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The 12 Days of Managing VYL Classes

The 12 Days of Managing VYL Classes

The 12 Days of Christmas Managing VYL:

12 Ways I try to ensure my lessons are the sparkliest thing in my VYL classrooms.

One of the toughest things about teaching little people is that, well, they behave like little people!

Not long ago I promised the ‘Teaching Very Young Learners’ Facebook group a Christmas gift. So here it is (albeit a little late). I’m sharing 12 things that have helped me over the years to improve my classroom management.

No matter how competent and confident you are with your teaching in general, Very Young Learners are not Adults or Young Learners. And teaching VYL is not the same as teaching other groups. Far from it. And it’s much easier to cope with a 5 yr old (and indeed 2, 3, 4, 6 year old) behaving like a 5 year old when you’re able to anticipate it. Learning a bit about early childhood development will help with both understanding their behaviour and also planning your lessons accordingly. Thus helping to avoid many of the classroom management issues us experienced VYL teachers know all too well. I therefore highly recommend to all those teaching VYL, particularly those new to the age group, taking a teacher development course like the International House IH VYL (Disclosure: I mention this particular course because I work for IHWO), or at least reading books, journals articles, blogs etc on the topic. Lesson planning is so very important for classroom management. All the tips in the world won’t help if the activities and language aren’t age appropriate.

But for now what you really want is for me to get on with said tips, right? Getting there.

You should know (so that you don’t reach the end disappointed) that this post isn’t a replacement for the above or even a list of classroom implications e.g. ‘They have short attention spans so keep activities short’ (Although I do have other blog posts for that – see links at the bottom of this post). It’s not even a list of activities that work well with this age group, sorry. I don’t have anything flashy, new of fancy to share.  Rather it’s a list of simple things that I have personally found to be effective for me, in my own classrooms.

Something else important to note, I called this the 12 days of managing VYL classes because I don’t think super efficient VYL classroom management something you should expect yourself to achieve overnight. Maybe not even in 12 lessons. It’s more realistic to try one thing at a time and slowly build your classroom management techniques with trial and error, tweaking as you go so that your techniques suit both you and your learners. Effective classroom management is a work in progress for all of us. With every new student, class, comes a new challenge, a new way of doing things.


WARNING: If you thought the introduction was lengthy. Get ready. Super long blog post ahead! Can you make it to number 12?


What: I take 5 minutes before the lesson starts to prep both myself and the room
I do my best (although sometimes with other lessons being taught immediately beforehand it’s not perfect) to arrive in plenty of time to set up the classroom and get organised. I don’t just mean moving tables around or taking flashcards out of my bag. I mean taking a moment to look around the classroom and visualise where I will stand for each part of the lesson and where the learners will be. What they will be doing. How they will be reacting. This includes managing my space, thinking about where I will do different things e.g. will I sit with my back to the board for the flashcard games? The back left corner with my back to the window for the story? And also placing the materials I will need for each task within easy reach. I might put my flashcards in a pile on the floor close to where I plan to sit, my story book on a back table or the window sill, some sticky tac on the board ready for a board race etc.
Why: It only takes a moment to lose them to a dried leaf on the bottom of their shoe. To say prevention is better than a cure is an understatement when teaching VYL and the proverb underpins almost every one of the below ideas.


What: I give my learners a chance to chat to me outside of lesson time.
When my learners first arrive I take a few moments to greet the children informally. Saying hello etc. BEFORE the lesson starts. I might, for example, tell them I like their yellow hat.
Why: It not only provides a chance for individual time and real communication, it’s motivating and confidence building. VYL are desperate to impart information upon us and may not get the opportunity (or have the confidence) during the lesson. Confident, happy, motivated VYL are less likely to be difficult to manage and keep engaged.


What: I move the tables and seating arrangements to suit the number of students. And if I don’t,  almost always regret it.
I move some tables around before the learners arrive, but it’s once they are in the classroom that I make my final decision re the seating arrangements. If only 4 of 10 learners turn up to class, I make a smaller horseshoe and seat them all together. I also make sure I will be able to both sit in the middle of the horseshoe and see them all, and also be able to freely move around the tables to monitor table work. This obviously differs a little depending on the class. When I teach big classes of up to 28 kids, I start in a circle on the floor and when the time comes slowly filter them table by table to the seating area leaving big spaces unoccupied rather than scattered empty seats. When I’m observing teachers, I can almost put money on any learner(s) separated physically to the rest of the class ‘acting up’ or getting distracted. Especially if they often have the teacher’s back to them.
WHY: Sitting them close together will help with monitoring, keeping them engaged, maintaining eye contact, speaking quietly, reacting quickly, making sure all students can see your demos etc.


What: I get the learners to help get the room ready.
It depends on the teaching context/ class type, but I like to have a routine that helps me remove all distractions before the lesson officially starts e.g. a table at the back of them room where learners put their bags, jackets, toys, anything other than pencils and a book. I also like the learners to put their books under the table until I ask them to take it out. The key bit of information here is that the learners do it automatically as they come into the room. My goal is to have both the learners and the space ready before the lesson officially starts. It takes a few lessons to set this up well, but with simple steps and consistency early in the year, learners of almost any young age are capable of following this routine.
Why: I want my lesson to be the sparkliest thing in the room and don’t take kindly to competition. There is only one of me and so much to squeeze into so few minutes. Getting the learners to take responsibility saves time with the added bonus of giving them a little ownership of the classroom.


What: I use my voice

One mistake I made when I first started teaching was to talk really loudly, especially when my learners got loud. The problem was, they didn’t magically listen to me because I got loud, they just got louder. I found a much better way to get them listening was to crouch down at their level and whisper.

I also use my voice for all sorts of things. Changing the tempo, tone volume, for different tasks. Putting on funny voices to get them engaged.

If learners are getting bored with the same old drills, flashcard games, story, songs or chants, a sure way to re-engage them is to use silly voices. Drill lexis normally, then like a monster, then like mummy, then like a robot, then normally again.

If learners are loud and unruly I sometimes start a chant or song they like (or counting) in a fairly loud excited voice, then as I continue, I lower my voice and slow down the tempo and move my body downwards until eventually we are all sitting on the floor and whispering the song, chant, counting etc.

I use a slighter deeper voice when I’m telling a child I am unhappy with them. For instructions I try to use the most natural voice possible. A very matter of fact voice when it’s a safety issue. A soft gentle voice when I’m praising etc etc

I cringe when I observe other teachers giving their lesson a high screechy voice, a loud voice, a super unnaturally slow voice, a baby voice (yes, grade your language, but keep the baby talk for your newborn). I want to call out, ‘please, just use your regular voice! You’re an adult! Let them hear a nice model. Please!’. I’m thankful though to have the opportunity to observe other teachers and it helps keep my own teaching in check and be more thoughtful of these simple little things that have so much impact.

Why: What we do ourselves is reflected in our learner’s behaviour. If we speak loudly, they speak louder. If we use a screechy voice, we set an unpleasant tone at the start of a lesson that carries through out.


What: I have a clear and consistent starting routine for each class.
Once I’m ready to start the lesson (I’m prepared, classroom is clear and free of distractions), I like to have a routine that sets the tone and tells the learners the lesson has started. E.g. a name game, talking about the weather, a song. I always stick to something that they already know and are confident with. I also might use this time to remind learners of my expectations e.g. it might be we draw up a smiley chart on the board to be used during the lesson, or point to pictures of the rules e.g. no mobiles (yes, really, I’ve had 5 year olds with mobile phones!), no eating etc. The important thing is to be consistent. If I have a class that use a smiley system, then I use it the same way and set it up the same way every lesson. If I have a class that has a poster of rules, I’m sure to be fair and consistent with the rules EVERY lesson.
Why: It tells the learners ‘English lesson has started’ which acts as a cue for reminding them of my expectations and also warms them up ready to respond to and/or produce English. Recycling and repeating language and routines they are familiar with helps them feels secure and confident. Secure and confident learners and happy learners. And less likely to become disengaged (well, at least not as quickly as an unhappy VYL)


What: I have a secret weapon. Its nothing new. It’s plain old TPR.
Sometimes the warm up routine (or any other stage) may get untidy with students turning up late, or drag on a second too long (it really only takes a second) and the learners start to get distracted, bored, fidgety. Something I like to do to grab their attention and let them know ‘we are about to do something new’ is a quick TPR type activity. I might call out ‘Hands on heads. Hands on shoulders. Hand on noses. Hands on eyes. Hand on mouths. Shhhhh’. I also slowly change the volume and tone of my voice to a calmer, quieter tone with each instruction. If I want to them to move to the floor I might add in something like ‘Stand up. Turn around. Make a circle. Sit down’ then again repeat the initial instructions until their hands are on their mouths. I’m sure though to keep this quick and snappy. I don’t want the transition time between activities to drag on any more than I want the activities and stages themselves to. This might sound simple, and many of your reading this will no doubt already do it, but for those yet to discover this little gold nugget – enjoy!
Why: I like to keep learners engaged and physically involved in the lesson. These transition periods are often moments when we lose the odd learner. Or two. Or ten. Note: It’s also important to keep an eye out and look for signs that the stage/activity has gone on for too long to know when it’s time to change.


What: I make a conscious effort throughout the lesson to maintain and make use of eye contact
Yep. This tip is that simple. Make eye contact. Along with learning and addressing learners by name, making eye contact is incredibly important, and in my experience observing other teachers, often overlooked and/or underestimated. I try to make eye contact with each child as often as possible throughout the lesson and hold it for a moment, nod, smile etc. It’s surprisingly exhausting to do so when you first start and often teachers aren’t even aware how little real eye contact they make until you ask them to spend one lesson being super conscious of it – but so very worth it. Do you, person reading this, really make proper eye contact with each and every child throughout each and every lesson? Or do you glance around the room hoping to get their attention/ making sure they are looking at you? Without even really realising, I used to do the latter. Aside from our VYL needing and enjoying this individual attention and acknowledgement, we should remind ourselves that children this age aren’t old enough to plan a rebellion. Eye contact is a fab classroom management tool. Deep down all VYL want to please the teacher. They are only playing with that leaf they found underneath their shoe because it’s currently more interesting that you, they are not exactly sure what you want them to do, or maybe they just really like leaves. Sometimes a nod and genuine smile when they behave in the way you want them to e.g. sit in a circle nicely, is all the positive reinforcement they need and it can work wonders. Likewise, if my students are used to having a lot of eye contact with me, and mostly smiles and nods, a stern look and shaking of the head can go a long way. E.g. if all learners are sitting nicely but one, I might give a stern look, shake my head, and motion with nodding to the other learners to indicate the child should follow. Disclaimer: this does take practice and probably wont work if the learners are over excited or completely disengaged.
Why: My learners want and need me to look at them. To acknowledge them. Making and maintaining individual eye contact helps me to ‘teach one to one within a group’ and provide positive reinforcement. Deep down even the most challenging of my learners wants to please me and enjoys doing so. I’m a big believer in giving plenty of positive reinforcement to manage my classroom and am therefore careful to ensure learners that may be labelled as ‘challenging’ (or worse) are given a genuine smile and praise when they behave in a way which I expect. And immediately. Not after the fact.


What: I teach my learners how to show me that they are listening.
Teaching the learners to show you they are listening can be both fun for them and useful for you. I teach them that to listen we need to; sit up straight facing the person talking, close our mouths, open our ears, and open our eyes to look at the person talking. Sometimes a simple ‘show me you are listening’ will be enough to get their attention, especially if you have exaggerated mimes for each step. Aside from all the fun and getting their attention back if they are distracted, it really will help them to listen and show others that they are listening.
Why: Even adults need to be taught this sometimes! Often teachers say their VYL are ‘misbehaving’ by not by not listening. VYL need more than just simple, comprehensible and visually supported input, they to be taught how to listen and show that they are listening. A fun mime, chant, steps, exaggerated gestures is a fun way to learn and remind them to listen and SHOW they are listening during a lesson.


What: Counting gets me out of trouble.
I mentioned above getting flashcards and storybooks ready, but none of us are perfect (certainly not me). I’m sure we’ve all had that moment when we are about to do a flashcard game or story and realise our materials are on the other side of the room. Don’t be tempted to just get up and get them, or turn your back on your learners. Do you really want to take that risk of losing them just before you do that fun thing you planned? Regardless of how much they like and respect you, their natural instinct is to be attracted to the sparkliest thing in the room (there I go talking about sparkly things again). If you/your lesson is not available, even for that fleeting moment, they WILL find something else. That leaf you thought you removed, their shoe laces, a hole in the carpet, a bird outside, another child. Instead of panicking, take a deep breath, tell the learners to cover their eyes and count with them to 10 while you tiptoe across the room. By the time they/you finish counting and you say (excitedly) ‘open your eyes!, you will magically have your materials in your hands. And, not only have you not lost them, you’ve now built up some excitement before the next activity!
Why: Leaves are incredibly exciting. Even if I have really attentive learners, I don’t like to take too many classroom management related risks in my VYL classrooms. And, it’s also always nice to turn a negative into a positive. Note: If you’re being observed, your observer will either be really impressed with your problem solving or think it was all a part of your clever plan to get them excited about the next stage. Win win!


What: Songs glorious songs!
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll already know how much I love using songs and chants, especially with VYL. They are so impossibly perfect for so many things, and so much more than just teaching language, classroom management too! I could quite possibly talk about how wonderful songs and chants are for language teaching and VYL until the end of time.
My number one tip for using songs: Avoid using a CD player/ MP3. Sing yourself instead. Why?

• It’s motivating for them to see me interested and singing
• I can easily change the tempo and can go at a pace they are ready for: I can slowly teach the song before singing it and drill pairs as necessary. Pause. Stop. Rewind. Repeat etc
• And…I can very quickly and easily react to something if needed with very little distraction to the rest of the class.

Twinkle twinkle little……NO, David *said quietly and sternly just to David*……star. How I wonder what you are…..

Also, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t need to turn my back or leave them with nothing to do while I turn on the CD player. Fetching flashcards has got nothing on fiddling with music. All sorts of things have the potential to become sparklier than you while you busy yourself at the CD player. Even if you have it all set up and ready to go. And heaven forbid the technology fails. That could be the beginning of the end of a nicely managed VYL classroom right there.
Songs also make for brilliant timers. Is it pack up time? How about a pack up song and the learners need to be packed up by the time song finishes. Is it time to move from the floor to the table? How about a transition song or chant and again they need to be sitting at their desks by the time the song/chant finishes. Doing a colour dictation? I like to set the task e.g. ‘Colour the ball blue’. Do some checking the first few times e.g. ask them what colour or to hold up the colour. Ask them to point to or tell me what they need to colour etc, then say ‘1,2, 3 go!’ before breaking into song e.g. the colours song from Cookie and Friends. My learners, who’ve done this many times before and are incredibly well-trained in the art of colour dictation activities, know they have until the end of the song. At which point I will say ‘5,4,3,2,1, stop! Hands on head! By doing this it;


  • helps them to focus on the task objective, which is to listen and respond as opposed to colouring beautifully,
  • gives me a chance to alter the length of time give as necessary as I can walk around and monitor and change my singing pace as needed,
  • helps keep the learners in lock step (although I tend to give them a moment or two after we are done to do more colouring if they desire while I walk around talking to them about their pictures),

and (and there are more things too but I’ve already written so much!)

  • learners who want to can join in the singing.

On the odd occasion that I do use some kind of device, e.g. I sometimes like to play music during table time, I’m always sure to provide a mini task while I’m faffing/ pressing play.
Why: Songs are super sparkly and can reach a young child on so many different levels and are so versatile in so many ways.



What: Finding a balance
It has taken me quite a while to find the right balance between me feeling organised and in control of the lesson whilst remaining flexible. A VYL needs to know that their teacher is in control, and a VYL teacher should be confident about exactly what they expect from the lesson, but sometimes we need to accept that there are things we can’t control and be open to (and ready for) on the spot changes. Just because your class have loved my balloon game every lesson for the last 20 lessons doesn’t mean they will like it today. Sure, plan it well, set it up well, give good instructions, make it age appropriate etc, but if they aren’t into it, I need to move on. Don’t beat yourself up about it. After the lesson is done and dusted it might be useful to invest a moment or two into thinking about any possible reasons that were in our control, maybe I changed the rules slightly? Did I do it after too many other stirring activities? Was I facing the window and the sun was in their eyes? But I need to be ready to accept that maybe they just weren’t that into my activity today. And that’s ok. I try not to take it personally. Smile and move on.
Why: I’ve been teaching and researching VYL for a long time. Long enough to know for sure there is no one perfect lesson. VYL are so changeable. Reading theories and principles is all very nice and all, but more importantly I need to be present in the classroom and ready to learn, to react, to evolve, to embrace the unexpected. I’ve met 2 year olds who can miraculously sit for 20 minutes and 7 year olds who don’t yet know how to behave in a formal classroom setting. I like to be ready for anything.


I could write more, but fear anyone reading this might go grey getting to the end. The moral of the story here is that with classroom experience and trial and error, we can all find little tips and techniques that work for us. Don’t give up. If you genuinely like 2-6 year olds, you are in the right place. Everything else can be learnt.

I have more posts about VYL on this blog such as;
They’re little, and?
They’re little. Now what?
They’re little. Yeah Yeah. Got it. Let’s get on with it.


Did you really get to the end of this page? Wow! Thank you 🙂
Do you have any tips or things that work in your VYL classroom that you’d care to share? I’d love to hear them. A VYL teacher can never have too many tricks up their sleeve.


Until next time…

About klokanomil

YL Advisor & IH CYLT Coordinator for IHWO. Teacher, teacher trainer, training mentor, writer, presenter, student, mum of crazy twin toddlers (affectionately known as 'the sausages') and coffee addict.

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