In the previous articles in the series dedicated to teaching pre-school children we presented our approach to exploiting songs and stories as a valuable source of language. We also focused on TPR activities. All articles were first published in the Teacher Magazine in 2013. This episode will be a bit different, we will present a few techniques and some practical advice on how to maintain discipline and keep students focused during the lesson. We believe that introducing certain rules and consistently sticking to them guarantees successful teaching.

Pre-school children may not be used to discipline at all. That is why in most cases the teacher has to teach basic rules of classroom behaviour. This may take time during the first lessons. It may take even a month or so, before students start acting as you wish them to. Actually, if you teach a group of beginners, the first lessons are hardly about English, but rather about arranging children around the classroom.


The golden rules are:




How to teach classroom behaviour?

With young learners you will not be able to explain all the classroom rules during the first lesson. You will not be able to write them down nor can you expect children to remember them right away. Your job is to introduce discipline elements gradually. Start with a new element only when they get used to the previous one.



This is the first, most basic ability your students should learn. You will be using it during every lesson. Most activities which you do on the floor (e.g. exercises in books, flashcard games, listening to a story) require sitting on the floor.

It helps if you:

  1. first say the command: “stand in a circle”
  2. make students hold their hands
  3. use gesture to show them what “a circle” means
  4. later say “now sit down”
  5. praise your students when they do it well

Note! Sometimes you will need your students to sit in a bigger circle (to work with their books) or smaller circle (to play a flashcard game). How do you do it?

Use the big/small balloon procedure:

  1. first make your students stand in a circle and hold hands
  2. say “big balloon” and make the circle grow bigger (students stretch their arms)
  3. then say “small balloon” and make your students come closer to the middle
  4. say “big balloon” again and while students are stretching their arms say “stop” at the appropriate moment, so that the circle is as big as you need
  5. then tell your students to sit down



 You will have to resort to L1 to explain this rule as it is very difficult for many children to obey. Young students have a natural need to talk and communicate all their thoughts immediately. They love being the centre of attention.

Explain to your students how important it is to be quiet and pay attention to the teacher. Keep repeating the following sentences to encourage and motivate students to listen. Use L1 or L2 with mime and gesture:

  1. Oh, I will be really happy and pleased if you listen carefully now!
  2. If you listen carefully now, we will be able to do fun things later/ we will play your favourite game!
  3. I’m sure you want to get these beautiful stickers, right? Ok, then, listen carefully now and you will get them!
  4. Wow! Look what I’ve got here! Stamps! Would you like some? (now whisper) Let’s listen and then we’ll get the stamps, shhhhh…
  5. [use a mascot] Eddie says that if you are quiet and listen he’ll be very happy / he’ll play a game with us.
  6. If you are quiet and listen to me I’ll tell your mummy and daddy how good you were, they will be very proud of you!

Other ideas:

  • Introduce a routine rhyme and practise it so many times that whenever your students hear the first words/sounds of it, they will know that they must immediately calm down and be quiet.

Snakes are quiet, snakes don’t shout, (Ss can move like snakes: put their hands above their heads and wiggle or lie on the floor and wiggle)

So put your finger on your mouth. (Ss put their fingers on their mouths and are quiet.)

  • Put your finger to your mouth and say “shhh” and require your students to do the same. Wait until everybody is quiet.
  • Pretend you are getting cross when students talk, make funny-angry faces, but as soon as they are quiet – give them a big, pleased smile.
  • If you use a mascot in the classroom pretend it is sad when students do not want to stop talking.



When students are familiar with sitting in a circle, it is time to introduce the notion of a “line.” The best way is to encourage students to stand along the wall.
Always support your command with the proper (and always the same) gesture. Help confused students who are wandering around the classroom.

stand in a line

It is very important as many YL songs and rhymes are best performed when students stand in a line and the teacher stands in front of them. Students do not get distracted by others and they watch the teacher’s movements.



This is one of the easiest things to teach, as it comes quite naturally to children. When you perform an action and tell students to do the same (use L1 in less advanced groups)
they will probably follow with no problem or hesitation.

Sometimes it is enough to start acting out things and students will immediately follow. It is very important to make students stand in a line or in a circle before you start, so that all the kids can see you.



When you start teaching your students to repeat after you, invent a gesture which suggests to students that now it is time to repeat. A suggested gesture is: put your index finger to your mouth and move it to and fro, then put your hand to your ear pretending you are listening. Always when you say something and show this gesture students should know that you want them to repeat something after you.

Very often when children learn to repeat they will start repeating everything they hear, even the teacher’s commands and comments. Do not worry about it – it is a good way for them to learn extra expressions.

There may be a few students in your group who will not repeat. Encourage them individually, but do not force. We know from our experience that all students start repeating eventually. In their ‘silent period’ they also listen and remember many things they hear.



If you manage to teach your pre-school students to raise their hands to speak, you can consider yourself the master of discipline! It is a very difficult thing for young students as they have such a drive to speak and communicate that waiting for their turn seems impossible. Some older students who attend kindergarten may be familiar with that rule – they will help you in introducing it and other students will follow.

Although it is difficult, try to encourage children to raise their hands. Explain to your students why it is so important and tell them this is how older kids at school behave.

Always praise and even reward students for obeying this principle.


Why is it so important to be consistent?

As we argued at the beginning of this article, being consistent is the second very important rule in disciplining children.

  • Always notice and comment when children do something right and when they stick to the principles e.g. raise their hands to speak or help their peers. If you promise to do something when students behave well, you have to fulfil the promise. If you forget to do it what motivation will your students have to behave well in the future?
  • Always react when children misbehave or do not obey the rules. When you scold them once and then ignore the same behaviour, students will be confused about what is expected of them during the lesson. If you warn them of the consequences of their misbehavior, remember to give them a chance to mend their ways. It usually works, but if they still do not cooperate there must be consequences (see the tips below). Remember! You must never punish your students!

Below you will find some ideas for how to get students’ attention when you need them to be quiet and focused, especially before doing a task that requires them to be attentive.


FOCUS POCUS: How to focus students’ attention? wizard

  1. Put away all objects that may distract students (toys, flashcards etc.)
  2. Teach and use the routine rhyme.
  3. Make students sit in a circle, put your finger to your mouth and say Shhh. Wait for them to calm down; encourage students to copy your gesture, or:
  4. Make students sit in a line instead of a circle – they are less likely to distract one another.
  5. Make up and use a FOCUS POCUS POSITION e.g.:

– Students sit with their legs crossed and put fingers to their mouths, or:
– Students sit with their legs crossed, elbows on their knees, index fingers pointing to the ceiling

  1. Teach and use the FINGERS UP! technique before an exercise or activity which requires pointing to objects. Say: “fingers up! fingers up!” and raise your index finger up. Make students raise their index fingers and unless they all do, do not continue. Ask “are you ready?”, students should answer “yes”
  2. Give students a sense of mystery and build some suspense. Whisper what you are going to do and make it sound really special (Now we are going to listen to a very special story. It’s about a naughty hamster. Oh, no! Something scary is going to happen to him! Ooo!) You can mix L1 and L2 on this occasion*
  3. Try to gain students’ attention and engagement through your own enthusiasm, Who wants to listen to a funny story?! I want to listen to a funny story! Tomek, do you want to listen?! And you?! You can mix L1 and L2 on this occasion*
  4. If you need to do an important exercise and you worry that children will not get focused enough, “bribe” them. Offer them a unique sticker, two extra stamps, a happy face drawn in their book, their favourite game – whatever makes them happy. Remember to be creative with rewards. One stamp at the end of each lesson is a good idea, but after some time it stops to be something special and is hardly a reward.
  5. Be really enthusiastic when the exercise/listening/activity goes well. Praise your students, tell their parents how great they were, give students extra rewards. This may help the next time you will need to focus them. Such praise and rewards will help students remember that concentrating and engaging pays off.
  6. If none of these works, it may mean that your students are having one of those days when no focus exercise will work. Let them play some action games during which they can speak and move J.

Do not use L1 to focus your students’ attention if your group is talkative and L1 encourages them to speak their minds, or:
Let students say all the important things that are bothering them at the moment – sometimes 3 wasted minutes bring 6 minutes of peace and quiet.


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