Managing very young learners

It can be very daunting going into a class of 20 or 30 five-year-olds when you have little teaching experience.

Jo Bertrand

How do you react when three of them are crying and don’t want to be there? What do you do when they start crawling under tables or throwing bits of paper? How do you deal with the children who don’t want to say or do anything? And how do you organise trips to the toilet without finding yourself with an empty classroom? Here are a few ideas which will hopefully help you to deal with these situations as easily and efficiently as possible so you can still teach some English!


  • Teddy bears or puppets
  • Red and yellow card
  • Music
  • Board pens

In the beginning
You are a new person in their lives and quite possibly in a new environment with new rules. All of this can be very destabilising for very young children who are used to being around their parents and people they know. You really need to build up their trust before they can learn anything.

  • When they come into the classroom be there to welcome them and use their names as much as possible.
  • Have three or four teddy bears lined up on your table and ask the tearful looking children to look after ‘Snoopy’ as he is very shy. They will love the responsibility and this will act as a distraction.
  • You should always have the same teddies, or puppets at every lesson as they can serve to introduce new language or explain rules to games, etc.
  • Have some quiet children’s music playing while they come into the classroom to make the environment more welcoming.

When one child says he wants to go to the toilet suddenly everyone will want to go. You’ll quickly get to know those who ask to go just as an excuse to leave the classroom.

  • You should establish toilet or drinking water rules in the first few lessons.
  • If there is another adult with you in the room then halfway through your lesson, at a convenient time for what you’re all doing, you should organise a toilet run with either of you taking a handful of children at a time until everyone has been.
  • If your lesson is shorter than an hour it might be more practical to arrange a toilet run before the class starts.
  • Have some tissue in the classroom for blowing noses!

It’s very important to always begin and end your lesson in the same way each time. The more children are familiar with class routines the easier they are to manage.

  • At the beginning of your lesson you may have to take a register. This will provide you with a perfect opportunity to install calm before starting the lesson. Otherwise you can make up your own opening routines.
  • You could have a ‘hello song’ which the teddies sing to the children and then the children sing it to the teddies.
  • Ask everyone to get their books and a pen out and to put their bags under the table before you start the lesson.
  • Make sure all your papers are ready before the children come into the classroom so you can properly give them your undivided attention. If they are in the room before you then make your entrance as quickly as possible, lay out your materials without completely turning your back on the class and begin the class always with the same greeting.
  • At the end of the lesson you could have a ‘goodbye song’ or simply a mini-conversation ‘Thank you. See you next week. Have a good week.’ Where the children repeat what you say. Get them to be quiet before saying this farewell and they will soon understand what they have to do at the end of each lesson. Don’t just run out of a rowdy class at the end!

You need to see what system works for you and the children you teach but you must have a ‘system’! Children need to know what is expected of them rather than be told off and not know why.

  • Draw two faces in the corner of the board at the start of each lesson, one smiley and the other sad. Write their names onto piece of card that you can keep for the year. Stick them onto the board in-between the two columns. If they do something good like participate, help a friend or tidy up after themselves then you can move their name over to the happy face column. This is great incentive for them and shows that you aren’t just concentrating on the children who misbehave. If a child does misbehave you can move his name card across but give him the chance to move back to the middle and eventually to the smiley face column if during the rest of the lesson he does two good things. At the end of the class make a point of congratulating those who are in the smiley face column.
  • Like in football you can distribute yellow cards for minor naughtiness and red cards for mores serious misbehaviour. Two yellow cards can be replaced by red cards. Depending on what set up you’re teaching in you can write something in their books or keep a record yourself of how many red cards they get. In any case speak to your school to see if they have a specific system.
  • Seating arrangements are key to a well-managed class. Make sure you have eye contact with everyone. If they have their backs to you children are more likely to be distracted. If they are sitting in round tables then keep mobile yourself. Don’t hesitate to change where they are sitting if you find they are easily distracted by sitting next to certain children. Shier children might feel more at ease if they can sit next to someone they get on with.
  • Make sure they only have the bare minimum on their desks. A friend’s pencil case can quickly become far more interesting than the lesson itself!
  • Ban the use of pencil sharpeners if possible! If pencils break then sharpen or replace it yourself otherwise 5 year olds often love to spend hours sharpening a pencil down to the tip and then spilling the contents next to the bin not in it!
  • In the first lesson you should establish a handful of memorable class rules. These could include, no shouting, no going under or over tables, always listen to the teacher and your classmates, no throwing pencils etc. Explain these rules when you have everyone’s full attention.

Large classes and mixed abilities
The reasons that children can be difficult to manage are often easier to deal with than naughty children themselves.

  • They should always have something to do.
  • They should always be challenged. If they are bored then they will soon play up.
  • Help the children who don’t understand. Use the stronger pupils as resources. Children love helping other children even at 5!
  • Have a reserve of extra activities for those who finish very quickly.
  • For large classes try to limit activities that are solely teacher-centred where everyone has to listen to you. By the same token 5-year-olds may find pair work difficult and need lots of guidance. You can’t be everywhere at once. So the key is to vary the type of activity and grouping you use.
  • Lots of children can mean lots of noise. The louder you shout, the louder they will become. If you want their attention then stand at the front of the class and put your hands on your head. It will take a few minute for the whole class to copy you but there will always be a few who are watching you and will be in intrigued by what you’re doing. Slowly the class will become silent.

Internet links
A comprehensive article with lots of ideas on how to manage young learners:
The Language Assistant manual was written as a guide and handbook for novice English language teachers taking their first steps into the classroom:

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