Managing Disruptive Children During Assembly Shows

This post about managing disruptive children during assembly shows is the second in a series of blogs to help school assembly performers deliver the best show possible.

Doug Scheer offers tips for managing disruptive children during assembly shows.
A combination of bleacher seating and the floor can work best for student’s visibility.

Managing and controlling disruptive children during a performance.

Recently, a performer colleague told me that a mother complained about his rude behavior during a magic show at a children’s birthday party. His offense was telling a talkative child to “shhh” so the others could hear.

The magician was simply trying to control the behavior of his audience by using a simple and common “shhh” directed at a child, but according to mom, singling out a child was inappropriate and rude. At first glance, this criticism seems extreme, but digging deeper, one should wonder if this woman is correct in her assessment.

Doug Scheer offers tips for managing disruptive children during assembly shows.
It’s the performer’s responsibility to make sure everyone can see. School show performer Toby Kid make his show more visible by having smaller children stand on a sturdy box. 

Performers need to be able to control their audience and keep children in check.

That doesn’t mean kids can’t have fun during a show, but extremely distracting or repeated rude behavior by one or two kids needs to be gently and quickly stopped. This birthday party magician used a gentle “shhh” to do just that. And why? Because children mimic what they see, and if one overly talkative child isn’t put in check, others could join in and create a mob mentality with noise and disrespect. The last thing any performer wants is an “us against him” situation. This can be disastrous.

As a school show performer with over 35 years of experience in front of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of school children, there is little I’ve not seen. Dealing properly and effectively with disruptive behavior from a few children in the audience is an ever-changing challenge. But disruptions are becoming more common than ever. Elementary school counselors point to the impact of Covid lockdowns as a likely cause of an increase in disruptive behavior. Teachers also observe noncooperative behavior in interpersonal relationships on the playground and in large groups, such as in school assembly performances. Sometimes an occasional outburst happens when a performer is doing a fantastic job and a child simply can’t contain their excitement, so they yell out. This can be expected and it’s not a reason for concern. However, disruptive behavior may also mask deeper issues that this blog will not address. The reader is encouraged to visit this link to learn more.

So how can performers control frequent disruptive behavior?

No performer wants to be a disciplinarian for fear of bringing a show to a halt or being perceived as the ‘mean’ guy. But if kids aren’t encouraged to behave properly, a show can quickly get out of hand leaving little hope for recovery.

At the birthday party where my colleague told one child to “shhh,” he did his best to manage the distraction quickly. Other kids wanted to enjoy the show without being bothered. On one hand, singling a child out in front of the group can be an effective tool, but it can also cause the child to become embarrassed. This isn’t an optimal outcome. Likely that was the reason the mother was upset. Perhaps the child was hers and mom was embarrassed too. We don’t know.

Doug Scheer offers tips for managing loud children during assembly shows.
A principal quiets her audience for the introduction by holding up three fingers. 

So what is the best way to deal with disruptive children during a performance?

In an elementary school, children behave best when they hear a proper introduction before the assembly show performance begins. Ground rules need to be set in place before a performer takes the stage. A simple pre-show reminder of proper audience etiquette goes a long way toward keeping kids respectful. This can also be done in a birthday party setting, not by a busy parent, but by the performer himself with a fun and engaging routine that starts the show while also laying down the ground rules.

But in a school, a proper introduction is common. When students hear an authority figure, such as a principal or teacher, lay down ground rules, they realize that the performance is important and the performer deserves attention. Often, a simple introduction is the only control method needed to remind children to be respectfully attentive during an elementary assembly performance.

But sometimes students need to be reminded again and again of how they are expected to behave throughout the assembly show, and in that case an experienced performer can draw on a whole range of techniques, from the subtle and nearly invisible to the more obvious and direct.

Techniques for dealing with disruptive students during an assembly show include the following

  1. Ignore. Sometimes a child gets so excited about what he sees that he yells out. This is fine as long as it doesn’t distract the other students. It’s best to ignore the first interruption.
  2. If a child yells out a second time in an inappropriate manner, the performer can make eye contact with the child and keep it going for an uncomfortably long time. This should signal the child to stop. The child receives confirmation from the performer that he or she has been heard, but the interruption is not welcome. This is a nonverbal way to gently discipline the child without embarrassment.
  3. Now let’s imagine that the child cries out a third time. In this case, it’s easy to privately call attention to it and hope that a teacher will intervene. This can also be done nonverbally. By making eye contact with the child’s teacher and nodding as you turn your gaze to the child and then back to the teacher using raised eyebrows, you’re signaling the teacher to intervene and help. By just making eye contact, you’re telling the teacher, “I think this has gone on long enough, can you help me now?”
  4. Another option is to pause the performance and remind ALL students that the principal has asked everyone to be respectful. Remind students that a respectful audience means clapping when appropriate, laughing when appropriate, and listening carefully so everyone else can listen, too. It’s okay to say to the entire group, “I’m not going to talk while others are talking because if your mouth is open, you’re not listening.” It’s best to phrase instructions positively rather than negatively. Children respond better to “Now is a good time to listen carefully” than a request like, “Everyone be quiet.”
  5. Our little troublemaker is still acting up and no teacher has come to your rescue. What to do now? Simple. The next time you have an outburst, you should walk over to the child, bend down, and say directly to him, “You need to start respecting me and all the children around you. Can you do that by listening quietly?” Of course, this should be said away from the microphone. This is a private moment. Everyone will know what you’re doing, even if they can’t hear it. At this point, the teacher should spring into action if they haven’t already. Teachers will usually step forward and move the child to sit next to their chair. Now the child is the teacher’s responsibility and the problem has been solved.
Doug Scheer offers tips for managing disruptive children during assembly shows.
Setting up on a stage can be the best choice for visibility and can make audience management easier. 

But what if the entire audience is chatty and has a hard time quieting down?

If you have a particularly boisterous audience and students are chatting a lot during the performance, you should say, “I love how excited everyone is about what we’re doing today. I see a lot of energy in this room, but I have a lot more to show you, and we’re running out of time. I don’t want to have to interrupt the show anymore because you might miss something cool. Show me now that you’re ready and I promise you that the next thing you see will be awesome.” This is a positive and non-adversarial statement that demonstrates that you want everyone to get the most out of the show. You aren’t the “mean guy” Instead, you’re guiding the kids to get the most out of the program.

A clever way to get chattering students to change their behavior is to give the kids a quick group activity. One technique is a simple countdown. Say over the chatter, “In five seconds I’m going to show you something great. Let’s do this together. Count with me: five, four, three, two, one.” That should bring the attention back to you. A performer can also say, “everybody on their bottom, hands in laps, eyes on me, ears open, mouths closed, big smile.”

Sometimes the kids can settle down quickly and don’t need more than a simple sentence. One quick sentence that works for me is, “Okay, now it’s time to think.” I say this instead of “Okay, now is a time to listen,” because by telling the kids to listen, they know you are basically saying “stop talking” and that’s, a demand the adversarial kids will hear as a challenge. Saying, “Okay, now it’s time to think” achieves the same goal in a more encouraging tone.

Almost all elementary schools have a universal signal to remind students to be quiet and to pay attention. Usually it’s a simple gesture like two fingers in the air. It’s best to learn about this signal before the show starts. It’s a silent symbol that requires no comment from the performer. Find out what the school’s symbol is before the show. It may prove useful.

Sometimes children do not misbehave, but they keep crawling on their knees to see better.

There may be two reasons for this. The first is obvious. It is because the children simply cannot see anything from the back. This could be because the props are not big enough or the action is too close to the floor. If kids can not see anything, they might get loud. A good rule of thumb for presentations to large audiences is to keep props at chest height or higher. However, if smaller, younger children are invited to volunteer and given props to hold, it will be very difficult for some children to see what is going on. Perhaps performers need to reevaluate the way they have blocked their shows. A simple solution is to have younger children hold objects high in the air to improve visibility. In some schools, it is also possible to move the performance to a school stage or have the children sit on bleachers. I know an assembly show performer who insists on working with the children on the floor, but he brings a large wooden box for the children to stand on while they help him. This is a good way to solve the visibility problem, and it also keeps the volunteers stationary during the routine.

The second reason children get up on their knees during a school performance is simply for comfort. Children can be very restless, and sitting criss cross applesauce style is only comfortable for so long. If you have to keep interrupting the performance to remind kids to stay on their bottoms, it can disrupt the pace of the performance. That’s why I say this:

I tell the kids to follow me as I mime the actions. I say, “Take out your imaginary glue stick. Pull off the tip. Throw it to away. Twist up some glue. Now rub the glue on your booty. Glue your booty to the floor. Throw the glue stick over your shoulder. Now you are stuck.” This gets the message across without making demands. Students play along without feeling scolded. Best of all, when the kids are back on their knees, all the presenter needs to do is call out “glue stick” and they know exactly what to do. It’s a funny bit and works wonderfully because you have turned your prompt into a silly activity.

Finally, remember this:

Although there are a number of tricks that assembly show performers use to keep their audiences in check, it is important to remember that every audience is different. Not all children respond in the same way. And that’s what makes it fun and exciting for performers. Performers need to be flexible. They need to be able to think on their feet and adapt to ever-changing challenges. Most importantly, performers must be easy to work with. The goal is to be invited back in the future, and flexibility, patience and professionalism are the keys to success in the school show market.

The next blog in this series will address what a performer should do if a child refuses to be cooperative while helping out on stage.

If you’re a principal or assembly coordinator looking for the best assembly show to bring to your school, check out our offerings: