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15 punishments for pre-school English classes

By Alex Case
The difficulty of keeping control of 3-year-olds who haven’t learnt what working together means yet, or 5-year-olds who have learnt how much fun it is to change the words of every song and the pronunciation of every word, is difficult enough; but many of us teachers of English in kindergartens have to do so without […]

The difficulty of keeping control of 3-year-olds who haven’t learnt what working together means yet, or 5-year-olds who have learnt how much fun it is to change the words of every song and the pronunciation of every word, is difficult enough; but many of us teachers of English in kindergartens have to do so without any special training, in countries where the kinds of discipline we remember from back home are unheard of, working for companies that encourage us to use teaching methods that get the kids overexcited, and/ or where we are not allowed or not able to resort to the kids’ language to keep order. In such situations, discipline techniques like those described below that get their attention without making them cry and without taking your attention away from the rest of the class are invaluable. These are not in any particular order, but you will probably want to plan which you will use for minor or first misdemeanors, and which will be kept for making your displeasure very clear indeed. Please note that rewards are just as important in aiding discipline and motivation, and will be dealt with in a later article.

1. Take it away
This is a well known method of discipline by parents, but is made more complicated in a kindergarten EFL lesson by the fact that their toys and lollipops aren’t there. The way round this is to give out things during class activities such as plastic fruit and flashcards, e.g. as they answer “What’s your name?” or guess the objects. These can then be taken away- at least until everyone else in the class has one or two, at which point it is usually best to give them a chance to “win” it back. To make the whole class pay attention or use a little peer pressure to control one naughty kid, you can also stop the whole game and take everyone’s points back without counting them or congratulating anyone. This also works with taking the things (and hence points) away from teams, if they are old enough to work in teams.

2. Sit in the corner
You are probably thinking that if you do this all you need is a to put the kid in a dunce hat to have the perfect Victorian classroom, and actually this can be a sure one to make them cry if not handled well… Its advantage is that it is easy to demonstrate that they have done something wrong without needing to use L1 or complex English, especially if you place a chair in the corner for them to sit on. It can also split up two kids who are fighting or messing around together. Ways of making it less severe include putting the chair there as a warning before you even designate which child is likely to end up there if they don’t behave and telling them from the beginning when they will be allowed back into the main group if they behave. I also tend to use it as almost the last weapon in my arsenal of punishments, just a little less severe than being sent out of the classroom. Putting the chair so that the child sits with their back to the rest of the class makes the fact that it is a punishment more clear and can help make them more bored and so keen to join the class.

3. Stand up
Making the child who is misbehaving stand up for a while is another one that has been around forever for very good reasons in terms of being easy to explain, but can make a shy student very upset. The least severe variation is to make them stand up while you tell them that they should stop doing whatever it was, and then let them sit back down again.

4. Sit next to the teacher
This is a good one if you can’t trust them to behave when sat in the corner or you don’t want them to feel so embarrassed.

5. Stop the song
One of many good reasons for using one song every five or ten minutes in a very young learner class is that you can get their attention and make your unhappiness clear instantly with a touch of the pause button. You can then keep pause down until they are all behaving or just move onto the next (sit down) activity.

6. Make everyone sit down
As with songs, a good reason for having the kids running around having fun is that stopping the activity makes them realise that you are displeased and makes them keen not to miss out on so much fun next time. To make trying to stop the activity not just more chaos, you’ll need to start teaching them “stop”, “sit down” etc as soon as possible, e.g. through storybooks about naughty kids or during TPR.

7. Close the storybook
The same as songs and running around- if you get them really involved in a story, stopping it is all you will need to do to get total control and so be able to get back to teaching them the language.

8. Put away the toys or puppet
If the puppet is obviously sad or even crying when it is put away, that will make your point even better- maybe too much so if you have very sensitive kids! It can come back out if they start behaving again, to go away “forever” if you are completely losing control.

9. Don’t move on
To the next flashcard, next page of the storybook, next instruction on what to colour in etc. Instead, just wait standing still and looking mixed annoyed/ bored.

10. Make them get their books out
But hopefully this doesn’t lead to them thinking that all bookwork is a punishment! A good way round this is to start bookwork when they have been disrupting the class with checking homework or something else boring, but as a usual stage of the class usually start with something fun and only do the boring bits just before they can close their books again.

11. Name
Just calling out someone’s name gets everyone’s attention right away. As long as they don’t feel really picked on, you can even use this with random names as hearing someone’s name called will make anyone who is distracted instantly look their way. Problems teachers can have with this technique in pre-school classes include very large and infrequent classes where it is difficult to learn names, children who still can’t answer “What is your name?”, and names you can’t pronounce or read in the local alphabet. Stopping and staring hard at one person can have the same effect, although it takes more time. Alternatively, you can describe the troublemakers to other teachers and make sure you learn just their names before the next class. With older kids, you can divide them into teams and just call out the team name rather than individual names.

12. Countdown to trouble (“5! 4! 3! 2! …)
In this case, the “punishment” has the added benefit of being useful language practice. If they don’t know the numbers backwards yet, count down on your fingers as well. If they don’t know that counting down is a warning of trouble, make each number louder, slower and angrier than the last. If you want this to be taken seriously, you will need to know what you are going to do if you reach “one!” without them having calmed down.

13. Critical language
Simple language that is useful for this that you can teach them from storybooks etc includes “Bad boy/ girl”, “I am/ the teacher is angry”, “Stop”, “Don’t” and “naughty”. Gestures you can teach at the same time include an arm with a single finger held up shaken from side to side, a slow and despairing shaking of the head, and a cross shape made with open palms or even your whole forearms.

14. Write something down
Or at least pretend to.

15. A personal talking to
Even if the kids can’t understand much of what you are saying, bringing one person to the front of the class or taking them to one side and talking to them with the right expression (calm but disapproving and disappointed) and right tone of voice (ditto) usually has the desired effect.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET July 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Tefl.NET



    Is good to use the proper language

  • ouahida guerziz says:

    thanks for your article,great tips

  • Ed says:

    Very good article on a very difficult area of teaching. I’ve used most of these techniques to great effect in my classes.

    I think one thing I would add is to offer a good child a sweet/sticker for good behaviour. If the class see this, they usually tend to pay attention….
    BUT…problems I’ve had recently with this age group (3-5 year olds) is that they tend to rush towards me and demand a sweet or a sticker without answering questions or singing songs…it has worked more effectively for me with the 5+ year olds…

    However, would it be true to say that there will always be kids who just refuse to listen? As an example, I’ve always been able to get the boys to apologise in English to their counterparts if they have been fighting or pushing, but the girls always refuse and start screaming and shouting when asked to apologise.

    On speaking to the parents, I always get a “and your point is?” sort of attitude when I tell them about their kids behaviour.

    …I take this as a sign to do what I can for the students who want to learn and ignore the rest?

  • Alex Case says:

    Another important tip I forgot to mention is to keep the punishment as short as possible and then to accept the student or students back into the group and treat them exactly the same as the other students straightaway, with no lingering shred of disapproval and no special treatment that could make the whole experience seem like a reward (especially if they are an attention seeker). I think the fact that I have always done this by the end of the lesson and genuinely don’t disapprove of “naughty kids” but only a few examples of their behaviour is why I have been able to use some of these punishments without ever having bad feelings from the children in the next lesson.

  • Alex Case says:

    Hi Virginia

    Thanks for your long and thoughtful comments. I absolutely agree that other things like routines and comprehensible input are more important for classroom management than punishments, and have written about those things in other articles here and elsewhere. I also would never punish a kid of any age for not joining in, or for breaking a rule that I hadn’t made clear to them. The punishments I have used have usually been for fighting, other violent behaviour such as pushing people in games, other dangerous behaviour, destroying flashcards and other material, etc. Even in such cases I would prefer to leave their regular teacher to deal with it or to speak to the student quietly in L1 (all my very young learners being too low level to use English), but these things are often not possible when left on my own with large classes and being forbidden to speak L1 or being unable to speak their language due to being recently arrived in the country. In those cases, I have found these kinds of punishments to be necessary to stop bullying and to save one child disrupting a class that all the other kids are enjoying. When local teachers and even parents have been present when I have used some of these techniques, I have only ever received positive feedback. Whilst I wouldn’t say they are a last resort (as it’s better to be strict and then relax rather than the other way round, and teaching the kids differences in culturally acceptable behaviour is probably more valuable than language lessons), I would honestly love to know how to never need them with any kids.

    I am particularly interested in your policy of never using disapproval as a way of teaching kids acceptable behaviour. Could you give a bit more detail about what you mean? Can you also say which ones you find totally unacceptable? Would also like to hear other people’s reactions.

  • Virginia Bucci says:

    Many of the methods proposed here are inappropriate for the very young. Some of them are fine. I teach ages 2-1/2 to 6.

    Make only 1 or 2 rules and be consistent. Never assume your students “know” what appropriate behavior is.

    Without lecturing or punishing, there are ways to indiate desired behavior in a nurturing way. For example, you understand that Johnny ‘can’t manage this right now’ and will re-join the game as soon as he’s able… Or, it’s OK if Maddie doesn’t want to sing along, but she must keep quiet while the rest of us sing. These exchanges are quiet, 1-on-1. I disagree completely that disappointment or disappoval should EVER be used in such an exchange. One is teaching behavior, just as one is teaching language: pleasant but firm is the way to go, with big congratulations when expectations are met.

    It’s much easier to keep order in the class by way of a structured, repetitive format. Of course I am not teaching an all-day class, & if I were, I would need many more methods at my fingertips. I teach language “lessons” of about 40mins in length. They are high-energy, unlike all-day class. The usual behavior pitfall is, students ‘explode’ out of their structured classroom into my space, overexcited and having trouble directing their energy.

    After just one or two classes young students will remember and hope to repeat the lesson structure (example: a range of opening songs 5 mins, “how are you/ my feelings” conversation 10 mins, 10 mins TPR exercises, 10 mins floor games, 5 mins DVD segment reinforcing today’s new vocabulary, 5 mins closing game-songs). With a difficult class, discuss a favorite activity that will be placed last & only can be done when everyone stays focused.

    Set up your structure so that energy is dissipated before you attempt to do anything requiring intense focus. TPR exercises and floor games are great for that. Then comes that golden focused period (which you aim to increase as the year goes on), then wind down at the end.

    One other method not mentioned in the post & it took me 10 yrs to understand it. COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT. Often attention wanders because the material is imperfectly understood. Kids act up when they don’t completely grasp what’s going on; their focus increases 10fold when they understand every word.

  • Alex Case says:

    If you’d like to write an article about how to teach young low level learners in an English only classroom without using any of these kinds of classroom management techniques, we’d all be very pleased to read it

  • Jim says:

    This sounds like so much old-fashioned browbeating that has been discredited by modern thinkers.

    I guess it’s easier than making the class interesting.

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