Managing very Young Learners

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)


Facing a class of under fives can be a very frightening experience. What do you do when they start crying, crawling under the table, throwing things, won’t participate etc?


It is important to remember that learning English can be a frightening and destabilising experience for a young child and it is vital that rapport and trust is established quickly. Greet them when they come into the classroom, and use their names as much as possible. Sometimes having children’s music/songs playing quietly in the background can reduce the stress felt by the learners.

Sometimes small toys/teddies etc can be used to distract nervous or tearful learners who can be asked to “look after” the toy for the lesson. It is important to set this up clearly or the child may become distressed at the end of the lesson when they have to return it. For this to work well the same group of toys should be available every week and there should be at least one available per learner. These toys can also be used to introduce new language etc.

Routines are very important for young learners as it fosters a sense of security and comfort. Always begin and end the lessons the same way, as the learners will get used to the routine making them easier to manage. You could use the ‘hello’ song (FAB Red) to start the lesson and “goodbye” (FAB Red) to end it. This means that the learners are controlled on entering and leaving the class.

Before the lesson starts make sure that all your materials are prepared and ready for use. This will mean that you can give the learners your undivided attention. Try not to turn your back on the class.

There are a number of ways of ensuring that discipline is maintained in a young learner class and the best method will change with the class and teacher. But there needs to be a clear and consistent system. Young learners need to know what is expected of them and be clear on why they are being told ‘no!’

One method is to draw two faces in the corner of the board at the start of each lesson, one smiley and the other sad. Write the names of the learners onto card that can be moved between the two faces. Stick them onto the board in-between the two columns. If the learners do something good e.g. participate, tidy up etc then the card is moved to the smiley face column. This is a clear incentive that shows the focus is not just on the naughty children. If someone does misbehave then their name should be moved into the sad face column, but remember to give them an opportunity to return to the middle and eventually the smiley face column during the lesson. At the end of the lesson be sure to make a point of congratulating those in the smiley column to reinforce and reward their good behaviour.

Similar to football it is possible to use a card system with your learners – yellow cards for minor infractions and red for more serious ones. (Two yellow cards are followed by a red card).

Seating arrangements are a very important factor to a well-managed class. As a teacher you need to be able to make eye contact with all the learners. If they are using tables make sure that you are mobile, change where you sit. Use designated seats to split up children who easily distract each other or put quieter learners with those they get on well with. This can be done with word/colour cards given at the door that the learners match to a card on a chair.

Ensure that the learners only have the bare minimum available. A friend’s pencil can quickly become the most fascinating thing in the world!

Prevention is better than a cure and the reasons why learners might be misbehaving are often easier to deal with than the behaviour itself. Learners need to be challenged and they should always have something achievable to do. If they are bored or do not understand the task they will become bored and harder to control. Make sure activities are clearly demonstrated. Help those who do not understand and if possible encourage the learners to help each other. Have extra materials and ideas prepared for those who finish faster than the others.

Varying the type of activity and groupings used in the class is important. Make sure that fast paced active games are interspersed with calmer more sedate ones. Remember children can be very loud but the louder you are the louder they will become. If you want their attention try standing where they can all see you with your hands on your head. It will take a few minutes for the whole class to copy you but the more focussed ones will follow quickly and the others will be intrigued by what is happening and the class will quieten.

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