Pretty Wild!

Practical tips for educating restless students

By Kristin Thielemann (05.11.2021)
Translation Maarten Reumkens (14.07.2022)

Do you know that feeling of standing up in front of a group of children, but some of them are fidgety, and the restlessness starts to spread? What do you do when a private student finds it difficult to concentrate and their mind keeps wondering off? For my book Ganz schön wild – Besondere Schüler entspannt unterrichten I collected a large selection of practical and effective tips.

Temperaments can vary greatly. Some students are easy in class, participate well and make good progress. Others are quickly distracted, impulsive, impertinent and make it difficult for themselves, and their fellow students, to make progress, to get into the flow, and to be enthused by music making.

But what can we do, as music educators, to help these children stick with their lessons and to reach their full musical potential?

There are several aspects of our lessons that can be easily adjusted and can ensure calmness. Interior Design that offers few distractions, attention to Lesson Atmosphere and the Dealing with Disruptions are all important, and a good Lesson Structure is also very helpful.

Interior Design

Often, we have little influence over the design of our classrooms, however, using a little creativity, a less than optimal room situation can be turned into something positive.

Try to keep your room as tidy and distraction-free as possible. You can cover untidy tables or shelves with white linen cloths, ask yourself whether every poster or photo on the wall is really essential, and test whether lamps or ceiling lights are too dazzling or provide a pleasant, calming working environment.

It could also be helpful to figure out the least distracting corner of the room and position the music stand in such a way that the student faces this corner.

Teaching Atmosphere

Are you more of a restless or excitable type? Students are sensitive to our own characters and tend to mirror our behaviour. The keyword here is “mirror neurons” (check Dealing with Stress below). Taking a short break before a lesson helps us to calm down and focus, which can prove invaluable. When we are excited, we often start speaking faster and at a slightly higher pitch. Try slowing down a bit. Softer and deeper voices tend to have a soothing effect on people.

Regularly working on a good student-teacher relationship also helps contribute to a better teaching atmosphere. Students these days are not used to facing authoritarian teachers and prefer to be taught on an equal footing. They feel comfortable when they have the feeling of being accepted by their teacher for who they are, and that all their wishes, questions are welcome, and their needs are being met.

Lesson Structure

An easy-to-understand structure helps students orientate themselves within a lesson. A student that knows that their least favourite part of their lesson, for example technical exercises or scales, is always followed up by their favourite element or their favourite piece, will find it easier to endure the parts of the lesson that they don't enjoy as much.

Showing the structure of a lesson in a visual way, writing it down, or working with physical building blocks can be really useful. Involving the student in this process can help you respond to the student’s individual needs in a better way, and also means you can expect more calm and motivation during the lesson.

Tim: “I would love to be able to play the new Ed Sheeran song!“
Teacher: “That's a great idea! How about I look for the sheet music, while you play the scales you prepared for today? Then, we can try Ed Sheeran afterwards!“

About the author

Kristin Thielemann (Homepage: Kristin Thielemann studied orchestral music, trumpet and music education at the Lübeck University of Music and was a scholarship holder of the Richard Wagner Foundation and the Munich Philharmonic. During her studies she was already under contract as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Starting in 2009, she has been regularly publishing articles in professional journals for Schott Music, and also produces her own Sheet Music & Tips for use in education. ...

Dealing with Disruption

Dealing with disruption is also a skill that needs to be learned. A deep discussion, however, goes well beyond the scope of this article. Generally, making your rules clear and enforcing them consistently helps a great deal.

Since your rules are designed to achieve certain goals, it would be wise to inform the students of these goals before the start of a lesson:

“We want to make beautiful music together. In order to do that, we need a calm working environment. I always open the door to the rehearsal room five minutes before the rehearsal. After entering the room, you unpack your instruments on the tables back there and sit down in your place. Put your sheet music and pencil on the music stand. While sitting down, you can play whatever you choose during the warm-up time until 6 pm, but only at a volume where you can still hear everyone else. As soon as I step up to the conductor's podium and raise my arms, I expect silence!”

The younger or more restless the group is, the clearer the rules need to be. It is better to have two or three clear rules, and to practice them consistently over a longer period, than to have lots of rules that are difficult to enforce.

In the case of persistent troublemakers, it is a good idea to have a one-to-one conversation before or after a lesson, in which you can work with the student to find a good solution. A solution could look like this:

“Let's try taking part calmly for the first 20 minutes of the lesson. After that, I will remind you up to three times that you intended to cooperate. If that doesn't work, you will sit down at the table in the corner, where there is something for you to colour in, and I continue working with the group.”

Help for Fidgets

Not every disturbance is caused by obvious, loud behaviour. Fidgety children can give us an unsettled impression without saying anything at all. A young person's natural urge to move should not be underestimated. Of course, a music room is not a playground, but movement exercises or musical games involving movement can help channel a student’s urge to move. These exercises don't need to be complicated, have your students bounce a rhythm or ask for musical terms or intervals while doing push-ups or 'jumping jacks'.

Some younger students are not yet fully in control of their own movements, or not aware of them at all. In this case, fine motor-skill training can be very helpful, as I also describe in my book Ganz schön wild – Besondere Schüler entspannt unterrichten: Balancing exercises for use during lessons, like body exercises with pens or balloons, can quickly be incorporated into a lesson without much preparation, and can do a lot of good.

Dealing with Stress

Have you experienced this, when teaching some students can create a real sense of euphoria, while teaching others can leave you feeling empty and burned out? Teachers often talk to me about such situations during my training courses. Finding certain students strenuous, doesn't always relate directly to the workload. There are several reasons for this, one reason could be our so called mirror neurons, as first described by the Italian neuropsychologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in 1992 (Understanding motor events: A neurophysiological study).

Rizzolatti and his team were able to determine that we use these mirror neurons in our brain to perceive the feelings of our counterparts and reflect them in ourselves, meaning that we suddenly feel what we perceive in our counterpart. For example, after being with a happy person, we are infected by their happy nature, and are happier ourselves for a while.

Most people will already be familiar with the opposite effect, of being with a ‘negative nancy’. When we are surrounded by nags and naysayers, this can cause us to perceive things in a negative way, and it usually takes a while to free ourselves from this negative energy.

Transferring this knowledge about mirror neurons to our classroom, gives us a better understanding of our own reactions. When a student, drained from a long day of tests and homework, dutifully attends our lesson, not in a good headspace, we notice it immediately, even though we might not always be aware of it consciously. Not all people show their feelings clearly. We might involuntarily start feeling drained ourselves, even though we were happy and motivated before the start of the lesson.

Is there any way to prevent this from happening? After all, we cannot influence the mood that a student brings into the classroom.

Psychologists advise keeping a professional distance. Try to perceive the feelings of your counterpart and to name them for yourself. “My student is tired and in a bad mood because they already had to do a lot of things they don't enjoy.”

Use your own mood to counterpoint this: “I feel good because I had a great start to the day and I'm really looking forward to making music with my students!”

A good solution would be to try and influence your student's mirror neurons with your joy of making music and your own good mood. In such moments, I often try surprising my students by making them laugh. Laughter releases endorphins in the brain, which in turn makes their blood pressure rise, and tiredness disappear. In short: Laughing makes you feel better quickly. In Ganz schön wild – Besondere Schüler entspannt unterrichten, there is a whole chapter dedicated to the subject of happiness, including many examples that can be used in teaching.

It's not just mirror neurons however, that make us feel empty and burned out after a few hours. Teaching students that come to our lessons with goals that are different from our own, or who have a different music making philosophy, costs us an above average amount of energy. Some students might just want to learn a few cool pop songs on piano, to impress their friends.

You on the other hand, might want your students to learn more than just some ‘noodling’, and have them build the necessary skills to make music independently, and at a higher level, good instrumental technique, solfeggio and a broader musical horizon that reaches beyond the first few bars of “For Elise” and The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain.

These tensions and discrepancies between a student's wishes and our own can cost us a lot of energy, and we should try to identify these problems as soon as they arise, and then open a dialogue with the student in question, to find a suitable solution.

Our approach towards restless students

Were you always an angel as a child? Were you always calm, with a sweet smile, always perfectly prepared and never cheeky? I can't say that about myself. However, I have come across teachers, people who wanted to help me, who showed me how I could turn my restlessness, and my many ideas, into beautiful music. Special teachers who I think about to this day, while playing or teaching. These teachers may not always have had an easy time with me, but they managed to give me the feeling that they were happy to accompany me on my way, or to help me find my way, when things didn't go quite as planned.

I am very grateful to these wonderful teachers, who helped me get to where I am today, and I hope that you too will be that special teacher for as many of your students as possible, and that they in turn will remember you each time they pick up their instrument or stand in front of their class!

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