Managing Students in the Drama Classroom

Drama teachers, I believe, need to consider their behaviour management strategies far more carefully than those in a “conventional” classroom.

For many students, a room with no desks is totally foreign to them and doesn’t compute with what they have been taught is the “traditional” way of learning in a classroom. Believe me, I know this because I’ve seen it. The amount of times kids are bouncing off the walls with hyperactivity and cannot settle down in any way because they just can’t deal with the fact that there isn’t a desk for them to put their book on, is astounding. It also feels like the air when a storm is coming – electric. The kids can sense it and their brains go haywire🙂

Just like any classroom there are no hard and fast rules to behaviour management and nothing is ever perfect nor works with every single group. That’s the uniquely brilliant (and extremely difficult) thing about teaching. Part of our job is building up a bank of strategies that we can pull out of our magic top hats whenever we need them. For many beginning teacher’s behaviour management is their worst nightmare. Believe me, I know this veeeeeeery well.

However, in my five years of teaching I’ve done a lot of trial and error with my classes when it comes to behaviour management. Some of it has failed dismally, other strategies have been slightly more successful. Many of these will continue to fail depending on the group and the one’s you least expect to work with one particular group are actually the one’s to work.

Safe learning environments are crucial in the Drama classroom. Without them, students do not feel comfortable enough to take risks and perform in front of others. By setting boundaries for students this allows them to feel a little bit more at ease about this.

Here are a selection of strategies that may help guide you to managing behaviour issues in your classroom:

  • Establish Routine OUTSIDE the Classroom – This is important to ensure students are not going into the room unfocused. Ensure students line up outside your room. I personally request that all my student’s put their hats, phones, i-pods, mp3 players, food and drinks into their bag before they enter the classroom. I even stand at the door and check them one by one. I stop them if they haven’t done what they’ve been asked and make sure it is put away before they try to enter again. It’s also a really nice way to greet everyone individually before you start the lesson. You may like to allocate a particular part of the room for students to leave their bags so as to keep them out of the performance space.
  •  Establish Routine INSIDE the Classroom – This goes without saying in any classroom. Structure your lessons very carefully so that students become familiar with what happens in your lessons. Your watch/clock is your best friend. In Drama it is a good idea to spend approx. 10-15 minutes on a warm up, 20-40 minutes on your main activitie(s) and 10-15 minutes on discussion or logbook activities.
  • Establish POSITIVE BEHAVIOUR EXPECTATIONS in the Classroom – Here you can combine your school’s discipline policy with your own expectations. You may even like to get the students to help you decide what the classroom expectations will be (this could take an entire lesson). Our school is following the PBL (Positive Behaviour for Learning) Framework so I’ve tried to talk to students about their behaviour in terms of positive choices and that incorrect choices should expect a consequence. I also frame my expectations around how students should behave when watching a performance. So, I teach them about theatre etiquette. In the end, after it all my motto is: just give it a go.

My four rules are:

In the drama classroom we always:

  • Begin and end every lesson in a circle;
  • Follow theatre etiquette when others are performing (no talking, clapping at the end);
  • Listen to all instructions to make sure everyone is safe and working;
  • Leave all our food, drink, i-pods, MP3’s, mobile phones in our bags.

Finally, follow-through, follow-up, follow-through, follow-up. Decide what the consequence will be for not following through on the appropriate behaviour e.g. lunch detention, after school detention, a phone call home, Head Teacher referral etc. Develop a system that you can use first before referring the behaviour on e.g. three lunch detentions = phone call home. One detention after the phone call = afternoon detention.  The more you are in control of the situation the better. In order to gain respect from your students you have to show them that you’re serious. Phrase your expectation clearly as well as the consequence. E.g “Johnny, I’ve asked you once to stop speaking. If you speak again during the performance I will be seeing you at lunchtime.” If Johnny does this then do as you said.

Now, I know writing it down makes it sound so easy and believe me, I know, better than anyone that this is just not the case. For many of us it is not natural to be disciplining students this way. Especially when we often have rather grandiose ideas of all students absolutely loving what they are learning and that there shouldn’t be any need for behaviour management. The reality is not all students love learning and these can be for a range of reasons. It doesn’t mean you should not be allowed to teach however nor show them how great Drama can be. Be realistic about how long it will take your class to learn your routines. For every class it will be different. Be persistent and don’t let the difficult students get you down because for every horrible student there will be 3-4 great kids who try the work and do what you say.

20 Comments

  1. Routines are good, but we have to be aware of imposing authoritarian rule and also limiting the student direction by forces 15 minutes warm up. It is all down to the individual teacher but the best words I suggest are be honest, be fair and be willing as a teacher to say sorry if you get it wrong if expecting students to. Indeed let the students see the rules apply to all the learners in the teaching space (teacher and student). Of course as an aside it is easier to go softer after starting tougher, rather than the other way around.

    If the lesson has significance, there is high intellectual quality and the teacher has created a quality learning environment then disruption/management issues stat to disappear.

  2. This is great help. I guess my biggest challenge is finding a way to communicate that I am not happy with a student’s behaviour without disrupting the class. I tried writing names on the board, but it just gets overwhelming sometimes. I have a very challenging class where each warm-up is ruined by a handful of students trying to be silly.
    I need some more tips on possible consequences to poor behaviour, any recommended resources?

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this post. The drama classroom is hard because you often get a lot of students who are not keen to participate and want to make it difficult for other student’s. I had a particularly difficult class two years ago. The absolute worst. I nearly wanted to quite teaching they were so terrible! I tried a “time-out” corner at one stage. This was a space in the room where I placed some chairs and I would ask students to sit there until they were prepared to focus and participate appropriately. I repeated this and then spoke to them at the end of the lesson about my expectations, queried them on why they felt they couldn’t participate appropriately, placed them on detention and also made a phone call home. If it continued I had parent meetings and withdrew them from practical lessons for a week or two. I’ve also spent a lesson generating classroom rules that the class have come up with themselves giving them ownership of their classroom and their learning. I try to stick to just five.

      I completely understand where you are coming from in finding it difficult to manage the class. Just remember consistency and follow through. If you say it, mean it and do it. Drama can seem very threatening for students so see their inability to focus as them having to become more aware of themselves and not really knowing how to deal with it, lol. You are offering them amazing opportunities to explore themselves and their world. They will take something away from it even if it is not quite what you would expect or evident yet.

      Let me know how you go and if I can help in any way contact me here at the blog or through Twitter at @karlao_dtn

  3. Hi,
    Having just started working in a UK school, I have to say that my own expectations of timescale and level of work were far to high, and therefore, ultimately, I was frustrated. I think it helps to remind oneself that learning is related to ‘time spent’ doing the stuff – often, I used to think that this was just the ‘subject’, but have decided it’s as much about giving students the chance to learn, be reminded of and reflect on positive ‘general’ behaviour too.

    • Hi Steve,

      What great insight! I agree wholeheartedly. We get so bogged down as teachers with having to fulfill syllabus requirements and achieve outcomes that we forget that sometimes school and class time isn’t (and doesn’t) have to be all about that. I remember being brought back down to earth after I began with lofty expectations. I realised then and I remind myself now, that I still do have my high expectations but what I place value in is not necessarily always the work/academic based outcome and I have become a happier teacher for it. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the blog. I really appreciate it.

  4. Karla,
    Thank you for your informative and insightful blog. Could you please fix your spelling of the word “students,” though? Spelled with an apostrophe, like you do repeatedly above, indicates possession. For example: Your students really like your drama class, but one student’s bad behaviour made everyone upset. I hope you take this suggestion in the kind manner it is intended.

  5. Hey guys, I am having a huge problem trying to get a year 10 group to do any drama, practical or written. I have had a discussion with them and asked them what are their hobbies, what are their favourite shows and movies to try relate some content to their interests. They just don’t want to be there, all of them are overflow students.

    • HiIsabonn,

      Sorry for the late reply. I had a similar experience to you and I decided to get them working towards something in a real world context. So I got them to put together a really simple series of scenes on fractured fairytales and I took them to the local Children’s Hospital and got them to perform them for the sick kids. Knowing that they had a real reason to perform, that they were doing some community service got even the laziest of kids doing something. I hope that helps.

  6. First year teacher here. I just discovered your advice on classroom management and a week and a half in, I already wish I had read this MUCH sooner! I have one AMAZING class, and two of those classes where I want to leave the room screaming and never come back. I am sticking to my guns though because being able to teach drama is a dream come true that I have finally been able to bring to fruition after 20 years. My question is this: Is there a way to establish (or reestablish) these classroom rules and procedures even if you are a week into instruction? Thank you so much for this guide and in advance for your response!

    • Hey Rick,

      Just remember it’s your classroom. You’re in charge and if it’s not working you can change things whenever you want. Hopefully you have your school systems and processes to support you as well as a Head Teacher to also support you. Throw everything you can at the class to get them under control in the way you want and most importantly don’t be disheartened if you feel as though you haven’t taught anything to the students. There is no point teaching content if the kids aren’t listening in the first place! Don’t be afraid to ask for support and suggestions from colleagues also. Hope that helps. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to the blog.

  7. Pingback: References | teachingimprovisation

  8. I have been teaching from a book a lot with my 1st year 6-8 graders because it was here, and I didn’t have a curriculum. I teach around 25 student in each class – it’s difficult. They get bored with “book learning” and I do too, but I think they need to know theatre history and some of the basics. Do you have a good curriculum for middle-school that you can suggest?
    Also, warm-ups are a complete flop in my classes. EVERYONE laughs, talks, and acts silly. I’ve gotten to where I just don’t try them anymore. It’s discouraging. Any tips for handling large classes? Thanks.

  9. I am about to start drama sessions with a group of Yr3-6s.
    I intend go through ‘my’ rules and consequences in the first lesson and reiterate them as needed. The main consequence will be if they are disrespectful to any other person they leave my room. They are all old enough to know exactly what ‘disrespect’ looks like and the school has a huge focus on it so there are no excuses. Yes it might be tough, but these students chose Drama for a reason and I will ensure their opportunity to partake is not hindered by an individual.

  10. I have a small group of 9 year olds who are bright, but who are also all determined to be the star of the show! They will not agree with anything anyone else suggests and end up frustrating one another and themselves,because they never get anywhere! I have tried just doing individual work, but I would like to do group improvisations, dialogues, etc. How do I get them to work together?

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