Three Easy Steps to Classroom Discipline

Three Easy Steps to Classroom Discipline

By NAfME Member Audrey Carballo

Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.

This quote is attributed to Stephen Sondheim. Having never been a teacher, Stephen instinctively understood the meaning of the arts. Our classroom discipline plans strive to reflect bringing order to chaos—or, at the very least, controlling the chaos in order to achieve the desired result.

Much of the arts is a singular activity. Painting, sculpting, photography, and the like are usually solitary projects. Although a work of art can be a collaboration, more often than not it is individual contributions to a whole rather than a group of people working on the one photograph or painting. Much is the same for writing. Yes, there are collections, but in that case, several different authors will contribute their own completed works. There is the occasional mutual collaboration between two or more equal contributors, but that is not the norm.

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Music allows the performer to experience three aspects—the solo artist, the small ensemble (duet, trio, etc.), and the large ensemble, such as a band, orchestra, or chorus. As educators, we should encourage all of these aspects. We see all three facets in our classrooms. Bringing a semblance of order to each medium requires a delicate dance of planning, consistency, and execution.


The first side of our triangle involves planning. Even after 36 years of being a public school music teacher, I still find it necessary to plan my lessons. Anyone who has been a music instructor for a minute knows lesson plans are fluid. I learned a long time ago I could never teach every concept my state has in each grade level. I chose which ones I felt were the most important with regards to a seamless transition from one grade level to another. I concentrated on lessons that would be able to get me from point A to point B with the maximum amount of learning with the least amount of chaos.

In the elementary grades, I instruct 3rd through 5th grade. In each grade level, I make it a priority to highlight a composer once a month. In highlighting a composer, I make sure to emphasize the world music component of the standards. Third grade concentrates on singing, reading rhythms, as well as playing the drum buckets and other percussion instruments. This leads to my introduction to the orchestra, into which I tie the famous composers. When I plan, I make sure to list two to three objectives at the most. In any one lesson, we simultaneously teach several objectives. To list each one is impossible and can be hazardous when actually writing out the plans.

Ask yourself what you want your students to master by June, and work backwards from there.

KISS! Keep it simple is the best way to go. At least once in your school year, a member of the administrative team will come into your room for a formal observation. They need to at least be able to figure out what you are teaching that day. As educators, we always want to seize the teaching moment. Don’t be afraid to modify your plans at the last minute. Write it down, even if you jot it in the margins! The administrator will be less likely to question your plans if you have justification in your written plans why you suddenly decided to speak about Tom Petty because of his recent death. If you veer off course in the middle of the lesson, that’s alright. With older or more experienced students, this can happen during a rehearsal. Try to get back on track as quickly as possible. Remember—you made these plans, and as the teacher, you want to see them come to fruition.


Some teachers do weekly plans. Others get satisfaction from monthly, grading period, semester, or yearly goals. Ask yourself what you want your students to master by June, and work backwards from there. Keep constants like rhythm studies, note recognition, sight reading, instrument playing, or singing. Highlighting famous composers doesn’t have to mean an old dead guy. Seek out someone contemporary, and use them as an example to tie in one of the masters. Your students will be so surprised when they learn you know about Bruno Mars and his collaboration with Adele, Jay Z & Kanye West, Beyoncé and Snoop Dogg with Wiz Khalifa, just to name a few. Talk about the form of the songs. Talk about copyrights. Make music relevant from the student’s perspective. Keep (and recycle) your best plans. Modify the ones that weren’t so successful. Don’t trash any plan. You started out with good intentions. Figure out what didn’t work and revise from there. Just like a composer, you can craft good, basic plans that can be updated as needed. No need to reinvent the wheel each year.


The second side of our triangle involves consistency. With regard to planning, it is comforting to your students to know what is expected when they walk into your classroom. A “Do Now” activity as soon as they enter gives you the chance to take care of housekeeping, i.e., taking attendance, passing out instruments or folders, and all the other necessary tasks which must happen at the beginning of every class. This makes a great impact on classroom discipline. Your students know what they are expected to do as soon as they enter.

At the beginning of each year, I play (and explain) a PowerPoint presentation for my elementary and middle school students. It’s not very long, but it does outline what I anticipate from them and what they can look forward to from me. Clear, concise expectations give everyone a sense of organization and goes a long way to alleviate stress. It also lays the groundwork for grade justification when parents are wondering why their child hasn’t received the anticipated “A” in music.


I also have a website dedicated to my classroom. I post dates of student presentations so they know when they are expected to turn in their project. Items of general information about my classes and how to get in contact with me are included. The PowerPoint presentations are available on the website. Vocabulary and test dates are presented for the entire semester for my middle school students. By making the material available, I eliminate almost all excuses why students aren’t doing well in music class.

Clear, concise expectations give everyone a sense of organization and goes a long way to alleviate stress.

I learned a long time ago to be consistent with my discipline practices. Our school has adopted a school-wide discipline plan. Working in a K-8 setting, we utilize one for the elementary grades and a slightly different one for middle school. We have consistent rules and consequences. If your school has one, see if it works for your music setting. If not, devise your own. A few simple rules and consequences that are applicable are a good start.

Don’t be afraid to bring the hammer down at the beginning of the school year. You are the captain of your classroom, after all! I’ve heard some teachers say they don’t want to appear too harsh at the beginning of the school year. There is no need to go from zero to sixty in one class period, but by the same token, there should be only one verbal warning before more serious consequences ensue. Children will get away with as much as we allow them to get away with! They need those behavior boundaries reinforced every class period.

In my experience, if you are having difficulty with a child in your class, it is more than likely their other teachers are having the same issues. Enlist the help of the other teachers and when appropriate, speak to the parents. Don’t hesitate to talk with their folks. You’ll find if you have justification for the behavior consequences, the parents often become your best support system.

Stick to your discipline plan as much as possible. Of course, there are always unforeseen circumstances, but by and large, a consistent set of discipline consequences work. If you are unsure as to what you should list as consequences, observe a veteran teacher and try to employ what works for them in your classroom.


The foundation of the triangle is Execution. Execution is the cornerstone of consistency. If you do not have adequate follow-through, your classroom discipline is a house of cards. It is not necessary, nor is it educationally prudent for you to continue to “warn” students. You begin to sound like the parent who issues empty threats. You want your words to be your promise.

When I admonish a student (and issue the verbal warning that if they interrupt me again they will receive a consequence) I must be ready to stand by my words. I cannot continue to preach over and over again. The only thing this accomplishes is frustration on your part. It actually teaches the child they can get away with the behavior. If you acquiesce to their actions, they are holding you and your classroom hostage to their whims. Make sure you mean what you say. If the act elicits a phone call to the parent, then be prepared to do it. Don’t hesitate. This sends a clear message to the child: You are in control of your classroom. It also sends a message to the rest of the class that you mean what you say. It is so easy to back down or lessen the consequence because we run out of time or because we just don’t want to go down that road. I say if you set up the parameters from the get go, the journey will be smooth sailing.

Once you establish your reputation for being fair and consistent, the word gets around. I have students stand at my door while putting on their school IDs because they know once they step into my classroom without it, they receive a consequence. Ironically, I also see the same ones remove the ID when they leave because they know their next teacher “doesn’t care.” That is their perception. You care enough to make sure they are following the rules of your class and/or school.

Toward Empowered Students

These three components prove to be the hallmark of every effective teacher. Without one of the three, the triangle falls apart. Learn to employ them in your classroom and build your thriving classroom off it. Your lessons will be positive and productive. Your students will flourish from your newfound sense of empowerment, which in turn will empower them to become better musicians.

About the author:


Audrey Carballo, a 36-year NAfME member, is in her 36th year as a music educator for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system, the fourth largest school system in the country. Her teaching experiences include general music, exploratory music, and chorus to regular and exceptional students in elementary, middle school, high school, and exceptional student settings.

She has been an Assessor for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and currently serves on the National Education Association Member Advisory Board Panel and as the Union Steward and Chairperson of the Educational Excellence School Advisory Board Council at her school. Recently, Audrey was the Children’s Choir Director for the Miami Music Project, which is an El Sistema program spearheaded by the world renowned conductor, James Judd.

One of her most rewarding experiences has been with the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In addition to teaching Broadcast Journalism classes, and giving private lessons in voice, composition, theory and piano, her duties included being the Vocal and Advanced Theory instructor for their Better Chance Music Production Program. Audrey was one of the co-authors of an article published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness titled, “A New Synthesis of Sound and Tactile Music Code Instruction: Implementation Issues of a Pilot Online Braille Music Curriculum.”

Audrey collaborated with Jin Ho Choi (another instructor at the Lighthouse) for nine months, creating their Braille Music Distance Learning course.

Follow Audrey on Twitter @scarlettfeenix.

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