My first experience TEFLing with pre-schoolers was a nightmare. I’d already been teaching English abroad for 3 years, but I had no experience with under-10s. Three kids cried and one threw up. Nobody learned a thing.
After the lesson, I ran to the more experienced preschool teachers at my school for advice. I took notes, observed their classes and learned the tricks of the trade. After choosing my favorite methods from these different teachers I began applying what I heard and saw to my own lessons. After several more years teaching and a Young Learners specialization course behind me, I feel I’ve finally mastered these little monsters. Preschool is now my favorite age group to teach, and my lessons with the little ones run as smoothly as the drool down their chins.
Here’s what I’ve learned to do:
1. Have a set routine.
The first few weeks with a new class will be hectic despite your best intentions as the kiddos settle in to their new roles as students. Many of them have never been in school before, and you are a big weird person speaking at them in a strange language. In their minds, your best instructions are nothing but noise. It’s no wonder they don’t pay attention at first. Keep at it though! If you adhere to the same routine every day, they’ll start to catch on. After a few weeks you won’t have to remind them what they should be doing because they’ll already know.
2. Start every lesson with songs.
Two reasons: The first is that they LOVE singing! This allows them to start class with a non-intimidating activity that they enjoy and puts them in a good mood for the rest of the lesson. The second reason is that it gives latecomers a chance to join the activity without disrupting the rest of the class. Don’t worry if they don’t know the songs in the first few weeks. They’ll soon be singing and dancing along with you. There are amazing songs on Youtube (my favorites are Super Simple Songs, and Dream English) that go with just about any topic you could be teaching. This is a great way to consolidate the language point after an activity as well, and to practice pronunciation, intonation and set phrases! Be enthusiastic about the songs, and they’ll follow suit.
3. Have a clear (and cute) classroom management system.
It should reflect classroom rules as well as class rewards and punishments. Build these rules into your routine. I always go through the rules after the initial songs and make a big ceremony of putting them up on the wall. After much experimentation I’ve settled on five rules (be nice, be quiet, listen, raise your hand, and sit down nicely.) We also have a monkey, a banana, and a crocodile for rewards and punishments, which leads me to…
4. Feed back to them about their behavior after each and every stage of the lesson.
I point to each rule’s picture and ask them if they followed it. If they did, one student is chosen to move the monkey one step closer to the banana. If they didn’t, I (or sometimes the offending students if I’m feeling particularly annoyed) move the crocodile towards the monkey. At the end of the lesson, if the monkey reaches the banana, everybody gets a sticker. If he doesn’t, they go home with a high five and a “try harder next time.” In classes with problem students I add another poster with a picture of “happy teacher/angry teacher” and move their name from one side to the other. This way, if it’s just one student acting out I can send him/her home without a sticker without punishing the rest of the class too. Usually the simple threat of moving their name to “angry teacher” gets them behaving again.
5. Skip the chairs and tables.
They’re more trouble than they’re worth. Preschool aged children easily slide out of them, tip them over, or bump their heads on sharp corners. It’s much easier to forgo the chairs and desks if at all possible. Cushions or yoga mats are a much better idea. These can be easily rearranged into your preferred seating arrangement (my favorite is a circle, with me and my TAs as part of the circle) and moved out of the way if you are going to play a game. Children should be sitting up straight with their legs crossed giving you their full attention.
And here’s what I’ve learned NOT TO DO:
1. Whatever you do, despite whatever is going on, don’t shout at them.
It won’t be effective, unless your intention is to scare them. Trust takes a long time to build with some of these kids, and if they associate you with fear or unhappy feelings, they will never learn to obey you, or to love the English language. Look for classroom management techniques that are more effective, and practice them consistently. It’ll pay off.
2. Forget to refer to your beautiful classroom management system.
So many teachers have wonderful posters or IWB pages set up for their classroom management, but once they talk about the rules, they don’t refer to them again until the end of the lesson. I was certainly guilty of this when I first started teaching pre-school. The system will only work if you use it, and use it consistently. Make sure to give them feedback about their behavior after each and every stage of the lesson and give a TON of positive reinforcement for good behavior. “Well done for sitting nicely” directed at a well-behaved student, will get all the others sitting properly much faster than “sit down nicely, NOW,” directed at the problem student.
3. Don’t get them over-excited.
Remember the importance of stirrers and settlers. If you’ve been doing nothing but super active games for the last 30 minutes don’t be surprised when little Thanh pushes his friend over and they both start to cry. Another thing: I didn’t realize this before I started teaching them, but pre-schoolers don’t have good control over their gag reflex. If they start coughing uncontrollable from too much running around, it’s time to stop the game – or they’re going to throw up.
4. But also don’t let them get bored!
You want them to enjoy coming to your lessons. If they love English as 4 year olds, they’ll love it when they grow up too. This is our chance to turn them into language learners for life. Remember that this age group can’t sit still for more than 10 minutes or so at a time, so if they’ve been working on an art project for the last 15 minutes, it’s time to get them moving again!
5. Don’t expect them to behave all the time.
They’re preschoolers after all. They will push their friends, drift off into a daydream, or pick their nose and wipe it on your t-shirt. Gently remind them of appropriate behavior by referring to your classroom management system, and don’t get angry at them for acting their age.