Discipline Strategies in the Music Classroom

Classroom Management
Behavior Contracts

Classroom Management

Affirmation is one of the most direct and effective disciplinary tools. Each student needs to know that he or she is accepted, even if, at times, his or her behavior is not. Parents and teachers can work together for the benefit of the student. If both agree on a plan to help a child alter behavior and work together in a team effort, much can be accomplished.

Consistency, routine, and organization will prevent or eliminate many discipline problems. Discipline is a positive matter and should be viewed as motivation rather than controlled behavior. Whenever, as a teacher, you decide you are going to "make your students behave," you may be on the road to failure. When you begin to look for ways to "turn the student on" to music, you probably are on the road to success.

Well-managed classrooms have few problems. "The first step in managing your classroom is to learn the students' names thoroughly and quickly. To speed up the process, take pictures of each row, table, or section of students and make a seating chart to accompany the pictures (this works for all grade levels). With a Polaroid camera or the help of a quick-print developing company, you can develop the photographs and learn the students' names literally overnight. You can then post the pictures on the bulletin board as the focus of a display that will provide a source of interest and pride to the students.

Classroom discipline problems can be prevented by making sure that students see the value and importance of what they are learning. They should be actively involved in the learning process so that they are not diverted by extraneous incidents or undesirable personalities.

It takes high energy to motivate a group of students. Use short-term goals, set a pace that is as quick as appropriate for the students' level of maturity, and work with a sense of urgency. You must use class time efficiently and prepare lessons and materials carefully; however, you must allow for whatever lesson flexibility is warranted by a given situation. Prepare lesson plans that are interesting for yourself as well as for the students. This will help motivate you and give you the incentive to work through the plan with the students. If students are frustrated, embarrassed, bored, or defeated – to name just a few problems – they will mirror their attitudes in the classroom. Anticipate and adjust any behavior that promotes those negative emotions.

Maintain consistent and high-level expectations for student behavior. Create a sense of individual responsibility and accountability: Give students written tests about the music they are rehearsing, and use audiocassettes to create a permanent record of accomplishment for each individual. Students often interpret "drill" as a negative word: Use words such as "game" or "challenge," and create multiple ways of practicing a concept to avoid repeating it in the same way dozens of times.

In elementary choral classes, reinforce good performances with a variety of verbal and nonverbal reinforcement for both individual and group performances. Provide opportunities for the class to "show off" their performing skills by performing for another class or for a parents' group. Tape-record students' performances on a good-quality recorder so they can hear themselves. Exchange tapes of favorite songs with a class in another school.

When a K-l child "tests" your disciplinary measures, take the student aside the first two or three times disruptive behavior occurs and whisper the correction and consequences to the child. If corrections are consistently made audibly, a young child may capitalize on them as attention getters. Whispering to a child may forestall the repetition of overt misbehavior. When you are tempted to completely "blow your top," count to ten, and try to act as unemotionally and objectively as possible. Teachers must never lose their temper. They may sometimes seem to become angry, but they must never actually lose control of their emotions. Students sometimes intentionally push teachers to lose their temper just to create excitement in the class.

One way to handle discipline for young children is to make use of a "stop and go" sign. Instead of raising your voice, try holding up the "stop" side of the sign when the volume of noise or disruptive behavior takes place. If one student needs to be disciplined, walk down the aisle and hold the sign directly in front of him or her. This can be a good alternative to an audible reprimand.

When young children are moving into formation for a singing game or dance, precede the action with the word "Freeze." Then whisper "Tiptoe to the dancing circle" to reduce running and shoving. Minimize talking and disruptive behavior as students enter the music classroom by pinning strips of paper on the bulletin board nearest the door and having each child pull a slip as he or she enters the room. Write a notated melodic, rhythmic, or other musical problem on each slip along with a number, and sometime during the class (perhaps when least expected) use the number to call on someone to solve the musical problem. Assign points for each correct answer, and let those points accrue to a total for that row or side of the room.

Behavior Contracts

Behavior contracts are tools that can aid teachers in classroom management. Contracts are an integral part of several discipline strategies used in today's schools, including social discipline, behavior modification, and assertive discipline. The contract serves as a signed agreement between the teacher and the student for students and, in certain situations, for the parents. It includes the specific reinforcement or punishment that will result from successful performance or failure to meet the stipulations of the contract. Contracts provide the students with the structure that will encourage them to behave in an acceptable and appropriate manner. When establishing a contract with a student or a group, use the following steps:
  1. Determine or select the behavior that must be changed.
  2. Specify clearly what the desired behavior should be.
  3. Negotiate with the student the rewards or consequences to be established.
  4. Specify how you will monitor and evaluate the behavior.
  5. Set a time for the length of the contract. (You and the student may wish to set a date before the completion of the contract on which you can evaluate the student's progress and, if appropriate, rewrite the contract.)
  6. Put the contract in writing.
  7. Have all concerned parties sign.
Contracts can be used to improve behavior problems with individuals or groups or as a means of setting performance goals for both individuals and groups. Individual contracts are used to help students with problems that are more serious than the "normal" range of troublesome classroom behavior. They can be presented in a variety of formats (Sample Behavior Contract). With the elementary-school child, the steps and format can be simplified; with older students, the details should be very clearly defined and stated. Do not arbitrarily impose a contract on a student, but negotiate and give the student an opportunity to reflect on his or her behavior and the means by which it can be improved.

You must select reinforcement and punishment techniques that are not only obtainable, but are a normal part of the school program. These techniques should reflect school system procedures and state law. You might reward students for success with a contract by selecting a study topic that is of great personal interest to the students, verbally commending their accomplishment, and providing a written record of their attainment. The written record can be sent to all appropriate persons, such as the students, parents, and the school principal. When setting up and carrying out a contract, you must focus on positive, correct behavior as much as possible. If you believe that the student's parents should be aware of the problem and can be of assistance, invite them to be part of the final agreement.

Group contracts may be needed to correct a problem that exists throughout a class, such as getting to class or rehearsal late, excessive talking, playing of instruments at inappropriate times during class, and other off-task behaviors. The teacher and class usually develop the contract during a class meeting; the teacher approaches the situation by stating, "Okay, we have a problem. What can we do to correct it?" Again, as in the individual contract, the teacher should not impose the contract on the students but should direct the group so that the students perceive the problem and determine a method for improvement. The value of social or peer pressure in this group approach to contracting is a strength of the technique. There are, however, some dangers inherent in this type of contract: Some students may intentionally break the contract, those who are behaving may be resentful of the contract, and it may be difficult to find a reward that is attainable and that will be effective for all.

Goal-setting is a helpful technique for individuals or classes that lack direction or behavioral consistency. There is no real punishment used, but reinforcement results if the specified goals are met. Again, students' input is important. They should brainstorm possible goals for a week, month, or longer. One teacher used this method to improve sight-reading skills in band. The students identified the long-range goals and several short-term goals, and cooperatively they planned with the teacher the techniques to be used to improve their skills. The payoff could then be a free day or an extracurricular activity. If you give this kind of direction and focus to study, you may forestall many behavior problems.

If you have not tried contracts in your management strategies, do so. They provide a very clear, definite structure, one that encourages students to assume their share of responsibility in improving the classroom environment.


The combination of techniques that you use to maintain control in the classroom is a personal matter, and it will depend on your own strengths and weaknesses and the specific situation. The best methodologies emphasize the most unobtrusive techniques so that good control becomes an effortless result of your teaching style. Your effectiveness as a teacher and the level of satisfaction you achieve will depend largely on your skill in adapting relevant rules to each new situation.

Establish the rules by explaining the reasons for their implementation: the practical reasons and the benefits in terms of accomplishment for the group and the individual. Indicate problems in a tangible way: They should have an effect on grades or result in notes or calls to parents. Involve students in formulating clear rules, formal and informal. Phrase these few but firm rules in positive ways, enforce them fairly and consistently, and use visual and oral reminders as reinforcement throughout the year. When making corrections, be specific and explain how to improve behavior, leaving the students' egos intact. It is your purpose to help the students alter their behavior, not to belittle them.

If you are a less experienced teacher, consider the similarities and differences between natural energy and disruptive behavior. The comparison will help you develop a better sense of what to ignore and what to address. Examining the alternatives often leads one to the realization that doing less is sometimes far better than doing more.

Teachers who have an established sequence for maintaining discipline generally accomplish their lesson objectives. A sequence for dealing with a misbehaving student might be:

  1. While keeping the class activity moving, make direct eye contact with the student.
  2. If misbehavior continues, keep the class activities moving while standing behind the student. Your physical proximity can be a powerful deterrent to a student with mischief in mind. Often walking slowly to stand a moment or two by a chair or desk is all that is necessary to correct a problem. Remember, however, that a larger, more intimidating physical presence does not automatically create good discipline. It is rather the size of the mental strength and determination of the teacher: Mental toughness is a marvelous attribute.
  3. If the message doesn't get through, keep the class activities moving while switching the student with another, telling the problem student that he or she sings or works better in the new position.
  4. If correction is still needed, give a short admonition, making your words quick, quiet, and (depending on the problem) potent. Avoid repeated reprimands: Tell the student that he or she has forced the teacher to speak and to see the teacher after class.
  5. As a last resort, move the student outside the "circle of learning." The after-class conference should allow the student to explain to the teacher why such a meeting was necessary. Having the student write and sign a statement about why he or she was singled out often helps children in the upper grades.
Don't make threats that you will not or should not carry out. Penalties should be addressed in the context of the formulation of rules, before the need arises. When inappropriate behavior occurs, identify and challenge it specifically, but build self-respect, group pride, and confidence with positive reinforcement when it is genuinely deserved.

Students need to learn about proper behavior in a musical setting as well as about music itself. Teach them how musicians treat one another personally, approach one another's music, rehearse, and behave at concerts. Music teachers share with other faculty members and parents the responsibility to teach general social behaviors to their students, who are citizens of the school, the community, and the world.

Excerpted from TIPS: Discipline in the Music Classroom.

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