folders on top of sheet music

Classroom Management Tips For Music Educators

Walking into a classroom not prepared to effectively manage students is a bit like stepping onto a battlefield unarmed. You might fully believe that music can be a powerful force for good in the lives of your students, but it won’t matter if you aren’t able to rein in and support them through smart and measured discipline efforts. Studies show that music educators who prioritize discipline in their work are more effective and happier in their jobs than those who don’t.

Classroom management is crucial for helping students learn and teachers teach, but it’s a learned skill that many new music educators often struggle to develop. From common sense educational advice to resources aimed at furthering the knowledge surrounding the hidden psychology of your students, this paper will introduce management tactics designed for modern music classroom settings.

Classroom management can’t happen without trust

Classroom management isn’t just a handy tool for educators. It’s the only way to ensure a class full of students has the best chance at learning and feeling empowered. In order to effectively manage a classroom, educators have to earn the trust of their students. Holding the belief that the economy of power and agency should be completely in favor of educators in the classroom will likely make management efforts extremely difficult to practice. Classroom management can’t happen unless your students feel like they know and trust you.

According to TeacherVision, something as simple as memorizing each of your students’ names is critical when it comes to managing a classroom. A 2011 study conducted by Texas Woman’s University takes this concept even further by showing that a defining characteristic of successful music teachers is the ability to incorporate a child-centered approach into the classroom. Kids who feel known and respected are easier to manage because they feel invested in the music being taught in the classroom.

Trust in music educators is paramount when it comes to effective classroom management, and the idea of students feeling emotionally protected in their learning environments is equally important. Children acting out are often seeking to communicate feelings of insecurity they don’t know how to appropriately express. According to PBS:

“Once adults understand what children are communicating through their behavior, they can respond better. When children feel respected and have their needs met, there is no longer a reason to use challenging behavior to communicate.”

Creating an emotionally safe and open learning environment means respecting students and making sure their needs are being met in the classroom. For example, if a child is being bullied at school, they may act withdrawn or even disruptive in your class to communicate that something is wrong. A child-centered approach prevents behavioral issues before they start by building a safe learning environment where kids feel protected, understood and free to learn.

Set boundaries positively early on

Some educators view discipline as a tool for correcting bad behavior when it happens, but the most effective forms of classroom management are preventative. Setting boundaries and expectations from the first day of class not only prevents behavioral issues from students, but also gives them a path toward being productive and invested in the music being taught. Behavioral issues in the classroom often emerge when students feel listless and uninterested in what’s being taught. Setting boundaries and designating roles prevents this problem by providing a framework for participation through expectation.

Education expert Dr. Jane Bluestein recommends framing boundaries as positive promises rather than negative disciplinary threats:

“State boundaries positively, as promises rather than threats: ‘You can watch the movie if your classwork is done by 2:00,’ rather than, ‘You’re not watching the movie if your classwork isn’t done by 2:00.’

teacher with trumpet students

This simple shift in language emphasizes the positive consequence of the student's cooperation, which is far more likely to generate desired behavior than, say, a threat or command. Stating a boundary with this positive focus helps prevent conflict and reminds students that they have a degree of autonomy in creating the outcomes they desire.”

Positive boundary-setting falls in line with a child-centered approach to music education because it puts the teacher-student relationship in a positive and sustainable place. Rather than threatening students into submission, this strategy treats students as partners instead of problems waiting to happen.

In order for positive boundary-setting to be effective, boundaries need to be enforced consistently and evenly from student to student. When boundaries are set the right way, bad behavior is less likely to happen because it goes against the expectations students have been made aware of since the first day of class. An educator's stated expectations are powerful, as are the expectations of the students. Misbehavior is less likely to happen when a classroom of students expect to be a part of a positive and productive learning environment.

Introduce realistic rules and standards to your students

In an article written by Rachel Maxwell and Jessica Shields, the music educators stress the importance of keeping classroom rules simple and easy to follow:

“Our classroom rule is ‘Act in a way which does not create problems for others.’ We follow that up with our posted rehearsal expectations:

  • Pencil on EVERY Stand
  • Music out of Folders
  • Mark Corrections (The more you mark, the less we stop!)
  • Eye Contact with Director (Track)
  • Instrument to Mouth on Count-Off
  • Correct Playing Position & Posture
  • Raise Hand for Comments & Questions
  • Positive Body Language & Energy
  • Apply What You Already Know
  • Behavior Is Productive & Effective”

By introducing a single overarching rule to promote positive behavior followed by a set of classroom-specific rules, Maxwell and Shields set simple and realistic expectations for their students to follow.

How rules are best conceived and introduced depends on factors like age, experience level, and classroom makeup. For younger students, things like written charts, visual aids, and contracts are helpful in getting classrooms of kids on the same page about rules and expectations. Posting a set of simple classroom rules can also be beneficial.

teacher teaching students string instruments

Keep the peace with hand signals and non-verbal gestures

An out-of-control class filled with kids playing instruments is a nightmarish scenario to many educators. One of the best ways to manage your class is to establish non-verbal gestures early on. For example, if you’ve taught the class that raising your hand means “put your instrument down”, then getting your room quiet and under control should be easy. Hand signals and non-verbal cues used for classroom management sensibly link with music conducting, which makes them a better option than verbal disciplinary commands.

Hand gesture and other non-verbal classroom management examples:

Silent Coyote

Perfect for younger students, this hand signal is made by joining the thumb, middle, and ring fingers while raising the index and pinky fingers to make the hand resemble a coyote. When the Silent Coyote emerges, the class makes their own and quiets down in response. The signal’s fun element will get kids excited about creating their own Silent Coyote’s.


In this technique, students hold their hands open face-down and thumbs touching. Then, the hands are rubbed together. The educator then recognizes on-task students until everyone in the room is quiet and engaged by rubbing their hands together. The students are then instructed to cover their eyes one hand at a time and wait for instruction. Because this technique involves multiple steps, it’s perfect for wrangling an energetic classroom and resetting when things get out of hand.

Clapping patterns

If your class usually has their hands free, teaching your students to recognize and replicate clapping patterns is a fun way to keep the peace. Asking quietly, “If you can hear me, clap once. Clap twice. Clap three times,” can get students back on track. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can incorporate rhythm notation into the exercise by adding quarter, eighth and 16th notes into the mix.

Classroom management can’t happen without planning and organization

Committing to maintaining a clean, organized classroom and regular lesson planning are some of the best ways to promote good behavior in your students. Children don’t know it, but they thrive in structured environments centered around routines and predictability. This means that expecting respect, engagement, and positive attitudes from your students won’t be realistic without providing them with thorough lesson material taught in a clean, organized classroom.

Planning and music education resources:

  • Weekly lesson planners. Basic lesson planners can be hugely useful in helping keep students accountable and engaged. When students write down and keep track of what’s expected from them, it’s easier for them to stay on track.
  • Theory and instrument-specific books. As music educators, we like to think we always have all the answers, but we don’t. Showing up to class armed with as much knowledge as you can about music theory and the instruments you teach will help you be prepared and confident.
  • Lesson planners and guide books. In the same way a virtuosic musician shows up to performances with music in hand, educators thrive when they approach their classrooms with organized lessons written down or through guide books.

Kids are much more perceptive than we typically give them credit for. If you approach your class with a sense of doubt because you haven’t prepared adequately, your students are likely to pick up on that and respond with less than ideal behavior. If children aren’t learning in the classroom, they’re more prone to acting out simply because there’s nothing else for them to do. In most classroom situations, if you fully commit to the job of teaching music, your students will respond with respect and meaningful engagement.


Have fun and let music be at the center of everything

Music is something that can be powerfully good in the life of a child. While there will always be rare cases of problematic students, most kids will be engaged and on task in the classroom when the focus stays on music. If you can approach your role as a music educator with real joy and interest, you’ll spend less time reprimanding your students and more time teaching.

When a classroom of kids is especially energetic, it’s often best to work with the energy instead of against it. The education blog Minds In Bloom recommends a 3-minute game to get kids moving, engaged, and ready to learn called 5-4-3-2-1:

“In this simple game, students stand up and the teacher (or leader) has them do five different movements in descending order. For example the teacher would say: “Do five jumping jacks, spin around four times, hop on one foot three times, walk all the way around the classroom two times, give your neighbor one high-five (pausing in between each task for students to do it).”

Unfortunately, educators experience bad days in their classes even when they do everything right. Discipline issues crop up in classrooms because of the unpredictable behavioral nature of children. Holding firm to the belief that your role as a music educator is invaluable is one of the best ways to develop resilience in the classroom when discipline challenges inevitably occur. Rather than responding to these situations with anger, maintaining a strong focus on your mission as a music educator will give you empathy for your students and confidence in yourself.


teacher with students

Classroom management tip takeaways

  • Before discipline can happen, kids need to feel safe in their learning environments and a sense of trust in a music educator. A child-centered approach to teaching is the foundation for effective discipline.
  • Setting boundaries and expectations with your students should happen from the first day of class. Framing boundaries through positive language will build a positive rapport with your students and create an atmosphere where discipline is accepted and expected.
  • Convey easy-to-follow rules to your students to reinforce expectations and positive behavior. Consider doing this with visual aids like posters or written contracts depending on the age and experience level of your students.
  • Form a system of non-verbal hand gestures to convey messages to your students. This is a far better approach than raising your voice.
  • Show up to teach every day organized and with a detailed instruction plan. If you demand discipline from your class, it’s only fair you give them the absolute best teaching experience possible in return.
  • By making music be the ultimate focus of your work, good behavior and engagement will follow naturally. Kids are like adults in that they want to feel challenged and productive. Keeping focus on the music will keep your students on task and interested.

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