Reasons for misbehaviour in preschool English classes

By Alex Case

1. Confusion
For example, the games are too complicated for kids that age or in that mood, you are trying to teach them vocabulary that they don’t even know in L1, the TEFL game you are playing is based on game that you falsely assumed they knew (e.g. dominoes), or you have skipped a stage in teaching that point (e.g. expecting them to produce a sentence that they’ve only ever heard before without controlled speaking practice). Solutions include grading games over the school year in terms of complication of the game as well as the level of language, finding out which games local kids usually know, and going back to demonstration and drilling stages or scrapping that game and doing something simpler if confusion does occur.

2. Food and drink
The classic example of this is students being given food with lots of sugar or artificial additives just before the class. There is far less publicity about this point in most countries than there is in Northern Europe and North America, so comments to parents or the head teacher of a kindergarten in other countries will have to be phrased very carefully or avoided. If it is your own school giving the snacks out you might be able to have at least some influence on which snacks they give the kids. More generally, you will need to plan your lesson with this in mind if you know that students will come into class or come back from a break feeling manic, e.g. doing lots of running around games with language that is revision at the beginning of the lesson but having quieter activities up your sleeve for when that artificial energy runs out or they get overexcited.

3. Tiredness
If you’ve ever become grumpy or irrational due to tiredness, you have some idea of the feeling that some young kids show almost every day. You might be able to predict problems with this by knowing when kids in a particular school or culture usually have their naps, and you can plan to respond either by shaking them out of it with something lively or by giving them a rest with a sit down story or finger action song.

4. Not reacting to their moods/ just carrying on like normal
The number of times I have observed this in other people’s classes makes me think I am probably guilty of it all the time myself too, but if I was aware of it then it wouldn’t be a problem… Signs that trying to just finish that stage before you move on will lead to trouble include having to put more and more effort into getting their attention, the noise of chattering in L1 and shuffling around increasing, and having to discipline more and more kids. Being able to take another approach should be built into your lesson plan with things like optional active and calming stages (similar to warmers, fillers and coolers in adult classes), lots of short stages with unconnected language points (e.g. doing numbers each week and progressing a little each time rather than trying to practice as much as you can in one lesson), later stages not relying on earlier ones, and transitions between stages of the lesson that are clear and impactful (such as everyone jumping up, moving to the “story corner”, or starting a song they all know well on the CD player without any notice at all).

5. Being over-competitive
Having taught in the same preschool for four years, I have seen some students go from three year olds who don’t notice their classmates exist or understand what teams mean to four year olds who are really motivated by points for their team, and then to five year olds who lose motivation if they don’t win every time and bully the slower teammates who they blame for any losses. In my experience, these are often the students who have a better level of English and it is a real shame if your reaction to over-competitive kids leads to a loss of motivation for them. Tactics include giving students who win the teacher’s role, saving some rounds of the game for people who haven’t won points yet, making clear that you only stop games when everyone has won at least one point, giving points for different things like good pronunciation, students competing to beat their own best score rather than each other, having winners for each stage of the game rather than the whole thing, and having just one competitive game and making all the others cooperative ones.

6. Unfairness
One aspect of this could be the higher level students who are used to winning thinking that you changing the rules to give everyone a chance is unfair, as mentioned above. Other possibilities include students thinking that you have punished the wrong person or too few people, that you are testing them on language that you haven’t taught them yet, that you are expecting them to remember something that was too long ago or you didn’t go through enough times, that you chose a game or language point that one person always wins, that you changed the rules halfway through a game, that you identified the wrong person as having shouted out the right answer first, that a punishment was too harsh, that you punished someone for something they didn’t know wasn’t allowed, that you punished someone for something they don’t think is wrong (e.g. something that is more serious in your culture than theirs), or that not everyone had a fair chance to win (e.g. not being able to see the flashcard or running out of time). If you’ve ever refereed a sports match, you will know that it is notoriously difficult to please everyone, but techniques you can use in a preschool English class include sitting the kids on the floor and moving your position all the time so different people can hear and be heard more easily each time, giving warnings before you use a new punishment or punish them for something that you haven’t punished anyone in that class for before, having a mental ranking of punishments for minor and less minor infractions, and making it clear when you are giving consolation points that some people who already have points won’t be able to compete for.

7. Mixed levels
As well as the higher level students who get too used to winning or get bored when they aren’t stretched, there is also the danger of lower level students getting used to never being the one to know the right answer first and so losing self-belief and motivation. Reactions to this problem include teaching at least a few items of vocabulary that you are sure no one will know yet, concentrating on something everyone needs to work on such as pronunciation, using activities like stories and songs that everyone can get something out of, allowing students to respond in different ways (e.g. some putting up their hand to show comprehension, some giving short answers and some giving full answers), doing some easy activities and some more difficult ones, and starting easy with each activity and having a few difficult questions in the end or the middle.

8. Getting overexcited
Most people naturally see misbehaviour of a child who is usually well behaved as the sign of a boring or badly graded class. It can be, but with the kinds of classes I give in kindergartens I visit there is just as much chance that the kids will get so overexcited by the prospect of another 30 minutes of running around while singing and shouting in English with the funny-looking teacher that they will end up slamming one of their classmates into the wall. If this is the case in your class, you will need tactics like: starting the class slowly and quietly and then building the excitement, noise and energy levels up; using alternative high energy and low energy stages; having other optional cooler stages; stopping any activity instantly if it gets out of hand; or trying to wear them out in the first few minutes before going onto a quieter stage. Signs that you might need to be on the lookout for overexcited children include running into your classroom, having small rooms without much room to move around in, and seeming physically restless from the very first moment of the class.

9. Attention seeking
This is perhaps the most difficult to cope with- kids who want the teacher’s attention so much that being told off is more like a reward than a punishment. Two approaches are to give them the attention they need without it seeming like a reward for bad behaviour and using punishments that take away attention from them. You can make sure each student gets attention without being unfair by having stages where the teacher interacts with each child (e.g. entrance and exit drills, handing out crayons as they ask for them, praising each child at least once, or counting the number of flashcards each student guessed with them as you take them back in), or giving children the teacher’s role (holding up the story book, slowly revealing each flashcard for the other students to guess, giving the students actions to perform etc). Taking the other approach, students who misbehave can be made to sit out a stage (or usually just part of a stage) that everyone enjoys like an action song. As the kids get a little older, you can also work to wean the whole class off a teacher-centred class and teacher praise with techniques like team games, students passing things to each other as they ask questions, and eventually groupwork and pairwork.

10. Lack of social skills
As I said above, team games and pairwork take a certain level of maturity and quite a lot of training before kids are capable of doing them well. For example, most three year olds can’t share or work in teams and rely on adult praise much more than on peer approval. As you start to introduce those things into your class, the students who are seemingly misbehaving might just be the ones who are less mature or less used to mixing with their peers and so aren’t yet ready for those things. Techniques I have used to cope with this include being very aware of students’ ages and length of time in kindergarten, having alternative versions of games that don’t rely on teams or cooperation, only having one stage per lesson where I am trying to introduce those skills, and building up the amount of working together very slowly. Another point worth bearing in mind is that three year olds fighting over toys is not really bad behaviour in the same way as it would be with nine year olds, but that slowly teaching them that it is better to share is part of your job.

11. Outside distractions
Although I have included this point here as it distracts students in the same way as the other points, I don’t think students staring out the window is of itself bad behaviour- in fact, I wouldn’t want to teach kids who had no curiosity about what was going on outside! If a commotion outside your window or a moth flying around does interrupt your class, one options is to use it for language practice by talking about what is happening or happened. If you do that, you might find that it increases the problem of students forgetting where they were or being disappointed just to go back to the same stage after the distraction ends. If that is the case, I recommend changing straight after to another activity such as a song, and then going back to original activity later if you need to.

12. Boredom
Common reasons for boredom in pre school English classes include too many similar activities (e.g. too much presenting new language with flashcards), waiting for other teams or students to finish, activities that go on for too long, and being forced to sit still for too long. Reactions include using variations on each activity (using realia instead of flashcards or flashing the cards past them quickly), scrapping activities once students seem bored and going back to them later if you need to, interacting with teams or students who finish early (counting up how many points they have, drilling the language one more time, collecting pencils back in, asking them to help move a table etc), lots of games, lots of songs, and a storybook or two.

13. Too much variety
Although I put a lack of variety down as a reason for boredom above, in fact teachers can be guilty of doing too many new things and missing out on young children’s love of the familiar. Ways to strike a balance include only introducing one or two new stages per class, introducing variations on activities rather than totally new ones, doing different activities but at a stage of the lesson when you usually do something similar (e.g. an action song at the end of the class, but a different one to last week), and timing the introduction of new activities well.

14. Physical restlessness
Kids need to move- so much so that I’d tell most parents that the playground is more of a priority than English class! Therefore I do not see fidgeting as misbehaviour, but simply as a sign that they need to move before that energy really builds up and leads to accidental breakages or even fights. There are so many physical things you can do in the classroom that you can add English too, from action songs like Head Shoulders Knees and Toes to running around games like Stations or Tag. I generally aim to have alternate standing up and sitting down stages, but even add movement to the sitting down stages by having students mime each piece of vocabulary I introduce or act out the story with their fingers.

15. Missing mummy (or daddy)
The two most common signs of this are again things I don’t really consider to be misbehaviour- crying and refusing to take part. In some kids, though, getting towards the end of the day and still not seeing a parent they are used to having close 24/7 can lead to a general irritability that can result in aggressiveness. If you suspect this is the cause of bad feelings or bad behaviour, you could point to the waiting family members outside the window or door (although sometimes that makes things worse!), move into the usual closing stages of the lesson so they know that it will soon finish (again- this makes the feeling of waiting worse for some!), doing something especially distracting such as an action song, pointing at the clock to show them how little time is left, or even just letting that one kid sniffle for a couple of minutes- knowing that next week they’ll probably be able to cope a little better.

Written by Alex Case for March 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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