Posted by: carolread | February 17, 2010

E is for Energy

When working with classes of children we need lots of energy. We can also be forgiven for sometimes thinking that the children we teach have too much energy!

We need to conserve our energy, especially if we teach large classes and have a full timetable. We also need to manage the children’s energy and find ways to channel it positively to enhance their learning.

Here are some ideas for conserving your energy:

  • Ensure that you get enough sleep before the teaching day (often not possible I know but worth aiming for anyway!).
  • Eat a good breakfast, including fruit if possible. Teaching on an empty stomach can be tiring and give you a headache.
  • Avoid drinking too much tea and coffee. Although caffeine provides a short term energy boost, it can leave you feeling worse later.
  • Avoid too many cakes and biscuits in the staff room at break time; fruit and raw vegetables are easier to digest and will make you feel good (and virtuous!) too.
  • Drink lots of water – keep a bottle with you in your bag to re-hydrate between lessons.
  • Find time for exercise outside school – from walking the dog to Salsa dancing, whatever appeals! Generally, the more exercise you do, the more energy you’ll have.
  • Find time for relaxation outside school too – an ideal dream at times I know, but can be reading, listening to music, cooking, gardening, whatever you enjoy.
  • Look after your voice – you’ve only got one. Keep it low, project rather than shout, and develop strategies to ensure you don’t have to endlessly repeat explanations or instructions.
  • Establish routines and rituals that children are familiar with e.g. for starting the class, story time, starting and stopping activities, tidying up etc.. This ensures the children know what to do. This makes them feel secure, and saves you explaining.
  • Appoint monitors on a rotating basis to do things such as collecting in and giving out materials, taking the register, writing the day’s date on the board. As well as giving children responsibility and increasing autonomy and collaboration, you don’t have to do it yourself.
  • Teach children the names of activities and games, so that when you do the same activity or game using different language, you don’t have to re-explain the rules and you can just say e.g. Let’s play Word Tennis!
  • Try not to fall into the trap of becoming a ‘walking dictionary’ available at the children’s every beck and call; train them to use first of all themselves and their books, and secondly their peers as resources before they call on you.
  • In the event of conflict brewing, practise abdominal breathing and speaking in a low, slow voice to stay calm. It can also help to stay detached or to ‘disassociate’ and imagine watching yourself dealing with the situation to keep things on an even keel and conserve emotional energy.

    Here are some strategies for managing children’s energy:

  • Encourage awareness and good habits about all the things that also apply to you with regard to sleep, breakfast, snacks, water, exercise, relaxation and eating habits generally. In particular, try and ensure that children avoid high fat, sugary snacks and fizzy drinks which, as well as potentially leading to obesity, can cause or exacerbate attention deficit problems too. It is well worth the whole school working to get the parents on your side about these issues too.
  • If children have a lot of pent up energy at the start of lessons, rather than fighting it, it’s best to go with it and begin with a physical activity such as a short aerobic work out to music, or Brain Gym ® exercises before settling down to work.
  • Equally, if you notice children are becoming restless at a later point during the lesson, stop what you and they are doing and have a brief ‘physical break’ e.g. by doing either of the above or a short gym or stretching routine (which you can also invite different children to take turns to lead).
  • Teach physical actions to accompany rhymes, songs, chants and stories. As well as clarifying meaning and making it memorable, this gives children a welcome opportunity to move.
  • Incorporate physical movement into other activities too. For example, even something as simple as getting up to read a text pinned on different walls around the classroom rather than at their desks can give children the physical break they need.
  • Do physical activities which get children collaborating and working together e.g. making a mural, preparing a story tableau or acting out a story.
  • If you don’t have much space in your classroom, children can do physical activities using their hands rather than their whole bodies. For example, if you want children to mime being a butterfly, they can either do this standing up and using their arms as wings, or holding their hands together and using their hands as wings. They can also act out stories at their desks using e.g. pencil puppets or Cuisenaire ® rods.
  • Allow children freedom to move about the classroom within reason to do things such as fetch materials or sharpen a pencil as long as you make the parameters clear and children do not abuse this.
  • Remember that little ones (the 3-5 age band in my chart under ‘D for Development’) need to move around a lot: 10 minutes sitting on the carpet is a long time! Although the need to move gets less as children get older, I tend to think that even as adults we need to move too – just think back to the last time you had to sit through a one or two hour seminar for example!

    It would be great to hear your thoughts on energy – either the children’s or your own or both!



    1. Hi Carol,

      The postings that I’ve read since you started are really interesting, how do you find the time to keep up with everything? Truly fantastic!
      Really enjoyed reading the D comments, thanks to all involved for that.

      Energy – I am always going on about doing class surveys! But it’s a great way to get the children up and moving around the classroom, using English but also using up a bit of energy. Many teachers take the soft option, putting children in small groups and keep them sitting down, as they are worried about a group of 25 / 30 kids moving around class. But if the children are carefully prepared and are told why we do such activities, as well as given clear ground rules, they quickly realise that they can be good and have fun.

      Susan Halliwell’s video (I’m not sure if it’s still available) gives an excellent example of how to manage children during a survey class. It’s the classroom management that makes all the difference, training the children to do certain things in a certain way.

      Combining the using up of energy and language production is the key.

      One of the difficulties English teachers have is that we often do activities which are considered unacceptable in the MT. I have had many a school director come into my class and ask me why my students are standing up and talking. As long as it’s in English I’m OK, but in teaching / learning contexts where children learn in rote fashion, chairs in rows, classrooms in absolute silence, it’s not always easy to manage the pent up energy that comes with the children when they have English classes, which in Portugal are always after school in the afternoon!

      Difficult balance to maintain. How do others manage?

      • Hi Sandie

        Thank you so much for this. I completely agree with you about class surveys. They are a very motivating way to get children moving around the class and because they’re closely structured in terms of language demands i.e. asking and answering pre-determined questions (whether prepared by you or the children themselves) this makes them easier to manage. I find it sometimes also helps to build in a rule that you only answer questions if they’re asked in English and it’s also always a good idea to have something ‘up your sleeve’ for the children who finish first to do, so that they don’t go ‘off-task’ and disrupt others who still need to finish. Having said that, I have also quite often gone for what you call the ‘soft option’, particularly in classes where there isn’t much space or where I think the children may get over-excited and not play by the rules. I think it’s good for us to be aware of the different options for setting up activities that we have available and use our discretion about which one to choose depending on the circumstances.

        Thank you also for raising the very important and relevant issue of the contrast in activities like class surveys which have children moving around and talking to each other, and other subjects in the MT where they’re expected to be quiet and get on with things on their own. One thing I think that’s really important here (apart from educating school directors maybe!) is to guide the children into reflecting on their learning and understanding why they’re doing activities like surveys or games ie that it’s not just for fun but there is serious learning involved too.

        I know exactly what you mean about the ‘pent up energy’ when you have children after the school day – and agree that it would be really interesting to hear how others maintain the balance.

    2. Anything with rhythm like a brisk chant perks ME up for at least a few minutes and is a usually acceptable way of channelling children’s energy!

      It’s the opposite of energy, as when an activity that should have worked drags on with children getting more and more off task and a general sense of entropy and run-down, that is the horror. Have any readers any ideas about how to ‘recover’ a failing activity, or is the best advice to ‘cut and run’??

      Best wishes


      • Hi Shelagh

        Many thanks for mentioning the importance of rhythm and chants as a good way of channelling children’s energy – and also increasing children’s awareness of stress and intonation patterns in English too. I remember a wonderful article you wrote on this some years back – sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have the exact reference to hand as I write, but if you can let us know it would be brilliant – as I know you had some great examples there.

        Thank you also for raising the equally tricky problem of lack of organization and ‘run-down’. My usual advice as far as possible is prevention – that is as a ‘rule of thumb’ it’s a good idea to stop activities when children are still working well and enjoying the activity and before they start to go off the boil. Otherwise, as you suggest, ‘cut and run’ may be the best thing to do in some circumstances. It would be great, as you say, to hear how others deal with this.

    3. Dear Carol, Sheila & Sandy,

      Carol, thank you so much for the information about the IELTJ.

      Sheila & Sandy, I know what you mean, particularly when I do “running-readers” activities with 25 Year 5 students. I always try to rely on my classroom management, and my point is always this: learn from the mistakes I have made and go on. I keep on doing these activities although they really tire me out.

      As far as teachers´ energy is concerned, I suggest allowing time for us to do things for ourselves. Most of the time teachers’ lives are focused on taking care of others (students, colleagues, parents, administrators), but we need to take care of ourselves if we are to live life to the fullest.

      Secondly, we teachers know stress may be a part of our lives. Our goal should be twofold: to work through our stress, and to refuse to squander time and energy on things we can’t control. I think the key lies in reflection and self-control. It is advisable to learn from the past, let stress go and look for opportunities. Easy to say and difficult to put into practice, though!

      All the best


      • Dear Ricardo

        Great to hear from you again! Thank you so much for joining in on ‘E for Energy’ too! It’s wonderful to know that you’re reading the postings regularly and I’m sure everyone really appreciates your contributions – I certainly do!

        I also think in a way it helps to give us energy as teachers to have professional conversations and dialogues with fellow colleagues in a relaxed and informal way as we’re doing here – at least we don’t feel quite so isolated which can often be a problem for teachers.

        Thank you very much for all these highly relevant points. You’re so right that we need to always try and be open to learning from our mistakes and try setting up and doing activities again in a different way if they don’t quite ‘work’ the first time. I know what you mean about ‘tiring you out’ though (!) and at the same time we do need to conserve our energy and keep a balance, as Sandie also mentioned.

        I’m so glad you mention how important it is to leave time for ourselves too. It’s true that when we’re teaching we’re constantly giving of ourselves and if we don’t look after ourselves as well, we won’t be in a fit state to look after others either.

        The third issue you raise is so vital too. I know for myself that at times it’s only too easy to focus negative energy on things you can’t control – for example, a a timetable that has you teaching 5-year-olds at 8 o’clock in the evening when they are exhausted, hyper or both (a true example for me a few years ago by the way!) or a very small classroom with unsuitable furniture, and that the most positive approach is to accept that these are ‘givens’ that you can’t change and as you say ‘look for opportunities’ within the situation you’ve got. As you rightly say though and as with so many things in teaching, it’s easy to say and hard to do! Would be interesting to know how other people cope with these dilemmas.

    4. Dear Carol
      So many things that could be said about teacher’s energy (!), but I’d like to stick to a comment on young children’s energy for the moment.

      In our ELLiE study (Early language Learning in Europe) I’ve been observing children learning Spanish in England now for four years (beginning at age 7+). Having observed these same children year after year I now have a clear view on ‘the best time of the day’ for teaching languages (at least, in England).

      It seems that the children’s energy levels are slightly slow at the very beginning of the day (9-9 45), but then seem to reach a peak of alertness and willingness to engage and learn intensively from around 9 45-11 15. After this, there’s a definite pre-lunch dip! Following the lunch break children again seem to take some time to settle down and are often not very engaged in learning tasks. From 2 pm onwards they seem to cope better with more practical or physical tasks.

      My vote then would be for all language classes to be scheduled for around 10 am (assuming early language learning is taught as a discrete lesson). Of course, for those teachers who are lucky enough to be class teachers AND language teachers, it should be possible to integrate language learning at appropriate points throughout the day…assuming they have energy!

      I’d be interested to know whether the pattern is very different in those countries where school starts much earlier in the morning and is finished by early afternoon – can anyone comment?

    5. Hi Janet

      Thank you so much for this interesting angle on energy. And you’re so right – the time of day is absolutely crucial! As you say, during the first lesson of the day children are always slightly slow to get going (partly I think because they often literally haven’t had enough sleep) – and I also always used to find that it was pretty much downhill after lunch in terms of real learning time and, as you say, they seem to cope better with more practical or physical tasks then.

      I wonder if in your fascinating longitudinal ELLiE study people working in other countries have found similar patterns or whether it varies from country to country? It would be really interesting to know for example whether primary teachers of English, in Spain for example, found similar patterns to the ones you’ve identified in the UK. It would also be really interesting to know whether you are attempting to take a variable like this into account in your research? Very tricky, I would have thought, although from what you say it must influence and make quite a difference to the amount of actual learning (whatever that means and however you measure it) going on.

      Another similar kind of variable that I’ve also always found affects children’s energy levels, mood and concentration is the weather. The excitement of a sudden snow storm during a lesson, for example, can make a class almost unmanageable in their enthusiastic anticipation of playing in the snow at break time. Equally, endless rain that means ‘wet break time’ with children staying in the classroom rather than going out to play also means children are full of pent up energy that we need to find ways to channel and deal with somehow.

      Many thanks again, Janet, and like you, I’d be very interested to hear other people’s experience of how times of the day and also the weather affects children’s energy and learning.

    6. Hi Carol – great blog and lots of wise comments in your notes on energy. I especially like the idea of accepting that energy levels go up and down in a class and that we need to tap into them and channel them. Don’t you think there are different kinds of energy too? That edgy energy that comes from having been sitting down too long working on an unstimulating task, and the postive energy you get when something goes well, and then that terrible kind of “black hole” lack of energy when your energy seems to drain out of the soles of your feet!. And all kinds are transferrable – from teacher to children and from child to child too. I wonder if it’s worth teaching children to recognise their energy levels – just simple focusing activities like getting them to show with their hands where their energy is at certain points in the class … and then reacting with an appropriate kind of activity.

    7. Hi Sarah

      Thank you so much for your positive comments and great contribution. You’re so right to point out the different kinds of energy and the ways in which this can be either positive or negative. I feel I know exactly what you mean by the kind of ‘black hole’ lack of energy too!

      Thank you very much also for raising the point about the transferability of energy which, as you say, can work both ways. In fact I often feel that even when I’m tired I actually get energy from the classroom dynamic of working with a group of children (even if I need to collapse with a cup of tea later!).

      I love your idea of getting children to recognise their energy levels at different stages in a lesson and then respond with activities appropriately. This is also a very child-friendly way in to children developing self-awareness and learning how to learn.

    8. WONDERFUL LIST! I will use this for teacher trainings with first time teachers. This is so comprehensive! Thank you!

    9. Hi Catherine

      Thanks so much for your positive response. I’m so glad you think the blog will be helpful. Please do encourage your teacher trainees to contribute too!


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