Challenge: Circle Behavior – Part I

By changing the center from the adult — and adult values — to the child, and his values, we should change the whole path of civilization. ~ Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work


     During a recent workshop, a participant asked about a very common concern.  How do I respond effectively to misbehavior in circle (lessons, class meetings, transition circles, etc.).  While an entire chapter or section of a book on classroom leadership could be devoted to this question, I will do my best to share some of my experience on this topic!

     Group gatherings are a time when misbehavior can be a frequent occurrence.  There are many contributing factors.  One of the most common factors is how the adults respond to misbehavior in group settings.  For instance: a child may be sent out of the circle until “they are ready” to come back, one adult may be in charge of redirecting a misbehaving student, or a teacher may correct the child verbally in front of the group.  These approaches, while well-meaning, can have a counterproductive impact.  These responses distract from the purpose of the circle, and children begin paying attention to the disrupting child rather than the teacher.  This causes the group loses focus.  When children are corrected in a public setting, they can become embarrassed or discouraged leading to an increase in misbehavior.  So, what can we do? 

Primary (ages 3-6)

  1. Keep circles highly engaging.  Young children are still developing concentration, and sitting in a circle takes a high degree of self-regulation.  To be honest, sometimes whole group gatherings are boring. The adults ask young children to display a level of self-control that they have not yet developed. Highly engaging circles can help develop the ability to self-regulate in group settings by capturing the children’s attention. The next time you observe another classroom, be sure to stay to observe a group gathering.  Ask yourself, “If I was 3 or 4, would I be engaged?”
  2. Make circle optional. If a child is not able to sit through a group gathering yet, is there somewhere they can be to observe, that allows them more freedom of movement? Is there a quiet activity that they can do while others are at circle?  Make it a goal to keep circles so engaging that they entice children to come vs. requiring them to come.
  3. Keep circles short. A group gathering should not be more than 10 to 12 minutes for 3-4 year-olds, especially at the beginning of the year.  As the children develop more self-regulation during group settings, you can increase the length of the gathering by a few minutes. 
  4. Limit whole-group gatherings.  Too often, children are asked or required to come to the circle many times throughout the morning.  Adults don’t do well with a lot of meetings.  Neither do children.  Each time the children come to a circle they experience at least 4 transitions.  They transition away from what they are doing.  They transition to the circle.  When circle is over, they transition out of the circle. They transition to the next activity.  So, 4 transitions, and then they are required to sit still during the gathering.  That’s a lot of adult-directed activity for children who are in the sensitive period for independence and concentration!  Group gatherings can be a disruption to a child who concentrating.  You never know when a child is making a connection.  When you do bring children together, remember, to keep the gathering short and engaging!
  5. Make agreements with disruptive children outside of the circle. Some children have a very difficult time in whole-group settings.  Don’t fight this.  Work with them to come up with solutions.  Can they observe the circle from a pre-established spot outside of the circle?  Can you work with the child to find creative ideas for when the child feels distracted (for example, a special non-verbal signal system that communicates to the child to take a break from the circle, or just a reminder to settle down).  
  6. Use the Class Meeting. Children love to contribute.  If you’re having difficulty with misbehavior in group settings, consider bringing the problem to the Class Meeting.  Come up with ideas together about how to make circle time more successful. 

Elementary and Adolescent (ages 6-15)

  1. Keep group time short and engaging. This idea applies to elementary and adolescent groups, as well.  Although elementary and adolescent students are more capable of self-discipline in group settings, teachers of older children sometimes slip into old habits like using group time to “stuff in” information rather than “draw forth” excitement for learning and engagement in conversations.  Research has shown that adults have an average attention span of 10-15 minutes, before it starts declining.  How long might it be for children?
  2. Decide what you will do, then follow through without talking.  Let the children know that you are noticing that the circle is disruptive.  Explain that when you see that children are disruptive (talking to each other, distracting, etc.) that you will stop what you are doing and put your hands in your lap.  Share that you will remain quiet until everyone is ready.  Ready means that the children are also quiet and have their hands in their lap.  Explain that when everyone is ready you will continue.  Of course, the children will want to know that you will follow through with what you have said.  The next time the circle is disruptive, simply stop what you are doing, put your hands in your lap, and stay PRESENT, WARM, and SILENT until everyone is ready. Do not comment on the disruption, but simply continue on where you left off when you continue. 
  3. Create guidelines and expectations together. Cooperation is higher when children are involved in setting classroom limits and guidelines.  At the beginning of the year, be sure to talk about potential problems that happen in group settings.  Then, together, come up with guidelines for respectful participation at circle.  See step 4.
  4. Take time for teaching. Not all children develop social awareness and skills at the same rate.  After you have created guidelines for group settings with your students, identify the grace and courtesy skills that are needed to follow those guidelines.  For instance: How to excuse oneself to go to the restroom; how to ask for a turn to speak; how to show others you are listening; what to do when you are not interested in a topic being discussed; how to disagree respectfully, etc.  Practice those skills together!
  5. Make agreements. A highly effective and respectful response to misbehavior in group settings is to make agreements with students using the Four Steps for Follow-Through.  A common adult response to repeat misbehaviors is the use of “consequences”, which are often just dressed up punishments.  The problem with punitive discipline is that it often invites more misbehavior: disruption, power struggles, attention seeking and peer pressure for other students to join in.  Instead of imposing consequences, have a friendly and frank conversation with the student in private and share what you are having difficulty with. Ask them share what they are having difficulty with also.  Work on a solution together that will meet both of your needs. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!  Make sure your agreement is specific, and that you will be able to follow-through, (the use of private, pre-established, non-verbal signals can be a very effective way to do this).  When the student breaks your agreement, simply follow-through without talking.
  6. Use the Class Meeting when problems come up. One of the tremendous advantages of the Class Meeting is that all students get a chance to share about how a problem might affect them.  At the elementary and adolescent levels, if misbehavior in group settings becomes an issue, a social power imbalance can arise.  Misbehaving students begin to assume power within the group. Students who are not comfortable with the misbehavior often feel pressure to stay quiet and not upset rock the boat.  When Class Meetings become part of the culture of a classroom, it is the norm for students to be open about how difficulties affect them.  Teachers are often surprised that their students want the same things they do – mutual respect, cooperation and shared responsibility!

     Marianna, a Primary teacher, was having a lot of difficulty with three children during circles.  The children had very little self-regulation in group settings.  They were often rolling into the middle of the circle, yelling, pushing, playing with materials on a nearby shelf, etc.  In response, Marianna had each of the three children sit next to her or the assistant teacher.  If one of the children was being disruptive, the assistant would lead that child out of circle and sit with them until they seemed ready to come back to circle.  When the student returned though, the disruption would begin again, and then other students started copying the behaviors.  In reflecting on the situation, Marianna realized that the adults were adding to the disruption with their “redirections” and possibly inviting the misbehavior by making the children sit next to an adult in circle. 

     Marianna met with each of the disrupting students, individually.  She explained that she had noticed that they were having a hard time in circle, and that it looked like they were feeling frustrated.  She let each child know that when it was time for circle, they could either come to circle, or that they could choose to work in the art area or read a book in the library.  On her end, Marianna decided that her goal was going to make her circle as high interest as possible, and to draw these younger children back as soon as they were ready. 

     Immediately, Marianna’s circles began to be more productive and enjoyable.  The three students were also happier.  They were actively engaged, as the assistant teacher sat outside of circle, near the working children, observing with presence, warmth and silence.   After a few weeks, Marianna’s group gatherings were really going well, and then one of the children who had been working outside the circle became interested in what was happening and joined the group.  The assistant didn’t need to follow him because he was engaged with the group.  It wasn’t too long after Marianna made the changes, that all three of the disrupting children came attended circle. 

     At one of Marianna’s Class Meetings the class talked about how to help their friends if they were having a hard time sitting through circle.  One of the children shared that it his mother rubbed his back sometimes when he was “wiggly”.  The class decided that they would try asking “wiggly” friends if they would like to have their back rubbed at circle.  After this, children rarely left circle.  Just as importantly, Marianna noticed that the Class Meeting solution had become a turning point for the classroom community.  Not only did children help each other in circle, they began to help and care for each other throughout the day. 

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About the Author

Picture of Chip DeLorenzo

Chip DeLorenzo

An experienced Montessori Educator who has served in a variety of roles for over 25 years, Chip DeLorenzo is a trainer, consultant and co-author of Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom. He works with teachers, parents and schools across the globe to help them to create Montessori environments that promote mutual respect, cooperation and responsibility.


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