Online discipline with young learners (ESL): part 2

In this two-part post I offer some techniques that I’ve learned to maintain discipline when teaching ESL to young learners online.

In previous posts I discuss how the online ESL environment can be very successful for young learners, and I offer techniques to maintain energy levels. In this post I discuss discipline. There are a number of techniques I’ve developed over the last couple of years to ensure discipline is maintained in my young learner lessons. The good news is that after implementing these strategies I’ve never had to let go of a student due to discipline issues. In the first part of this post, I focus on ideas to avoid behavior problems. In this post I focus on strategies to deal with discipline issues when they arise. Hopefully you have taken my advice and sent a pre-lesson briefing document to your young learners’ parents (and if you haven’t, make sure you read Part 1 of my post!).

Discipline issues do arise

Despite your best effort to minimize behavior issues with your young learners by providing a detailed briefing document, issues occasionally arise. Here are some common scenarios and my suggestions to deal with them.

  1. ‘I’m bored.’ That loaded phrase… It’s important to determine whether the student is genuinely bored by the subject matter or if it’s a normal attempt to avoid doing further work. No matter how experienced you are at teaching young learners, you cannot control how a student feels on any given day and you will need to take real or perceived boredom for what it is. You do need to act, as the least recommended route is to push on and decide that you will get through x number of exercises before the end of the lesson. Don’t hesitate to change the pace or switch to a new lesson plan. Make sure that you are personalizing the lessons and exercises so that your student feels involved. A young learner is going to remain more engaged when you teach the past simple by using points of references such as computer games, the students extracurricular activities and personal interests. Sometimes you have to relinquish control and allow the student a few moments of true, free speech that is not subject to the scrutiny of your lesson objectives.
  2. Stick to your discipline policy. In our last post I recommended setting up a policy for unacceptable behavior such as three-strikes-and-you’re-out (i.e. you terminate the online lesson). Be clear about what constitutes unacceptable behavior. Obscene language should be forbidden. If you fail to implement the policy, you can be assured that the student will never forget this, and the boundaries will move permanently in the student’s favor. Implementing the agreed discipline policy is your responsibility and you will not succeed as an online teacher if you do not adhere to the rules you set. You will not have to flick the “kill-swtich” often, and I can almost guarantee that you will never need do it twice with the same student. Finally, do not allow students to surf the internet to explain something to you. The internet can return images that can put you in an embarrassing position. Ask the student what to search for and control the images yourself.
  3. Communication with parents is vital. If issues do arise, it is critical to communicate effectively to parents immediately following the lesson. You should resist the temptation to shield parents from the news of poor behavior. Also, I recommend that you record classes to show parents the issues should they request it. A phone call is far more effective than an email to communicate such news, and of course, be sensistive. Choose your words carefully. The parent has raised the child, so don’t moralise. Speak only of how the negative behavior is impeding educational development and don’t infer that this is an inherent flaw in the child’s personality.
  4. Favors are OK. Young learners won’t hesitate to ask for requests, such as “Can we finish five minutes early today?” or “Can I show you something on Minecraft, it will only take five minutes?” In my experience, granting some favors works well provided that you determine the parameters. “Sure, you can show something on Minecraft, but let’s get through this exercise first”. I suggest that you only agree to something that can be done at the end of the lesson. However, I don’t agree to end lessons early as it is unlikely that the parent will view such a decision favorably.
  5. Breaks are OK, but set up guidelines. Everyone needs to take a break and since it is the parent who decides the lesson schedule with you, be aware that students do need a break from time to time. Do not exit the lesson and allow them to log in again. Instead, remain online and the student can take a brief break from the computer. If you agree with a parent to do more than one lesson in a row, or lessons after 7pm, your student deserves a quick break.
  6. If you have to, politely refuse to continue with a student. You have to face reality. As a teacher you will find certain behavior unacceptable which another teacher may not even notice. You must be aware that you cannot be the perfect online teacher for every young learner. Some students exhibit challenging behavior and you do not want to be continually communicating negative feedback to the parents. If you dread teaching a student, whatever the reason is, it is not a reflection on either of you but probably a student-teacher relationship that just doesn’t work. But it is an alarm bell. The repercussions of continuing lessons where a poor relationship exists is just not worth it.
  7. Use humorMost young learners need a certain level of entertainment during a lesson. Humor, the most effective tool you have to eliminate poor behavior and a humorous approach is more effective that using a stronger tone of voice. Don’t forget that you are teaching a child. They tend to like childish things… and there is nothing better than ending lessons on a high note. Use humor to highlight poor behavior, then move on and forget the issue.

I hope you benefit from the lessons I’ve learned during the last two years of teaching ESL to young learners online. I realize that teaching anything to a young learner online is a relatively new practice, so if other online teachers have experiences and thoughts to share, I would love to hear them!

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