Teaching a small group of students sounds easier than teaching a whole class, in theory. But in actuality, small group classroom management has its extra challenges. You can have the most amazing lesson planned for your group, but that won’t matter if you keep getting interrupted because the rest of your class is off task. Small group success is directly dependent on the other students who are expected to work independently during that time.
The key word there is “expected.” It sure would be nice if all kids automatically worked quietly and stayed on task during centers. But that doesn’t just magically happen without effective small group classroom management in place.
Here are a few tips for keeping the rest of your class on task during centers, so that you can give your undivided attention to your small group instruction.
It’s teaching 101, right? Don’t just tell the kids, SHOW them. Explicitly model what expected behavior looks like during centers. You could demonstrate this yourself, but students will have more buy-in when you get them involved. Have them be the ones to show the class what to do and what not to do.
You could facilitate role playing by having the kids act out some examples and non-examples of behavior expectations. Do this for all of your different centers. For instance, if one of your centers is independent reading, have each of your students “act out” what it looks like to be on task while reading independently. Then choose a couple of students to come to the front of the room to act it out in front of the whole class.
When they are finished, ask questions that encourage students to point out the positive things they noticed about their behavior. For example:
“What did you notice about the way Mari was holding the book?”
“How could you tell that she was actually reading?”
Possible student responses:
“She had it open and the book was right-side up.”
“She was using her reading finger to track the words.”
And then on the flip side, have different students come up to the front of the class and act out what NOT to do, such as crawling around on the floor, having the book closed, or getting up from their spot to talk to a friend.
The kids may laugh at this part or find it entertaining, but that’s what makes it memorable for them so that they remember. After all the giggles, use that engagement to lead a class discussion about WHY that’s not a good choice for center time. I once had a student say, “Doing that is not going to help me be a better reader.” Bingo, kiddo! I asked the rest of the class to use their hand signal for I agree if they agreed, and it was powerful for kids to see that unified agreement as a class.
Even when you have set the clearest of expectations for centers, it’s possible there will still be some students who do those “non-examples” that they were taught NOT to do. Certain kids just need a little extra TLC when it comes to learning the appropriate behaviors.
One strategy to help with that is to put some of the power in students’ hands. While you’re occupied with teaching your small group, give a student the coveted responsibility of helping to monitor the class. This is a special role that I like to call the “On-Task Manager.”
As a variation, you could also call it “The Quiet Monitor,” or even “The Quiet Queen” and “The Quiet King.”
This student’s special job is to “supervise” the class to see who is doing the best job of working quietly and staying on task. When the timer is up, they get to go and tap a student on the shoulder that they think was doing the best job. That student is then rewarded by becoming the new supervisor, and the previous student goes back to do their work. This rotation of managers can repeat until the end of independent work time.
If you are interested in more tips about implementing this specific strategy with your class (and/or want to find out how you can get the FREE place cards pictured above), click here to visit another blog post with more details.
Evaluate Your Centers
This one may seem obvious, but one of the best ways to help kids stay on task during center time is quite simply to have high quality centers! If kids are continually doing busy work, or activities that are not engaging or level-appropriate, they are much less likely to want to keep doing them.
It is also important to have a variety of different types of centers. You can have certain ones where they work alone, some where they work with a partner, and centers for a small group of students to work together. Implementing hands-on center activities and engaging learning games makes all the difference too!
Let them Choose
Another powerful way to encourage positive behavior is to incorporate choice. When kids get to choose which center they want to work at, there is a higher level of interest in doing the work. You might provide each student with a check-off sheet of each of the centers they get to choose from, and present them with the challenge of checking all of them off by the end of the week. They are still doing the same centers that you would have assigned them anyway, but you’re upping the motivation factor by giving them the opportunity to choose.
If you are worried that too many kids will choose the same center at once, set a maximum for the number of people who can be at a specific center at a given time. Implement any additional guidelines that your particular class needs to be successful- you know them best!
Use Visual Cues
Visual cues are essential for minimizing interruptions during small group instruction. You may know all too well that sometimes it’s not enough just to tell students not to interrupt you when you’re busy working with a group.
A visual reminder for the kids will save your sanity. When they see it, they will be more likely to remember that it’s “Don’t interrupt the teacher” time. If they do forget, you can just point to the visual reminder instead of having a verbal exchange.
You could put on something silly like a hat or feather boa, or have a poster on display. If you choose to use a poster, a little humor goes a long way. This one is from @mrsmalesmasterpieces on Instagram:
Another option is to use a portable light switch. I found this one at Target Dollar Spot a few years back. It was easy to just stick it onto a cheap plastic picture frame. I printed the text and cut the paper to fit in the frame.
If using something similar, clearly set the expectations for it and be consistent. When the light is on, students should not come up to you unless it’s an emergency. If they do ever forget, you don’t have to say a word. Just point at the light, and they will be reminded to go back to their independent work.
When you first explain how the light works, do a little brainstorm with the class. Have them come up with a list of ways to problem solve on their own when the teacher is busy. If there’s a question they don’t understand, for example, they could ask a friend for help. They could skip it for now and come back to it later. Post the list visibly in the classroom so they can refer to it when needed.
Have an Accountability Piece
It can be very powerful to have students actively reflect back on their independent work habits during center time. When they are regularly held accountable, behavior is more likely to be positive.
One effective way to do this is to have students fill out a short reflection sheet like the one below.
Students could fill this out at the end of each week, or less frequently depending on the needs of your class.
You can use these for your whole class, or as a tool for individual students who need the extra accountability. You may need to meet privately with any kids who have been repeatedly off task during centers. When doing so, utilize this form as a jumping off point for discussion.
The resource includes an editable template too, so you can customize it for your class. List the behaviors that your kids need to work on most. By targeting those, hopefully you should start to see an improvement!
No classroom management strategy is one size fits all. Sometimes it’s a matter of trying out various ones to see what works best for your kids. Do you have any favorite small group classroom management tricks? Feel free to help out fellow teachers by sharing in the comments below!