Teaching English in Japan

ESL Teaching Tips: How to Discipline Problem Students

Teaching English in Japan is a challenge. I think that one of the greatest hurdles to overcome as a new teacher here, is coming to terms with the fact that English class isn’t about learning English. If it were, teaching would be lot easier.


English class is first and foremost about having fun. It’s viewed by many parents as a sort of extracurricular activity, akin to gymnastics or soccer. And to some, it’s viewed as a babysitting service. But it’s not typically viewed as an opportunity to gain a language skill. And therein lies the problem.


English classes in Japan are just too much fun. Children don’t know how to react; it’s confusing. They don’t have the ability to see it in a classroom, teacher/student context because it’s unlike any classroom experience they’ve ever had. And that, in my opinion, is the reason why so many students are unruly and frequently misbehave.


Imagine for a moment, that you are a Japanese three- year-old on the first day of English class. And upon taking that first hesitant step into the classroom, you discover that your teacher is a green-skinned, one-eyed alien. This alien jumps around singing and dancing, shouting in a harsh-sounding animal language and gesturing wildly. Then she tries to get you to do the same. Understandably, you balk at the idea. Just who is this crazy person?


Eigo no sensei. That’s who.


So from that perspective, it’s easy to understand why an ESL teacher would have to work very hard to gain any sort of respect or authority in the classroom. Especially when the majority of the lesson is centered around getting the children keyed up and excited to sing and play. Of course they’re going to act out. They’re going to test the teacher. They’re just kids, after all.


But there are some discipline techniques I’ve found to alleviate some of the behavior problems…and some I’ve found that didn’t. And I thought I’d share both of them with you, being that when I’ve google-searched this topic in the past (as it specifically related to Japanese children), I’ve rendered very few results. And much of the advice on the web isn’t practical for the ESL classroom or can’t be applied to Japanese children, (who are prone to be far more sensitive to criticism than children of other cultures).


If you do try them out, let me know how they worked!


The Do’s and Don’ts of Discipline in the ESL Classroom:




Don’t expect teacher’s aids to help you!


It’s nice when they do, but I wouldn’t depend on it. From my experience, many of them are young, inexperienced and incredibly hesitant and unsure of themselves when it comes to disciplining students. I once saw a child pants a Japanese teacher, (in front of the entire class) and she did nothing but scold him in a soft, non-threatening, barely audible voice. Plus, I think they hesitate in coming to your rescue, because they believe that they would be encroaching on your territory and undermining your authority. Remember, you’re the boss while you’re in front of the class teaching, even if you only teach those children from ten minutes per week.


Don’t expect the parents to help you!


I’ve written extensively about this, which you can read about here and here and here While some parents will step in and help if they see their child misbehaving, most won’t. Parents have watched as their child slapped me across the face…and they did nothing. The sooner you can accept the reality of this, the better off you’ll be. But don’t be afraid to discipline them, even if the parents are in the room! The parents want to see that you can control the classroom, and they want you make sure their kid stays in line. They see that as part of your responsibility as a teacher.


Don’t be embarrassed to yell!


I normally wouldn’t recommend yelling at your students, but I think that in an ESL classroom where Japanese isn’t allowed to be spoken, it’s often necessary to get your point across. You can’t exactly say: ” Now Koichi, how do you think your classmate feels when you hit him?” to a Japanese three year old. But you can get down to his eye level, look him right in the eyes and say in a stern, loud voice: “NO!”


Don’t use the “teacher look!”


You know the look. One raised eyebrow. A pointed stare. Pursed lips. Yeah, that doesn’t work in Japan. They don’t know that the ‘evil eye’ means “Uh-oh I better stop my naughty behavior before the teacher gets mad!” So don’t use it. They’ll most likely stare at you in bewilderment.


Don’t go silent in hopes that they’ll stop talking!


I’ve stopped the class in the past and stared at the students pointedly, hoping that they’d get the message and stop talking. But it never worked. They just continued talking, oblivious. The whole thing actually backfired on me when parents complained to my boss that I couldn’t control the class! I guess that technique isn’t used in Japan.


Don’t take it personally when they hit you!


This one took me a long time to get over. My kindergarten and pre-school students never failed to run up and whack me. Hard. Usually on my behind. I’d get so insulted. So indignant. Like, excuse me but I’m not Mickey Mouse! But I guess to them, I am. They like to hit the funny-looking foreigner to test my reaction but also to get a laugh out of their friends.


Instead…Teach them the High Five! Kids hit you mostly because they’re so excited to see you, they just can’t contain themselves. They don’t know how to tell you using words, so they hit. I taught them all “high five!” and now when they see me on the playground, they run up and yell ‘high five!’ and we slap hands, instead of them slapping some inappropriate body part of mine. For my older students (five year olds), I teach them different variations on the high five. Google them. There are a ton.


What to do when they hit: (a side note)
Don’t let them get away with it! Ever! They need to learn straight away that foreigners are not punching bags! I don’t get angry, I usually just make a big show of looking hurt. I over-react, as in “Ouch!!!! That really, really hurt!” That usually embarrasses them out of doing it again.


Do Make a List of Class Rules! Make the list short, (I limit mine to three 1.Listen to the teacher, 2. No hitting, 3. Speak English). I know that saying ‘no hitting’ presents the rule in a negative form, but the more positive ‘use your words instead of your hands’ is a harder point to get across to low-level ESL students. I use these three rules because they’re visually easy to demonstrate (act out the physical act of hitting, point to your ear to imply listening, etc.) but ultimately I don’t think it matters what the rules are. The point of setting rules is to establish your authority as a teacher. Review them every class for your first few weeks of teaching, especially if you have a particularly rowdy class.


Start each Lesson with Teaching and Reviewing Commands!
In my afternoon classes, I’m often alone with groups of up to 10 four-year-olds. When I first started teaching, the students would often run out of the classroom and I’d be left chasing them down the hallway hollering “Stop!” (which they didn’t understand) or banging on the bathroom stall door, (where they’d locked themselves) pleading with them to “please open the door”. After that, I realized that it was vital that I make sure they can understand basic commands and can articulate necessary requests, for safety reasons more than anything else.



So I made lists of important, useful phrases and would spend entire classes drilling them into their memories. I’d have each child take turns roll playing and reciting the phrase. Then I would test them at the beginning of each class, (pantomiming drinking water, for example, in order to elicit “water please”). Some example phrases were “Toilet please”, “Water please”, “Sit down”, “Ouch!” “Stop”, “Don’t touch”, “Don’t do that!” “Don’t move”, “Be careful”, “Listen!” “Open/Close” “Where is your….(book? pencil? bag?)” Etc.



I found that, more than anything else, this helped in establishing my authority. It provided rules and order and much needed safety.


Do get the Parents Involved! If the parents sit in during your lesson, get them involved! Give them flashcards to hold. Have them join in on the dances and songs. This shows the child that you (the teacher), have an authority over their mommy or daddy and that mommy and daddy listen and respect you. I actually don’t do this very often…but I’ve heard from other teachers who do it all the time, and swear by it! The few times I’ve tried in the past to get the mom’s to participate in the Old McDonald song for example, (which involves snorting like a pig and clucking and flapping your arms like a chicken), they usually turned beat red and sort of froze up. I felt so bad for them that I didn’t ask them to do it again.



The Point System! This is an old standby…and it works. Assign a number of points to each student (write them next to their name on the board). Every time they misbehave, erase a point. I usually do this with the “no Japanese rule”, so that anytime I hear Japanese, I erase a point. This usually greatly decreases the number of fights and disagreements for the simple reason that they don’t have the language ability to insult one another in English.


Three Strikes and You’re Out!
The ‘x’ next to a child’s name works especially well in Japan because the ‘x’ symbol is the nation-wide symbol for ‘no’ or ‘don’t’. So it’s a great visual. The rule is, is that if a student gets three ‘x’s’ next to his name, I have them sit out of the next game. But it’s only ever gotten that far once or twice. Usually, one ‘x’ next to their name is all it takes to get them to behave.


The Bomb


My supervisor taught me this one. Draw a bomb on the side of the board with a really long wick. After reviewing the class rules, demonstrate what will happen each time a rule is broken (erase a bit of the wick). When the bomb explodes (draw it exploding) show them your best ‘mean teacher face!’ Try not to make it look comical…practice in front of the mirror at home.
Note: The above tips are just my opinion and based solely on my limited time teaching in Japan. So take all of the advice above with a grain of salt! I recognize that some of these techniques might be seen as negative reinforcement, and therefore, not an ideal way to discipline misbehaving students.


From my experience though, sometimes negative reinforcement is the only thing that works! I know that shaming and scolding methods are used in the Japanese school system and I’ve seen cram school teachers hit their students (not hard, of course, but in order to get their attention). So while I don’t condone any of those methods, I think they show how a sort ‘tough love’ approach is often expected of teachers here.
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3 thoughts on “ESL Teaching Tips: How to Discipline Problem Students

  1. I think that when teaching in Japan it’s perfectly fine to use negative reinforcement in moderation. After all in America I know it’s considered taboo or a bad form of punishment, and I agree to an extent, but in Japan the circumstances are completely different. A) the kids don’t understand English B) They’re allowed to run wild in school and at home; so the use of positive reinforcement wouldn’t seem to work at all. I say when you’re thrown to wolves the fight for survival is the only thing that matters. Wow, that was a really harsh comparison, but you know what I mean, haha.

  2. Hmmmm, I will have to tell myteacher friends here about the high 5 thing. They have a lot of problems with the kids smacking/grabbing their arses. I’m sure it will help!

  3. Sarah…yes I feel exactly the same way. “Fighting for survival” is a good way to put it. I’m glad someone else agrees with me!

    Clara Cupcakes…let me know what they think! They have the same problem in Thailand?

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