by Volkan Iner

Any teacher who works with young learners will know that you need to have lots of bright, attractive objects to take into your classroom. You need flashcards, realia can be really handy, it helps to have music full of songs that the students can sing along to, and you should know some of the classic games to play with the children you’re teaching.

But fundamental to all of these things is good classroom management.
Creating a positive and well-organized learning environment not only enhances the educational experience but also helps young students develop essential life skills such as self-discipline, respect for others, and cooperation.

In this article, we will explore a variety of classroom management strategies specifically tailored to young learners, focusing on children aged 3 to 8 years old. These strategies aim to foster a nurturing, engaging, and productive classroom atmosphere.

Understanding Young Learners

Before delving into classroom management techniques, it's crucial to understand the unique characteristics and needs of young learners. Young children are naturally curious and energetic, but they also have shorter attention spans and limited self-regulation skills. They thrive in environments that are structured, supportive, and stimulating.
Keeping these traits in mind is fundamental when developing classroom management strategies for this age group.

But no two young learners are the same - even if you have twins in your class, you can’t be sure that they will respond in identical ways to the things that happen in class.

One of the most useful ways to begin your journey towards effective classroom management is to acknowledge the gap that separates the wisdom you can find in a book about young learners, and your own experiences in the young learner classroom.

1. Establish Clear and Age-Appropriate Rules

All students need to understand the rules of their classroom, but how we approach these rules is different for younger learners. While we can hold a discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour with our slightly older students, we need to be crystal clear with our younger students.

Young learners benefit from simple, visual rules that are easy to understand.
Use pictures or drawings to represent rules like "raise your hand to speak" or "use inside voices." Make sure the rules are positively phrased, emphasizing what students should do rather than what they should not do.

2. Consistency Is Key

Consistency in enforcing rules and routines is essential when working with young learners. Children thrive on predictability and routine. Establish your rules and the behaviour you expect, and then stick to those rules and guidelines.

This will actually make it easier for your young learners over time. As they learn the language with you, so too will they learn what your various hand signals mean. A hand placed up, palm out, might mean that they should stop talking - perhaps because somebody else is already addressing you. We all know what the ‘quieter’ hand signal means and how to show it - but our younger learners won’t have had enough experience of the world to make sense of this if we don’t perform the same action repeatedly.

Over time, you will build up a kind of lexicon of gestures and signals, and your young learners will find reassurance in doing what you are asking them to do.
Be patient and give reminders when necessary - it takes a long time for young learners to really digest the language you are teaching them, and the same certainly goes for classroom rules.

However, be firm - though gentle! - so that your students know better than to push hard against the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. If two students start whispering to each other in your class, you need to correct that behaviour whenever it happens, or you’ll soon find it happening all the time!

3. Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment

A warm and inviting classroom environment sets the stage for positive behavior. Decorate your classroom with bright, age-appropriate visuals, and provide comfortable seating. Personalize the space with students' artwork and projects to make them feel valued and connected to their learning environment. James Savery wrote about this topic in Issue 51 of the IH Journal, and I think his guidelines are well worth thinking about!

4. Use Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in classroom management. Encourage good behavior by praising and rewarding students when they follow the rules or display positive social skills. Rewards can be as simple as stickers, praise, or special privileges - even cleaning the whiteboard after an activity can feel like a treat if you act as if it were.

This approach not only motivates young learners but also builds their self-esteem, and will make them want to keep coming back to your classroom.

And above all, remember that this is your classroom - you establish the rules, and you decide what happens. There is a lot of guidance on teaching young learners (read Christopher Walker’s review of a great book on the topic by Carol Read), but one of the most exciting things about teaching is that you control the way things work. If you remember your classes at school as being slow and dull and passive, you have the chance to change it all here - give your students responsibility, make them feel like they belong in your classroom, and treat them in such a way that they will feel perfectly welcome with you.

5. Engage in Active Listening

Young learners often need to express themselves, and they may do so through words, actions, or emotions. Actively listen to your students to understand their feelings and needs. When they feel heard and understood, they are more likely to cooperate and follow directions.

Think twice about your own (and your school’s) rules about L1. Many schools enforce an English-only approach, even to such an extent that teachers are dissuaded from even pretending to understand their students when the L1 is being used. There are justifications for this approach, of course - if your young learners discover that you understand them in their own language, there is a danger that they won’t want to use English. But if they really need to tell you something, be prepared to listen and to act on what you’re told. In the long run, you can really build a strong sense of trust when you listen actively to your students, regardless of how they choose to communicate.

6. Seek Out Engaging Activities

This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how often I’ve seen teachers prepare activities that are age inappropriate - either because they are too demanding or because they are designed in a way that doesn’t appeal to young learners.

Whenever you take an activity into the classroom, think about how you are going to introduce it to the students, how they are going to perceive the activity, and what they are going to produce as a result of the activity.

One of the most important steps, though, is to find time after your lesson to reflect on how well the activity worked, and whether you need to make changes to it - or even get rid of it. Over time, you’ll find that you have built a catalogue of engaging activities that you can rely on.

7. Use Visual Timetables

If you teach in a more mainstream-school context rather than a typical International House school, it can be difficult for your students to organise their time - to know where they have to be and when they have to be there.

Visual timetables or schedules help young learners understand what to expect throughout the day. Use pictures or icons to represent different activities and routines, helping children transition smoothly between tasks. This visual aid reduces anxiety and confusion.

You can use something similar in your language lessons if you only see your students once or twice a week. I recommend making the feel of your lessons as formulaic as possible - if you start the lesson with a ‘Hello’ song, start every lesson with that ‘Hello’ song - and here you can make use of a visual timetable too.

8. Encourage Peer Interaction

Social development is a crucial aspect of early childhood education. Encourage peer interactions through group activities, partner work, and cooperative learning. Teach young learners how to share, take turns, and resolve conflicts peacefully.

But moderate your expectations. With more advanced teenage students, pair interactions can last even as much as ten minutes. But with young learners, it’s sometimes ok if the interaction lasts two turns - of one sentence from each partner in the interaction. That’s fine - you’re laying the foundations for their later school career; future teachers will thank you!

9. Flexibility and Patience

Flexibility and patience are vital when working with young learners. Be prepared to adapt your teaching strategies and expectations based on the needs and interests of your students. It's important to remember that young learners are still developing emotionally and socially, so occasional setbacks are normal.

Go with the flow. If your students look upset, or drowsy, or completely exhausted, be ready to switch your plan for the lesson around, and prioritise the kind of activities that will repair your students’ emotional states. If a student enters the room in tears, don’t expect to be able to start the lesson immediately, or in the normal way. You’ll need to deal with the tears first, and the best medicine here is fun and laughter - together with as much patience as you can muster!

10. Build Relationships

Building positive relationships with young learners is at the core of effective classroom management. Show genuine care and interest in each student. Know their names, learn about their interests, and provide emotional support when needed. When children feel safe and connected to their teacher, they are more likely to cooperate and behave positively.

Effective classroom management with young learners requires a combination of patience, consistency, and a deep understanding of their unique needs and characteristics. By establishing clear rules, maintaining a positive and welcoming classroom environment, and using strategies such as positive reinforcement and active engagement, educators can create a nurturing and productive learning environment for their students.

Remember that building strong teacher-student relationships is key to successful classroom management and fostering the overall development of young learners.

Author Biography

I have been teaching as an English teacher for 5th and 6th graders for more than 15 years. I have worked on different private courses and in private schools during my teaching career. Right now, I am working at Ulkem Private Middle School under the Consultancy of METU D.F., Manisa, Turkey.