Keeping students focused in group lesson
Sherri A., California
I am regularly frustrated after my group lesson with 3 boys ages 7-8 years old and one 9-year-old girl. The boys’ attention span just doesn’t seem to last through the lesson. They are so fidgety and eyes are always looking everywhere except where they should be, and instead of them learning through watching other learn, I feel like I’m doing 4 private lessons at once! I try to make sure they are watching and try to manage the process, but it doesn’t seem to help.
I am constantly re-evaluating how I can teach more effectively and wonder if I’m just really bad at explaining things. They are my first groups, so I know I’m still learning. I’d love any tips from the more experienced! I’ve considered doing small rewards like giving a super-star listener award at the end of class for the best listener or something like that. Thoughts?
Kerry V., Australia
Because this is your first group, your mind has so much more going on and these boys’ actions seem disturbing. When you have done more, you will be on more auto-pilot. Boys will tend to fidget and seem distracted more but if you ask them what you just said, usually they will repeat what you have said. If they haven’t then you know this child is distracted. So, cause less distraction and give smaller dosages. I would also do actions. I ‘dance’ the songs out sometimes. Or have them clap out a rhythm pattern.
Carrie L., Michigan
Have them move around a lot. Match their energy with tiny dosages and lot of movement. I do drills with my students…like have them do a new pattern on their hands, then have them race to the piano and play at the same time the pattern to practice. I’ve even done obstacle courses and they go through them while they wait for the other kids to play. I also play hangman for review. So they play a portion of a song and then they get to pick a letter for hangman. You could do tic-tac-toe if they are younger. You can have them draw sticks to review.
Have the parents help as well by getting involved.
Sherrie A., California
They clearly are distracted because they can’t do what I just showed the person in front of them. I try to break it up but even doing a rhythm pattern on their legs was an excruciatingly painful process and took forever for them all to be looking, listening, and doing it all together following the right pattern. What should have been a quick little exercise took the entire instruction time. I tried the smaller dosage with that exercise, but not sure how to get even smaller than hitting your leg with your right hand!
The parents are great. They let me control the territory, but help when it’s clear more intervention is needed. No complaint from that angle.
Carrie L., Michigan
Some classes are harder than others. Split it into 2 smaller groups?
Sherrie A., California
Two of the kids are mine (the girl and one of the boys). One boy is moving so actually it will be down to just 3 kids. Maybe that will be easier to manage while I figure it all out! I will try to figure out some drills and things while teaching the new material.
Heidi M., Canada
I am a relatively new teacher too, and the 7-year-old boy I teach (privately) also had attention span issues in the beginning, so I can imagine the group would be even more challenging. Good news: after a while they 7-year-old (at that time 6) began to become more attentive. Sometimes if he wanted to interrupt the class with some unrelated comments I would just tell him he can tell me about it briefly afterward if he likes (for just 2 minutes) but that I require him to focus on the class now. In my situation it worked, and he pays much better attention now, though I am not sure it would work in a group.
Amy L., California
Sometimes I instruct students to play on “air piano” what another student is playing on the real piano.
Laurie Richards, Nebraska
A couple of suggestions:
1) If you haven’t already, lay out your expectations for behavior very clearly. Sometimes if kids are not told specifically, they simply don’t know.
2) Ask them to watch the person playing for correct fingering, or something specific (e.g. using finger 2 on the middle note of RH chord in Bishop). Or just say that you will ask for some feedback after each student plays. (How was the rhythm? How was the fingering? How was the speed? etc.)
3) Have the coaches stand directly behind them when around the piano bench and help keep them focused.
4) My favorite all-time game is tic-tac-toe. I use it a lot when teaching a new section of a song or arrangement, but you could use it for anything. It’s teacher vs class. Each student in turn plays the section – if no mistakes at all are made, they get a turn on the tic-tac-toe board; if any mistakes, you get a turn. They magically control the events, and everyone is watching and hoping for no mistakes.
Basically you give them something to focus on related to what they are learning, and try to make a game out of it.
Stephen R., California
I’m not the expert on groups, particularly with younger students, but the parents would need to be heavily involved in the process. I taught a 7-year-old and his dad as a group. He has since stopped, but his dad is continuing. The 7-year-old just did not have the attention span for this. He was very distracted and kept interrupting when it was dad’s turn.
Are you using keypads in your groups? I would get them mounted at a copy center and have every student be using one when you’re teaching a song. They allow multiple students to apply concepts at the same time. Depending on the song and/or how fast the group is, you may demonstrate into the fingers first, then apply on the keypads.l I have trouble showing students with the keypads upside down, so I just hold it up high.
Jacqui G., Canada
Take heart! It takes a while to get the hang of teaching a group, and there is no magic wand or short cut. I am about 9 weeks into my first group class (boy 11, girl 12, boy 13) and it was TERRIBLE for the first 5 weeks, and then everything clicked! Instead of a gaggle of misbehaving kids and frustrated parents and one teacher at her wit’s end, we became a cohesive group of people calmly working toward a goal (well, as calm as you will ever get with boys in a group). I’m still on the learning curve, but here are a few things that seem to help:
1) Keep them moving! Don’t let them sit in the chairs too long. Mix it up! I might have all 3 on the piano at once (with their parents behind them – ALWAYS), or work with one kid while the rest watch, then rotate them: two at the table practicing on the paper keyboards and one at the piano with me. Then we might all get down on the floor with rhythm instruments or hand drums, or gather around the piano while I play an accompaniment piece and we all sing, and one kid gets to point to the chords with my “magic chopstick” as I play them.
2) The 11-year-old is extremely bright and musical, and cannot keep his hands still or his mouth shut. I have discovered a couple of techniques to deal with his behavior in a positive way.
First, I tell him exactly how I want him to behave: “J, I need you to sit perfectly still with your hands in your lap, and do not touch the piano until I tell you to”. When he manages to comply he gets a verbal pat on the back – and sometimes applause – from the whole group!
Second, I give him lots of responsibility: “J, come up here and help me with the magic chopstick.” “J, can you hand one copy to each person”? Last week he was fidgeting while I was reading something to the group, and on impulse I said “J, are you a good reader?” and handed it to him, and he read it beautifully.
Third, I do not hesitate to discipline. “J, you seem to be having trouble keeping your hands to yourself. Please go sit on your chair.” A long, meaningful look can be more effective than words
3) I have come to view my lesson plan as a jumping-off point rather than a stone tablet. You will learn to gauge the energy of the group – if something isn’t working, do something else. Trust your instincts! Sometimes a thing that you do on impulse will be just the right thing to do.
4) Encourage everyone to mentor everyone else. “you lot, go over to the table and help each other figure out the pattern on the silent keyboards.” “Parent, would you mind helping (this other child that’s not yours)…? “Student, you do that so well – can you show this other student how to do that?” etc.
5) There is always one “barometer kid” in a group, and when that one starts to fidget you know it’s time to change things up, and when that on’e eyes glaze over, you know their brains are full now and it’s time to close with a fun activity.
6) Don’t burden yourself with unrealistic expectations. Remember, it’s a process. If they had a positive experience, and go home feeling good about themselves and about piano (and, hopefully, about the teacher), I am happy. A sense of humor is your biggest asset.
Patti P., Hawaii
I’d suggest incorporating some activities like drumming on plastic buckets or something else that gets them physically involved. Boys in particular often need lots of physical activity, and short spurts of focused attention. I would also ask the moms to be up helping their children focus. Do as many different activities away from the piano but related to the new teaching as you can think of. Rhythm games (half the class clapping the LH of Bishop, for instance, half patting the chord rhythm, then switch), breaking down each step really small so you can cycle through round robins quickly so they are on the move. If the song has a melody, learning to sing it before anything else.