Despite the many misconceptions, preschool is a time in child development when a young learner’s cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are rapidly growing.
Thankfully, today’s early childhood education (ECE) practices in classroom management are evolving in a way that recognizes preschool is not just “daycare” and that early childhood students are full individuals.
With this evolution, pre-K and preschool classroom management has also changed — for the better!
Tackling preschool classroom management is easy like 1, 2, 3!
Time outs are a thing of the past, and teacher-centered classrooms have given way to student-centered classrooms with positive behaviors and social-emotional learning at the forefront.
In this modern guide to preschool classroom management, we break this topic down into four distinct categories to help center admins, teachers, and educators create an inspired and engaging classroom for the young children in their care.
So, what is classroom management in early childhood education? Read on for everything you need to know for preschool classroom management 2.0!
What are the four approaches to preschool classroom management?
- Classroom setup
- Daily structures
- Teacher choices
- Classroom management techniques
1. Classroom setup
Whether you realize it or not, preschool classroom management is innately impacted by the way the classroom is set up physically.
The zones or areas within that layout can mean the difference between an out-of-control classroom and a calm and positive learning environment. When evaluating your classroom environment, aim to take the following steps.
Ace the classroom layout
Begin by separating noisy zones and quiet zones.
If possible, put them on opposite sides of the room. When play space is separate from reading space, you’ll be able to reduce the probability of frustrations popping up between students and make your work of managing the classroom that much easier.
You’ll also want to have demarcated areas for specific small-group activities.
These activities may be influenced by your school’s learning philosophy, for example, whether you’re a Waldorf or Montessori school, but the thought remains the same:
How do your students spend their time in your ECE classroom?
Consider separate spaces for reading, playing, food/snacks, crafts, building, etc. If possible, look for ways to integrate nature-based learning into your classroom, even if it’s just finding areas for plants, a small indoor garden, or other greenery.
By having designated spaces for different types of learning, you can help structure the way students spend their time and support social-emotional learning as they connect with their peers in these parts of the classroom.
Create purposeful spaces
The demarcated spaces in your class demonstrate the importance of classroom management in preschool activities, but they should also serve a larger educational, social, or emotional purpose.
For example, a feelings space is an area where a student can go in heightened moments. Not to be confused with a time out, the feeling of space isn’t a punishment.
It’s simply a designated area where students can feel their feelings with supportive manipulatives such as stuffed animals or puppets. They may self-soothe in this space, or they may be given nurturing support from their trusted preschool teacher.
The different areas — whether for crafts, snacks, or anything in between — can also help promote independence in young learners. Through simple actions such as labeling bins with pictures, students can be self-directed in cleaning up or getting supplies.
A space of curiosity for the senses is also crucial for a thriving preschool classroom.
Developing minds are always learning. They crave opportunities to engage their senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, along with the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Ask yourself how each zone in your classroom can engage one or more of these senses, be it through tactile sensory bins, seating options, or music and songs.
Purposeful spaces in the classroom create an environment where students are actively engaged in learning, making your path to effective preschool classroom management that much smoother.
2. Daily structures
As humans, we instinctively understand how important a daily routine is to the rhythm and flow of our lives. Just think about it: What can you rely on each day?
Your morning cup of coffee?
Brushing your teeth?
Where you placed your keys?
Okay, that last one can be a little tricky some days. But the truth is that when daily structures are in place, your state of being is simply calmer and more present.
You don’t have to waste time or energy feeling flustered because you have a sense of order to fall back on. Just as adults need a daily routine to keep them on track, preschool children also benefit from this mode of thinking and planning.
Establish the right routines
If you’re here, you already know consistency plays a major role in child development.
Both in preschool and at home, we want to nurture reliable relationships and experiences so children can develop their sense of trust in others and the world around them.
The right routines help preschoolers understand the expectations of their environment and encourage cognitive, emotional, and social development. When students know what to expect, it also reduces the frequency of outbursts or frustrations (which helps you when it comes how to manage preschool classroom with far fewer headaches 😉).
Jeana Kinne, a preschool teacher, preschool director, parent educator, and writer for Teaching Mama puts it this way:
“The foundation of a happy and successful school day is a schedule and routine. When we stick with a daily routine, our kids come in knowing that they will have all of their basic needs met.”
This is especially important considering the many ups and downs of the past couple of years.
Experts like Jeana suggest that by having a set routine in place, parents and educators can help create a sense of certainty even when the world around them feels chaotic.
“If a child hasn’t slept well the night before, if they are hungry, or if they are missing a family member (maybe one parent is out of town), they will communicate their needs through behaviors,” she explains. “Basic needs include food, shelter, sleep, love, and support. If they hadn’t had their basic needs met that particular day, then we will see varying needs and behaviors at school.”
Child learning in preschool
Plan for easy transitions
Transitions are another key area where you may find yourself wondering if there’s a better way to plan.
The team over at Learning Without Tears sums up the importance of transitions perfectly:
“Transition activities and strategies promote self-regulation by helping children know what to expect and actively participate in their daily schedule. They also promote an understanding of the sense of time (i.e., past, present, future) and help with the development of social-emotional skills.”
This is another where even as an adult, it’s not too difficult to empathize.
After all, if you were eating a meal at a restaurant and the server walked up and took your plate without warning, you wouldn’t be calm, cool, and content. You’d be frustrated and confused. Downright hangry, even!
Point is, we all do better with smooth transitions. The same goes for our ECE students.
Countdowns, verbal cues, songs, or games can all be incorporated into transitions to not only make them easier for students but also fun and engaging for preschool teachers and staff.
Embrace free play
In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Play is the work of childhood.”
After all, many three-year-olds can only sit still for five to ten minutes max. That’s why, when it comes to efficient preschool classroom management, play-based learning is everything.
The type of play can vary — indoor, outdoor, independent, or group — but the effects are proven.
Here are just some of the reasons play is so crucial to preschool classroom management, according to three ECE experts:
- “Free play gives children an outlet to express their emotions and feelings and helps them develop a sense of who they are.” — KaBOOM
- “Kids are built to move, and having more time for unstructured, outdoor play is essentially like a reset button.” — Debbie Rhea, Ed.D.
- “Having control over the course of one’s own learning, as in free play, promotes desire, motivation, and mastery.” — Dr. Rachel E. White
In short, our ECE students have lots of energy!
Free play gives them the time and space to expel that energy in healthy ways that don’t contribute to an out-of-control preschool class. So make time for free play, and rest assured there are easier days ahead!
Child playing outside
3. Teacher choices
Even in our student-centered classrooms, the teacher makes a huge impact on the learner’s experience.
There are three major areas of teacher choice that impact effective preschool classroom management: atmosphere, rules, and responses.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Boost preschool classroom management by designing a welcoming atmosphere
Everything from the colors in the classroom to the rugs on the floor can all work together to shape the class into a calm or chaotic environment.
Of course, the teacher’s demeanor is equally important to healthy preschool classroom management. Patience is paramount, as is compassionate curiosity. In fact, Edutopia says that compassionate curiosity…
“…asks teachers to act as nonjudgmental investigators to better understand what’s going on in the minds and lives of students. The more you’re willing to recognize there are things you don’t know about your students’ experience or what they’re feeling, the more able you are to see behavior as a reflection of those feelings.”
This type of environment leads to better preschool classroom management because it sets the tone for the space students to walk into — one that isn’t tense or fear-based — and supports students in being themselves.
For these things to happen, it’s important to take a close look at your teacher diversity data and regularly reevaluate your approach to hiring preschool and childcare center staff.
Teach the rules
While many of us love to hate them, rules communicate clear expectations and consequences. And preschool classroom management involves setting rules to have a productive educational environment.
Some classroom rules such as “Be kind” or “Be respectful” are important, but they don’t always have meaning for young students because they’re more abstract and therefore harder for young minds to grasp.
For a calm and joy-filled classroom, be sure you’re teaching rules to the students in a way they’ll understand. That may involve pictures to communicate the rules, putting them into a song, or having students act out the rules to demonstrate comprehension.
Additionally, NAEYC points to using guidance, not punishment in the classroom. This method even teaches the students how to manage challenges without the teacher!
Preschool teacher Beth Wallce shares an interaction from her classroom led by four-year-old Jeremiah, that was the outcome of guidance, not punishment: 😍
“‘What’s going on, guys?’ Jeremiah asked (my standard opening line). He then facilitated a five-minute discussion between the two children. He made sure both got a chance to speak, interpreting for the little one. ‘Jordan, what do you think of that idea?’ he asked. Jordan shook his head and clutched the truck tighter. ‘I don’t think Jordan’s ready to give up the truck yet,’ Jeremiah told Franklin.”
Respond, don’t react
Another fundamental rule of best-in-class preschool classroom management is to get curious, not furious with your students.
That means responding to the challenges that come up instead of reacting. This is also a practice in alignment with trauma-informed teaching.
When an incident occurs in the classroom with a student, the teacher doesn’t default to disciplinary measures or punishment.
Instead, come from a place of inquiry and ask:
- Why might the student be behaving this way?
- What might be some contributing factors?
- Could this be coming from fear or insecurity? Feeling scared, hungry, or tired?
It’s the mindset shift from ‘Why did you do that?’ to ‘How can I help you right now?’
Responding instead of reacting also applies to having culturally appropriate responses to student behaviors. NAEYC outlines how cultural appropriateness can shape guidance for classroom management strategies in preschool when students have conflicts:
“As they choose guidance strategies, teachers help children understand that their peers’ play and behavior may look and feel different from their own because of different cultural practices, and they support children as they gradually learn to negotiate different sets of expectations between home and early education settings.”
The recognition and welcoming of the way students live their lives beyond the classroom make for important teaching moments and a reminder that there is no one-size-fits approach to ECE.
4. Classroom management techniques
Our guide so far has overarching practices, methods, and perspectives for effective preschool classroom management.
But if you’re struggling with an out-of-control preschool class and looking for specific ideas to use in the classroom right now, we’ve got you covered there too:
- Call/response is a great way to gather attention and get everyone listening and ready to transition.
- Preschool behavior charts are a hot-button topic right now. We think they’re most impactful when used one-on-one between a teacher and student, instead of displaying for the whole class to see (which can feel like punishment or public shaming).
- Green and red choices and charts: Talk about visual cues! Help students understand the behaviors you want to encourage, and behaviors that should be thought about before proceeding.
- Use floor markers to indicate where students should stand, sit, or wait during activities or transitions.
- Do a heavy work activity such as frog jumps or jumping jacks to get the energy out before transitioning to a different activity.
We know that an out-of-control preschool class can be overwhelming, and we’re here to help.
At MomentPath, we can't plan the perfect activities or color code your classroom, but we can help eliminate some of the stress that gets in the way of leading a calm and engaged classroom where kids feel free to play and learn.
Our childcare software started as a way for working parents to feel more connected to their children throughout the workday. Today, it’s blossomed into an experience-driven preschool classroom management and lead management software that protects revenue and streamlines center operations for some of the world’s leading early childhood education (ECE) enterprises.
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Additional Preschool Classroom Management Resources
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- See these sample parent survey questions to collect honest feedback from families.
- Learn how to make your daycare parent portal #parentapproved.