Parents often say to me "I don't know how you do it" as they drop off their five-year-old child at my classroom door. The truth is that some days even I'm not sure how I do it. Surviving in one room for six hours with 30 young children and only one other adult is tough enough as it is, but then you have to educate them, entertain them, keep them safe and maintain your own sanity. The only way of doing all that is to have a firm grip on behaviour management.
Yet disciplining a five-year-old is not the same as disciplining a child of 10 or even of 7. At the age of 5, the child is in transition. They are still getting used to school, still getting used to being away from Mum and still trying to find some sense in a world where they are suddenly expected to get along and interact with 29 other children. Everything is new and teachers of this age group are well aware that what happens in these first classes is what will set the precedent as the child progresses through the school.
To work out how best to run a classroom of five- to six-year-olds, it is easier to think about how not to run a classroom of five- to six-year-olds. Screaming at small children is not really conducive to them wanting to come to school and also sets them a bad example about how to behave. Hoping for the best or powering through will result in nothing being achieved and children not making good academic progress.
So what does good behaviour management for five-year-olds look like? Well, after many years of working with this age group, I have come up with the following eight actions, which keep my class in check and my sanity intact.
Devise a visual praise system
Start the day with all the children's names or photos in the middle of a chart - I tend to use a weather-themed one. Perhaps they start on a "rainbow" and then are moved on to the "sun" for good behaviour. After a warning for bad behaviour, move their name down a level on to a "rain cloud". This could follow any theme that suits your classroom, and further rewards and sanctions could be tied in.
Use a whole-class reward
Award team points, marbles in a jar or smiley faces to the class when they achieve something together, such as lining up nicely or tidying up. Agree a treat when they get to a certain number of points, such as an extra playtime, a short film or a hot chocolate each.
Use personal rewards
If a child has a particular behaviour you wish to change, create a personalised reward chart using their favourite cartoon character to motivate them. Make the goal achievable and increase the frequency slowly. Only try to change one behaviour at a time as otherwise you are setting up the child to fail and will end up tying yourself in knots.
Agree clear classroom rules
In line with your school rules, devise a set of class rules with the children. Encourage them to make these positive - for example, "Be kind". You can refer back to these if behaviour has broken down. Pasting these rules up in a prominent place in the classroom can encourage the children to be self-regulating, too. When a child is acting up, it is not uncommon to see another child pointing to the rules and telling their misbehaving peer that they are doing something wrong.
Give a fair warning for low-level disruptions, such as talking over people. But let the children know that some behaviours, such as hurting someone intentionally, will result in immediate sanctions. If you are consistent with praise and rewards, it will encourage them to be consistent in their positive behaviour.
Tell parents and work with them
Make sure that you inform parents of positive moments, as this will help when and if you need to speak to them regarding negative behaviours. This is easy when parents pick up and drop off their child but it may require more thought if the child attends breakfast and after-school clubs. Parents are generally happy for you to call, especially if you are telling them something nice that happened in your classroom that day; depending on their job, a note in their child's book bag might be more appropriate.
Help the child to problem-solve and reflect
Use questioning to help children resolve differences between friends. Encourage them to reflect on how the other person feels. Teach them how to compromise and work together so that everyone is happy with the outcome. Telling the student how they should feel or act is rarely as effective as them coming up with the answers themselves.
Never give up
Treat each behaviour issue as a puzzle to solve, not a weight to drag you down; after all, it is the daily challenges that make teaching so interesting.
Alice Edgington is a teacher at St Stephen's Infant School in Canterbury, south-east England.
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