When you teach preschool you spend most of your day with busy children, free choice is ( or at least should be) the bulk of your day. That said there are likely times where you come together as a group with an overt adult agenda. For me and my class that is circle time, you may call it rug time, carpet time or class meeting even. The name doesn’t matter. It’s a time where teachers can lead group activities through direct instruction. Depending on your teaching style, student’s ages, curriculum parameters and class, one teacher’s circle time can look very different from another’s.
Circle time should be different in every class because every class is different. I know in my experience circle time varies not only from year to year but from day to day. As preschool teachers, one of the most important abilities to have is the ability to change our plan on the go. If it’s not working you need to decide to try to save the activity or abandon it. Both are viable options.
Here are my tips for circle time and what to do when it’s JUST NOT WORKING.
1. Routine, routine, routine.
Routine makes young children feel safe and while we may be more easily bored by it, children crave it. Sticking to a routine doesn’t mean for example that you have to sing the same 4 songs after you do your calendar every day, but it does mean that you should sing something after calendar every day. Keeping to a general routine for your group time makes it predictable and lets children know what is expected of them. I listed this first because this is my weak spot, I get great new ideas in my head and think, well just today I’ll mess up the routine and then I pay for it. Stick to the routine and find other times to introduce something that would otherwise change the routine you have worked hard to create.
2. Make a plan, then cut it in half (especially at the start of the year).
Circle time should be as short as possible. When I am getting to know my class, I keep circle time very short. Sitting still is hard for young children and instead of forcing them to do it, I set them up for success. When circle time is short and they sit and pay attention the whole time praise them for it. Continue this cycle of success by extending the time slowly over the year, but acknowledge those days when shorter is better like Halloween, any special event and the first day back after a break.
3. Get moving.
Sing songs with actions, get up and dance, and if you are doing a short group activity have children get up to participate. A little movement goes a long way.
4. Ignore the wiggles and give students enough space.
Ignoring wiggles can be tough because a really wiggly child can be super distracting. Try. A lot of kids need to wiggle. My students are so young I don’t worry about this at all. I will remind children if they are in somebody else’s space, I will space out our carpet mats so they aren’t too close but reminders aren’t kid proof. If a child is having a very hard time staying in their own space we offer them a new position to sit in, a lap or a new spot but still within the circle ( unless they choose to leave , we don’t make them leave). Choose your strategy and only allow behaviors that you plan to continue to allow, if sitting only one way is important to you then stick to it.
5. Get quieter to get their attention.
Nothing works better than leaning in and whispering. For larger classes, a good old stage whisper works well. My first-year teaching I lost my voice trying to holler over my class. It wasn’t effective at all and I quickly changed my strategy. I can’t imagine raising my voice now. This isn’t a strict circle time tip, but I use it when kids want to say something about the book all at once. A simple “If you are all speaking no one can hear the book” in a whisper usually does the trick.
6. Have a predictable transition to circle time.
We use quiet reading time with a basket of books after snack. In a previous school, circle time followed potty time and children who had already gone potty played with puzzles at circle until everyone had had their turn in the bathroom. You don’t need to use an independent activity but having a predictable routine going into circle time like a song you play or sing to signal it’s time to come together helps make for an easy transition.
What To Do When Circle Time is a FLOP?
If a child is running around or away from circle calmly bring them back to the circle. When this has happened to me I have praised the children who are sitting ” ___ you look ready for the circle !” instead of looking to the sitting kids and saying ” Don’t get up.” If you say that you can pretty much guarantee that some child who wasn’t even thinking of getting up now will. Keep it positive.
After praising those sitting I walk over to the child and calmly with a plain face say ” It’s time for circle.” and return them to the circle. If that fails to work and you do not have an assistant teacher who can be their buddy and help them succeed, then I would choose to ignore the child. Giving that one child so much attention at this point can backfire, prompting more disruption from other kids. Ignoring usually works beautifully.
If it’s not just one child but the class as a whole not paying attention, change the activity asap. Get up and dance, sing an action song like Head and Shoulders, or pretend to be animals. When the children participate in the new activity praise them for it but keep it short. Having a successful circle time doesn’t have to follow the plan exactly, or at all. Children want to please us (I know it doesn’t always seem like that, but they do) and giving them feedback when they do something we want them to continue doing is important.
Not all circle time activities will be huge hits but having realistic expectations, setting your students up for success, and not getting hung up on perfection yourself will go a long way to making it your favorite time of day at preschool!
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