On Discipline: Teaching drama to 3–6-year-olds

Young children have an uninhibited, playful and raw state of being that many actors strive to achieve later in life. With this age group, you can play a piece of music, ask them to act out the feelings of the song and within seconds you are watching an Oscar-worthy performance. You can’t get this standard of acting as quickly with any other age group.

However, it is also their lack of inhibitions that can be a teacher’s worst nightmare. If you don’t have a good grasp of discipline, all too quickly your class can spiral into chaos! So here are my top tips on maintaining good discipline when teaching 3–6-year-olds.

Signal for silence: Shortly after you’ve taken the register, establish your signal for silence. The best signals for silence are when the teacher says something and the children respond with something else. For example, you say ‘Oliver’ and put your hands on your head and the class say ‘Twist’ whilst doing jazz hands. Once you’ve demonstrated your signal for silence, practise it a few times with the children and make sure you use it several times throughout the lesson so that it gets remembered. Try to create a new signal for each term so that it doesn’t become stale.

Be firm: Children like boundaries and they will test you to see where yours are. If you’ve made a rule, stick to it no matter what. You need to keep your rules black and white and do not budge. Don’t give in to a cute smile, a tantrum or emotional blackmail, for example, ‘I’m telling my Mum on you!’

Physicalise everything: 3–6-year-olds tend to use their eyes more than their ears. Your body language is everything. Over-exaggerate your body language and show them all the things you can do with your body. Think children’s TV presenter.

Keep it simple: Some of your children may have only just learnt how to talk, so be sure to use simple vocabulary and be patient. You may have to explain your instructions two or three times; physicalise these instructions and maintain your enthusiasm at a high level.

If your lesson plan or performance piece is too complex, the attention of the class can wander and that’s when undesirable behaviour occurs.

Regular breaks: Give the children a 5–10 minute break after every 30–40 minutes of teaching. This break is a good time for them to go to the toilet, have a drink and possibly even have a snack. Break time is also a good time for you to bond with the children. Ask them questions and make sure you are interested in what they have to say. Pets, birthdays, holidays and tooth fairies are all good conversation starters. They’ll love telling you all about themselves and then later on, when you’re teaching, they’ll be much more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Encourage the children to use the toilet during the set breaks, not during your class, otherwise it will ruin the flow of your lesson. However, if someone really does look desperate, it’s a good idea to let him or her go. 

Short activities: Each activity should last 5–10 minutes and never longer than 12 minutes. One of my teaching assistants once said to me, ‘Sam, did you know that all the activities last exactly 7 minutes?’ No, I didn’t!

One instruction at a time: If these little ones are given too many instructions at a time, they freeze like bunnies staring into headlights. When explaining a game or activity, take one small step at a time; try not to explain the whole thing at once.

Smile: 3–6-year-olds have a tendency to mirror your mood more so than older children. After all, mirroring is how they’ve learnt to talk, walk and so on. If you show any signs of a bad mood, so will your class. Be warned!

Remind them of the two golden rules at the start of every lesson: ‘Have fun’ and ‘listen’ are mine. You may want to think of your own, but make sure your rules are explicit in telling them what to do and what not to do.

Give examples of what’s right and what’s wrong: Try to do this in a humorous way. For example, I might say: ‘Please can I have you all sitting nice and still when Jasmine performs her poem?’ I will then show the children what sitting well looks like: ‘Like this,’ I’ll say, ‘and not like this.’ Then, I’ll slouch, kick my feet about, go in a huff and pretend to pick my nose. They will laugh and now understand how to sit nicely! Giving physical examples of the right and wrong behaviour is a really effective way of communicating with these little ones.

Use humour: Act in a slapstick way if you can – they’ll love it! A little toilet humour goes down well too (just make sure you keep it appropriate).

Never use humour to belittle or make fun of a child. On the other hand, the children will love it if you make fun of yourself!

Timeout: Explain clearly at the start of each term, and perhaps a couple of times during the term, the rules of ‘timeout’. These rules are: if you talk when someone’s talking or do something not very nice, you’ll get a warning. Then, if you do it again, you’ll go on a timeout.

Make sure everyone knows that timeout is a big deal. Timeout involves sitting on the naughty chair for two minutes, facing the wall. In addition, the parents should be told if their child has been on a timeout. Always give one warning before putting someone on a timeout and explain clearly to the child why they have been given a warning; for example, ‘Harper, I’m giving you a warning because you were talking to Rosie when Muhammad was performing. One more thing and it will be a timeout, do you understand?’ Make sure she understands and that she says ‘yes’. Give her a smile and say, ‘Good, I know you’ll make the right choice’. If Harper is guilty of a second offence during the lesson, for example if she pinches Muhammad, she will immediately go on a timeout.

Explain to her that you had given her a warning so the punishment is fair. Once Harper has done her two minutes on the chair, be sure to give her a fresh start by saying something like, ‘I know you can be good, shall we start again?’ If she agrees, shake her hand and say ‘good choice’. In the unlikely event that she says ‘no’, tell her how sad that is because you were really looking forward to seeing her perform in the next activity and then ask her to go back on the timeout chair.

The chances are that she will agree to be good and join in, or perhaps she does need a few more minutes on the chair. When she agrees to behave well, congratulate her and shake hands on it. Even if she’s good for the remainder of the lesson, you will still need to follow through by telling her parents that she went on a timeout. However, when telling her parents about the incident, try and balance it out with something positive that Harper did during the lesson.

Stickers: Get a really beautiful packet of stickers, show them off to the children and then give them out throughout your lessons. Not too many or they’ll lose their value, but not too sparingly or they’ll feel unattainable. Always accompany the sticker with a compliment that the whole class can hear: ‘Rachel, that was beautiful singing and I noticed that you helped Tom to get up on stage. That was so kind.’ Soon, you will find everyone in the class is trying to help others and sing beautifully. The children need to be constantly reminded of what is good behaviour so that they can aspire to achieve it. 

Performer of the Week: Once a week, give a certificate to someone who did something special during the lesson. If it’s a large class, give two out. Make a big deal of the certificate, print it on some coloured card, and tell the children how they could take it home and put it on their fridge or in their bedroom. Get everyone to act out a big drum roll before you announce the winner. Mention the award throughout the lesson: ‘Hmm, I wonder who will get Performer of the Week today. It will be a tough choice because you’re all doing so well.’

Keep a note of who gets it each week and try to make sure everyone gets a certificate at least once a term. Find the good in even the most challenging of children – a confidence boost might just be what they need.

Create a safe space: It’s okay for the children to make mistakes, to misunderstand an activity or to freeze during a performance. Make sure they know it’s okay to make mistakes – it must be a safe space to fail.

Never show frustration or anger as this age group needs to feel safe and know that they can trust you to be kind and patient with them. 

Focus on the positive, not the negative: Praise your children and keep your use of the word ‘no’ to an absolute minimum. If you have a challenging child, praise them the moment they do something good. If your class is struggling to get into a circle, thank the people that are trying.

Getting into a circle: Anyone who has worked with this age group knows that this can be a particularly frustrating task, sometimes taking two or three minutes when it should only take a few seconds. Yes, I’ve seen children as young as three get into a circle in just a few seconds!

Try to make the children want to get into the circle. You could say: ‘Quickly everyone, I have something really exciting to show you and once you are all sat in a circle, I can show you.’ Or, you could make it into a game: ‘The first one to sit in the circle gets a sticker.’ Alternatively, you could tell them they’ve got five seconds to get into a circle and then count down from five in a loud voice. Do not make getting into a circle a chore; make it fun and make sure you are demonstrating that it is exciting to be getting into the circle.

Once the children are in the circle, you could make a game out of it. For example, it could be like musical chairs, but instead musical circle. Put some fun music on so that the children can get up and dance. When the music stops, they have to sit in the circle. Not only will this be fun, but it’s also good practice so the next time they have to get into a circle, they will have a better motivation for doing so.