Behavior in the Music Classroom

I’m seeing a lot of FaceBook posts recently, asking for help with behavior issues in music classes, especially in Gr. 4-5, although younger classes can be really challenging too.  You can’t teach music when behaviors are out of control.  The music room is a different classroom than the students are used to, with more movement, lots of instruments and activity. I want my students to look forward to music class and to be excited about coming to class. 

Reward systems can work (and in a future newsletter I’ll include suggestions for one that’s worked for me) but ultimately, we want students to manage their own behaviors because they want to learn the skills that we’re teaching.  I’m not a believer in popcorn parties that reward students for doing what they should be doing all along.  If it’s popcorn parties this year, next year they’ll want pizza.   There is a need for consequences for poor behavior, but I want to depend less on students behaving because they don’t want a phone call home, and have students who behave well because they want to learn music.

14 Ways to Address Behavior Issues in your Music Classroom

1. Seating Plan:  Where do you expect students to sit?  If you don’t have a seating plan, make one.  Keeping problem students apart is one of the easiest ways to manage behaviors.  I make my seating plan girl-girl boy-boy girl-girl boy-boy.  If there are any problems, then that part of the class sits boy girl boy girl instead.  The app Idoceo is a useful tool for creating seating plans and organizing your classes.

2. Line-ups:  How do you expect students to come in and leave class?  If you expect that they wait quietly outside your room before they come in, don’t let them into your room until they can demonstrate that behavior.  In your school do classroom teachers walk students to the music room?  If so, that helps. If you have to go pick them up, then you need to practice how you want them walking through hallways until they do it well.  I have spent 1/2 of a music class practice entering/exiting the classroom because the class was so noisy.

3. Routines:  Do you take attendance each class?  A seating plan helps to take attendance more quickly.   Use your attendance as a quick assessment of pitch matching.  Sing hello to a student and have them sing hello back.  I like to do what I call Flashcard attendance.  I use either rhythm or melody flashcards.  I call or sing a student’s name, then they read the flashcard.  You can also use this as exit tickets.  My set of rhythm flashcards is color coded, so I can find the set that a grade is working on quickly.   Link to Rhythm Flashcards:  USA   Canada
Flashcard attendance has another benefit in that it sets a tone.  Students know that these are skills that they will learn.

4. Classroom Rules: Develop rules with students so they set their own climate of respect and responsibility, and reinforce the rules by making expectations clear and keeping requests simple, direct and specific.  I love my Music Room Rules Posters that lay out the expectations clearly, in a musical way, and that make such a great body percussion composition lesson and bulletin board.  If you have school wide rules, use them and make a musical activity out of them.  A Blog post on the Music rules is here:

Make good choices, always be responsible.
Use good manners, be nice and be kind.
Speak when you're called on, always put your hand up.
In the music room, always try your best.
Care for the instruments and all of the equipment.
The Music rules are part of the publication Music Rules Poster Pack, published T&V.  To order color posters:
Canada :     
USA :  
(The publication also addresses audience behavior and instrument care)

5. Be Consistent:  Barbara Coloroso says it so well:  “Our children are counting on us to provide two things: consistency and structure.  Children need parents who say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they are going to do.”  So - if you say you’ll take instruments away if children play when you’re talking, then do it - take them away.  One of my favorite sayings:  “If you play before I say I’ll take your instrument away.”  (Danece Workman - thanks for this!)

6. Praise the Positive:  A pat on the back goes a lot further than a kick in the pants. 
Catch someone in the class doing something right and make a positive comment.  It will often encourage the rest of the students to behave more responsibly.  This is particularly effective in younger grades.  I have a Good Behavior note that you can send home with students.  I’ll have copies of this posted at in the Back to School Unit.  I’ll also post copies of these in the Musicplay Teachers Group on Facebook.

7. Don’t Reward Bad Behavior:  I visited a Gr. 2 classroom that had an extremely difficult student.  In a 30 minute class I saw this child push another student, refuse to participate, and refuse to do what the teacher asked.  But when the teacher chose a conductor for an activity, she chose this same child because he’d been behaving for a few minutes.  If I was a child in that class, the message I’d get was that if you want to get picked, you have to have to behave really badly.

8.  Get Close to the Problem Student
If I play Stella Ella Olla with a class and child is hitting too hard, I put him right next to me, so that if the behavior continues, I know it and that child can sit out. 

9.  A Quiet Teacher has a Quiet Class
Lois Choksy said this when I took my Kodaly Levels with her, and it’s stuck with me for 30 years.  If you want your students to listen, speak more quietly.  If there are students talking and they shouldn’t be, don’t try to speak over them.  Wait it out.  Wait until the class is quiet until you begin instruction. Non-verbal signals are an excellent tool to use. “Simon Says” is a fun game to use with younger grades.  “Simon Says - put your finger on your nose.  Simon says - do the twist.  Put your hands on your knees - gotcha!  I didn’t say Simon Says.”  In some schools a raised hand indicates that silence is expected.  Flashing lights is sometimes used.  Develop your own signals, and use them.  It will also help you use your voice less.

If you have a very challenging class waiting for silence might not be effective, but if an entire class is disruptive, I’d suggest you line them up, take them back to their classroom early, and then have all of them do a pencil/paper reflection.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a reflection copied and ready to go.  Just give them a piece of paper and have them write it out.   Sometimes these challenging classes need to be kept in their own classrooms for a week or two until they can demonstrate that they are ready to learn in the music room.

10. Engage the students – When students are engaged, they aren’t causing problems. When are students engaged?  When they are “doing!”   The teacher needs to remember to talk less and do more!   Keep verbal instructions concise and clear and spend most of your class time making music.   I’ve written a Blog Post (I'll edit and rewrite it in a future newsletter) on some of the most engaging activities I’ve used with Gr. 4-5-6:

11. Pacing – Keep your lessons fast paced.  When students have very little down time, there are far fewer behavior issues.  Public speakers watch for indicators that an audience is restless - if you notice folks checking cell phones chances are, you’ve lost their interest.  Kids will also give you indicators - they’ll talk to a neighbor, they’ll  pick tape off the floor, fidget, or daydream.  This is a cue to you as the teacher that students aren’t engaged, and you need to pick up the pace, take a brain break, or change activities.  (More on brain breaks in a future newsletter)

12.  Make students accountable for their learning  Start the new year with a rhythm reading or writing pretest.  (You can find these in Rhythm Practice section, assessments).  I had a tough grade 3 class, and it was when doing the reading assessments they realized they had to pay attention because there were skills I was going to test them on.  Do it as a pre-test - then spend lots of time on rhythm activities and give them a post-test.  If they see improvement, they’ll realize that they can learn.

13. Behavior Reflections
We all make mistakes.  And often, if we reflect on our behavior we can identify ways we could have done better.
Create a time out space in your room. 
The Time to Pause sign will be posted as a PDF in the Back to School Unit at Musicplayonline (Monday) and in the Musicplay Teachers Group on FaceBook.
Time to Pause - For minor disruptions, a child may just need a short time out. 
For a more serious disruption, have them fill out a behavior reflection while seated in the time out area.

Post your Music Room Rules in your time out space, and have children read the rules while they are in time out.

As the teacher, you should have a binder or folder where you document instances of behavior that are disruptive enough to need a time out.  Have the student fill out a reflection, take a photo of it for your folder, and send a copy home.  Call or email the parents with a copy of it, and ask them to sign and have the child return it.   I’ll have copies of these reflections posted at in the Back to School Unit.  I’ll also post copies of these in the Musicplay Teachers Group on Facebook.
If you’re willing to share your behavior reflections or other strategies that you use, please email or post in the Musicplay Teachers Group on FaceBook.  If you allow me to, I’ll post yours at

14.  Reward Systems
This will be a newsletter topic all on it’s own, but I’m wary of using them.  Studies have shown that long term rewards aren’t very effective.  Studies have also shown that using any extrinsic reward may not be effective in the long term.  Ultimately, we want kids to behave well because they are engaged and they WANT to learn!  Keep a log of each class's favorite songs and singing games.  If you have a great class, give them 5 minutes at the end of class to play a favorite game.  Yes, this is a reward, but it's a reward intrinsic to the subject area - not something you need to go buy at a dollar store.

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