way to do this is to tap prior knowledge and see what the kids already know about how to behave inside a classroom. "Who can raise their hand and tell something we should remember to do when we're in class?" Take a few responses, and write them down somewhere big in kid-speak so the kids can see and refer to the list. Keep the list simple (have a few target guidelines you for sure want: raise your hand to speak, keep your body to yourself, take care of your classmates, take good care of your classroom). Ask students to demonstrate desired good behavior. "What does it look like to not talk over somebody else? Can someone show us?"

Step 3 needs to be reinforcing and reminding students about these rules. When you notice that students are doing a good job doing X, tell the class at large (and students individually), "I notice that many of you are working quietly and respectfully. This makes working together so fun and so easy. Great work." When students forget, get down on their level and get their attention. "What do we need to do when we're doing X? Show me what that looks like." If the child is defiant, give them a very, very simple choice. "In our classroom, we do X. You can either do X, or you can sit away from the group until you are ready to do X." Do not let them guilt you. If they say something like, "OKAY OKAY I'LL DO IT" but don't up doing what you need them to do, stop, get very quiet, and say, "It doesn't look like you're ready to participate in what we're working on. Please come sit with me over here and when you're ready, you can rejoin your classmates." Be consistent above all else. Don't do gray areas until the kids are used to the limits you've set.

Step 4 could be you having a set of academic activities and games that fast finishers can work on while others are getting caught up. Math games and reading books are awesome for this. I also love giving students the chance to draw something related to whatever they're working on. Don't forget to set up your expectations here. "When should you go and get an 'I'm done!' activity? Should you be completely done with your work or almost done? Should you work by yourself or should you start talking?" Keep things pretty black and white and don't make any exceptions unless there's really a good reason for it.

Step 5 could be establishing center activities that students can move to as they enter the class. This can help with the kids that trickle in. Set groups of 4 and move them through the centers in intervals of 10 to 15 minutes. Give them breaks here and there to do something fun.

Step 6 could be having Brain Breaks to recapture everyone's attention. I like yoga moments, dance moments, and silent games like "Can you figure out who has a birthday in July without talking?". This helps when students are just not able to sit still or deal with whatever it is they're working on. Plus it helps you connect with the kids and let them see you're on their side.

Honestly, I could go on and on about this. Memail me if you need any more ideas or suggestions. Classroom management is tough, but it is doable. It's all about setting limits and using the right kind of language to get what you need from the kids around you.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:08 PM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Listen to These Birds. The successful teachers at my son's elementary do this.

Getting everyone into a small place where you can easily get their attention is a good time to inform them of plans and expectations.

I am so sorry that you are being thrown into this without adequate support. Don't give up.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:11 PM on October 16, 2012

You need some way to signal that they need to stop, quiet down, and listen for instructions. Once you've established that, don't abuse it. Only use it when they are WAY too loud or you need to say something important, and then release them back to their original activities. I've seen a teacher use a clapped pattern that students repeat back as they quiet down. I heard someone suggest a "1 - 2 - 3" count, where "1" meant go quiet, "2" meant eyes on the teacher, "3" meant stay still and listen, or something like that, but I've never seen it used. I personally raise my hand (a visual cue), and say "I need your attention", say my thing, and then say "carry on" or similar, but I teach older high school kids in a charter school, so that actually works. :)

Also, my students are incapable of whispering. They just don't get noise levels. So I tell them to be a level quieter than what I want. For instance, if I want them to discuss quietly in groups, I use the word "whisper". If I don't mind a louder, more conversational level, I'll say "discuss quietly" or similar. I'll also remind them to "turn down the volume" periodically.

You need a set of procedures so that they kids know when they can get out of their seat, what they should do when they are done with their homework, what they should do when they need help, etc. This way they can handle things themselves without bothering you, leaving you to help with homework etc.

You should also try to find a book called "First Days of School" by Harry Wong. The used book stores here usually have two or three copies. For you, the sections where it describes setting up procedures and rules will be useful, and maybe some other things. I find his stuff patronizing and full of fluff, but I grudgingly admit he's collected some good info from a variety of sources, you just have to get past the cheerleader-eque tone. You can find the same stuff by searching on the internet, but it's easier to just skim the book or watch his DVD.

My local community college sometimes has classroom management seminars and online courses because it supports an alternative certification program for teachers, so that could be a resource as well.
posted by rakaidan at 8:34 PM on October 16, 2012

These birds has it right on the money. The important thing about the wee kiddos is that you need to be super duper clear with the rules and expectations. Also is there possibly a lot of noise because there are a bunch of kids who don't have anything to do? Kids who are unsure of what to do often create chaos.

Having the kids who want help on their homework separate from the kids who just want to play is really important. A good thing that they can work on are puzzles, if you have access to them. Perhaps a sympathetic lower grade teacher would let you borrow them for the after school program, or perhaps the higher-ups in your program also have some.

Keep your chin up though! I am just a student teacher but classroom management is by far the hardest part of being a teacher.
posted by ruhroh at 9:24 PM on October 16, 2012

So the reason I asked earlier about whether the students all come in at once or if they trickle in one or two at a time is because I think it would help you to have some kind of welcome routine for the kids that happens *every single day* that they come to your program. You can do it regardless of whether they come in all at once or in dribs and drabs; your approach will just need to be different.

No matter which is the case, you will need to establish expectations for the routine the way that These Birds of a Feather suggested above.

As for the two different approaches:

If they come in all at once, I recommend you get them all in a circle once they're all there and have a little check in. For kids that age, it can be just telling everyone how they are feeling right now and saying the best thing that happened that day This will accomplish two things: 1) it will let you gauge each kid's mood and figure out the best approach for working with them that day, and 2) it will give the kids an opportunity to talk about something positive (best thing) to start their after-school program on a positive note. This doesn't have to take a long time at all--very quick, like 30 seconds per kid, but it's time well invested. Make sure you participate in check-in as well!

If they come in one or two at a time, that is tougher, but you can still do a modified version by getting the kids used to having a settling-in routine. Go over it with them: "When you first come in, grab a check-in sheet and fill it out, put your name on the board list [the one that helps you, the tutor, know what order the kids arrived and thus what order to work with them], then choose a station [like the one These Birds talked about in Step Five] and start doing an activity." Then when you are done with one kid, you move to the next kid, get their check-in sheet, and talk to them about what they are working on.

The check-in sheet can be a simple piece of paper with three faces on it (smiley face, neutral face, sad face) and the kids circle the one that applies to how they're feeling that day. Below the faces, there's a sentence for them to fill in (if their writing skills are up to it): "The best thing that happened today was ______________________________."

I guarantee, as someone who has taught kids and adults, these sorts of daily welcome routines are important and, though some may pooh pooh them as time-wasters, they are time well spent and tend to improve group cohesion.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:56 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm an elementary school principal in a large, urban, school district. We use 1, 2, 3 Magic for Teachers school-wide and it works to manage 99% of behaviors you are seeking to get a handle on.
posted by dagnyduquette at 4:22 PM on October 30, 2012

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