The first five minutes of any lesson are critical.
It’s where you set the tone, remind children of classroom expectations and get them into a state where they’re ready to learn.
This is harder with some classes. Instead of calm and focussed, they arrive at school argumentative or over-excited. And it’s the same after playtime. And after lunch.
It’s like they didn’t get the memo…
…and it’s the exact opposite of what we’re after.
With that in mind, here are 3 tried-and-tested strategies for getting kids calm, focussed and ready to learn – whatever state they arrive in at the start of your lesson.
1. The magic portal
The classroom door is a magic portal. It’s where students transition from the ‘outside’, where it’s fine to blow off steam and have fun, to the ‘inside’, which is a workplace.
There’s some evidence to suggest that when we go into a new area, either physically or in our imagination, our brains perform a reset on our emotional state. So before the children are allowed through the portal to enter the classroom, make them demonstrate they’re calm and ready to work.
Put a large sign on the door to remind children, “this is a workplace.” You can even add captions such as, “we enter calmly” or “we enter quietly”.
As the children arrive, back this up with verbal reminders. For example, if Jack is still excitable, remind him: “Jack, it’s time for calm. You’re coming into our classroom, and it’s a workplace.”
Also give specific praise to students who are displaying the right behaviour. For instance, “George, I can see you’re standing quietly and calmly. That’s brilliant.”
2. Create a habit of work
As your students enter the classroom, reinforce they’re entering a workplace by having a task ready for them at their tables.
Make eye contact with as many children as possible as they come into the room (friendly eye-contact – not scary), smile and direct them to their seats. Explain that they have 2 minutes to complete the task.
If children delay going their tables, give them a friendly verbal reminder of your expectations. Your entire focus during the first two minutes is guiding the children to their tables and getting them working.
For those who aren’t calm yet, ask them to wait at the threshold and “join the rest of us when you’re calm and ready.” (If they try to argue, respond with the strategies from our article, ‘What to do when a student argues back‘.)
The task you’ve chosen should be simple, one your students can complete independently. It’s entire purpose is to make the point, “this is a work environment”.
The task could be as simple as writing down the date and learning objective, or completing a few simple mathematics problems. (If the task is challenging, pupils will start asking for your help – and we want to avoid this. Our attention should be 100% focussed on settling the class.)
Repeat this routine every time the children come into your classroom.
By getting the children into a habit of going to their tables and starting work immediately, you’re exploiting the power of routine. Over time, this will automatically improve behaviour and move your students into a productive emotional state.
So – our aim is for the children to be focussed and relaxed. We can help them reach this state by slowing down their breathing and heart rates.
The obvious question is – how? We do this by harnessing our bodies’ natural reaction to music.
As the students enter class, play some calm music over the classroom speakers.
As humans, we tend to slow (or quicken) our breathing to match the tempo of a piece of music. When our breathing rate increases or decreases, our heart rate follows. Think about a piece of high-tempo dance music. Without even hearing it, you can probably feel your body ‘gearing up’ to the thump-thump-thump of its rhythm.
We’re after the exact opposite. We want to slow our biology down.
So choose music that is slow, bland, and has no words or drum beat. You’re after a soundtrack that is pure background, that requires no effort to listen to. A piece of music that doesn’t demand any attention at all.
(Note: if anyone falls asleep, you’ve overdone it.)
And for best results, play this at a low volume. If you play the music too loudly, some children will use it as a cover for whispering and talking. If you have children with sensory needs, sit them away from your classroom speakers or offer them ear defenders.
When the two-minute task is over, turn the music off and begin your lesson introduction.
Now even the most challenging of classes will be calm, focussed and ready to learn.