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Tricks of the Trade Classroom: Discipline Techniques that Work!

The first grade teacher stands in a classroom filled with busy children. It is time for them to stop their individual activities and rejoin her for a group story. She claps her hands three times as she sings, “One, two, three. Look at me.” The children immediately look in her direction. “It’s time to put your work away and come sit in front of me,” she says as she takes a seat beside an oversized book on an easel. The children put their work away and come to sit on carpet pieces at their teacher’s feet.

The school auditorium is filled with elementary children and their noise. The principal waits until all the children are seated and then says, rather quietly, “As soon as you can hear my voice, raise your hand.” She continues to repeat her request at five-second intervals, making eye contact and smiling at those who stop talking and raise their hands. Within a few moments, the auditorium is quiet. She thanks the children for coming to attention so quickly.

A fifth grader in the back row begins tossing the blocks he will need for a math assignment as his teacher distributes materials to the rest of the class. She returns to his desk and retrieves the blocks without saying anything to the youngster. After giving directions to the rest of the class, she returns to his desk and, quietly, says, “I want you to participate in this activity, but I cannot allow you to play with the materials. Are you ready to use them properly?” The boy nods and the teacher returns the blocks, giving him the instructions he may have missed.

These are not fantasy situations prepared for the imaginary classrooms of a college education course. They are real examples of some of the techniques teachers have developed for maintaining control in their classrooms. These, and other discipline tricks, also can work in the more informal educational setting of a museum, gallery, aquarium, zoo, science center, historic site, park, or garden. Without a stable foundation, however, they are just “tricks” and, like most magic, are only illusions.

Building a Firm Foundation

A teacher or docent’s enthusiasm for her subject matter and for the children in her charge helps keep her audience interested and less likely to misbehave. Vitality in a tour program, as well as a classroom lesson, is a direct result of self-confidence. Self-confidence comes from being prepared, and preparation means knowing the content of tour or lesson, using appropriate presentation techniques, and understanding the developmental stages and learning styles of those in the audience. Kids know when their teacher or decent is “faking it” and are quick to take advantage of a leader who displays little interest in her lesson, teaches by rote, or talks down to them (or over their heads).

An interactive program is also one less likely to develop discipline problems. When children are truly engaged, they don’t have time to find alternate (and usually inappropriate) things to do. Hands-on activities, of course, are an excellent way to involve children, but well-structured questions can work as well. Children will accept an amazing amount of exposition if it is deliciously sandwiched between questions that really allow them to become involved in observation, analysis, and evaluation of the things they are seeing.

A varied program also helps prevent misbehavior. Asking children to sit (or worse, stand) and listen for extended periods of time is asking for trouble. A tour that incorporates role-playing, movement, inquiry, and hands-on activities (and doesn’t stay with one exhibit, painting, or artifact too long) has a better success rate, discipline-wise. Once the basic foundation — an interesting program enthusiastically presented — is laid, certain discipline techniques almost always work.

Some children and some classes will arrive at your museum in no condition to participate in a tour program. An hour in traffic on a hot school bus, a fight at school just before they left for their field trip, an unhappy event at home — most classes need a calming-down period before they begin their tour. Docents are often tempted to leave this time while children are going to the bathroom, getting drinks of water, and finding a place for their jackets to the classroom teacher. A better technique is to take charge immediately, giving total attention to the children as soon as they enter your facility. An informal period of questions about their school, what they are studying, whether or not they have been to your institution before allows children to become comfortable with the docent and ease into the tour situation. As children return from the bathroom, water fountain, or check room, they are quietly included in the conversation until the entire class is ready to begin the formal tour program.

Setting the Rules

It’s important for children to know what is expected of them, both in the classroom and in the museum. In many classrooms, teachers and students work together to create a set of rules that make the classroom community easy to “live” in. Docents don’t have time to create a new set of rules with every class, but they can build on the rules that most children know. One way to do this is by saying, “I know that you have rules at school, just as we have rules here at the museum. Would you tell me some of your school rules that are probably the same as ours?” As rules are suggested by the students, the docent “accepts” them as rules for the museum, altering some as necessary. This technique helps children see that they are expected to behave as well at the museum as they do at school, that it is not a “strange” place with different expectations.

Another technique for establishing rules of conduct starts with the docent saying, “We have only two rules here. I’m going to tell you each rule, and you tell me why you think it is a good one.” The rules, in this case, are specific to the institution. In a historic house, for example, one of the rules might be to touch only those things that the docent gives you to touch. In a garden or on a nature trail, one of the rules might be to always stay on the trail or path. Asking children to tell why these are good rules gives them some “ownership” of the rules.

Another way to establish the rules you wish children to follow is to “catch them being good.” In other words, instead of taking up valuable tour time with a recitation of rules, the docent identifies and thanks those children who are following the “universal” rules of good behavior. The first time a child raises his hand rather than blurting out an answer, the docent says, “Thank you for raising your hand. It makes it so much easier for me to hear all your answers.” Children who come into a gallery and sit quietly are told, “I can see you’re going to learn a lot today since you’re such good listeners.” When an individual walks, rather than runs, the docent thanks him for doing so.

In all cases, rules should be stated as briefly as possible. They should be presented as “do’s,” not “don’t’s.” And, rules that are obvious to everyone probably don’t need to be mentioned at all. clever visual cues that capitalize on the institution’s theme. In a zoo, for example, when a monkey-shaped

Giving Visual and Vocal Cues

When the rules are stated at the beginning of a tour program, docents can also find out if the class already has a visual signal, such as a raised hand or finger to the lips, that means “listen.” If the class already has such a signal in place, it’s best not to substitute another. However, some institutions ask for attention with hand-puppet appears, children learn that they will soon hear some interesting information. A transportation museum uses cardboard traffic lights in strategic parts of the exhibit to call children to “stop, look, and listen.”

Vocal cues that employ the institution’s theme are also much more effective than the more traditional “shhhhhh.” In a historic home, the docent might begin each activity in the formal, rather stuffy, tones of the home’s butler, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present …”

An art museum docent might use different “accents” (for instance, French for the galleries displaying works by French artists) to command the attention of her group. A whisper is a dramatic and effective attention-getting device with most age groups, especially if the topic under discussion has some mystery associated with it.

Sound cues, in addition to those produced vocally, can signal children to listen. In large areas such as a playground, teachers often resort to whistles or bells to call children back to order. In the smaller space of a history museum or historic house, an historically appropriate school bell or dinner bell can serve the same purpose. A zoo or garden might use specialty whistles that mimic the sounds of birds or animals.

The effectiveness of some visual and sound cues relies on their uniqueness. Children will respond to them principally because they are new. They become part of a game in which you and the children participate while on the tour. The best cue, however, is silence. Waiting quietly for children to stop their individual conversations, and smiling at those who have done so, is usually very effective. It never works to try to talk louder than they are talking — it simply can’t be done!

In matters of discipline, the best defense is a good offense. A docent’s thorough preparation and anticipation of good behavior are usually the best “tricks” to ensure an effective and smoothly run tour for children of all ages.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Tricks of the Trade: Classroom Discipline Techniques that Work!,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 6-7+.

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