Taming the masses: How to establish instructional control in your music classroom Step 1
I have been teaching since I was 12 years old. I have taught many subjects in a wide variety of locations and to many ages and abilities. I have lead students to learn sign language to a song at church camp in 3-4 days. I have taught Vacation Bible School lessons to rotating groups of 15-20 kids. I have conducted a million 1:1 therapy sessions as a Behavior Technician. I have taught living skills and job skills classes. I have taught adult Bible studies. I have lead teacher and staff trainings. And, I teach music lessons in both 1:1 and group settings. (Now that you have my resume) There is one thing that is true in all of these setting across all ages and abilities. If no one seems to care and they aren’t listening to you, you are wasting your time and would do better talking to a tree.
There are few things more frustrating than researching, preparing, and practicing in order to stand in front of a crowd that does not pay attention, participates in disruptive behaviors and makes it clear that the don’t want to be there. Have you ever been in this position? Everything feels out of control and you know you have good things to share but you can’t seem to wrangle the crowd in. Well, I have two things to tell you. First, it may be your fault. Secondly, it doesn’t have to be this way.
You see, some times you have all of the best things to say and all of the most fun activities but children are bouncing off the walls and throwing their instruments and screaming something crazy at the top of their lungs… oh, that’s just me? When I find myself in these positions wondering what is wrong with these people, experience tells me that is probably isn’t them. In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis (my day job) we call this “instructional control”. This is basically the influence that you have on your learner or audience and how well you are able to help them move toward their goal. There are several steps to establishing instructional control that I will be discussion over time but it begins with “pairing”.
Pairing is the term that we use for the action of establishing a relationship with the learners. The object is to make yourself the most preferred item or activity in the room. You are to become the best thing ever and earn the trust and attention of those you are teaching. This is done by meeting the learner where they are, understanding their interests and aversions, and letting each other in. When we jump in to a situation and try to be in control of everything that our students do we are likely to create some fear, resistance, or resentment.
In my special needs classes, I often spend my first session just working on these pairing activities. I want to be sure I have established a good connection before I start spitting out demands. I need to be sure I understand what this client or group can handle before I give expectations that cannot be met. This looks different for each group that I work with. For some kids with more verbal abilities, it may be listening to a confusing story about a video game or movie they love. If it is a group with fewer conversation skills, it may be finding a shiny toy that lights up and working your way towards taking turns turning it on and off or putting it under a box to see the lights brighter. I have pulled out sensory boxes and built kinectic sand castles and searched for coins in a bucket of water beads. Along the way talking to the student, showing them how I can take turns with them, give them something they love when they follow a simple command and imitate what they do to encourage them to imitate what I do. This relationship is imperative to our success in learning. Please spend some time with this when teaching any learner. This may go a little bit against your typical methods of establishing control, but it is effective and when you continue through the steps of instructional control (there are about 7 give or take) you will see success in your students with minimum frustration for you and them.