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6 Types of Preschoolers English Teachers Will Meet in Japan

How to deal with young English learners who range from fun to frustrating.

By 12 min read

Teaching English to Japanese preschoolers is a bit different from being an assistant language teacher (ALT) or teaching adults in English conversation classes. Because you are usually the only fully grown human being in the classroom, you have a lot of freedom in what you teach and how you teach it. With great freedom, though, comes great responsibility. Now, you are the one who has to control the rowdy kids.

To many people, this might seem terrifying but if you can get your students to play even a simple game — they grow to love you. This, as well as a few other perks of the job make teaching kindergartners not as scary as you would think.

Classroom control is still challenging for new teachers though, often due to the lack of training. I had no idea what I was doing when I started and just tried to bribe kids with stickers until they shut up. After a while, you will learn techniques that work for you and will start implementing them in your classes. You will probably start using the same techniques over and over again as classes can get a bit repetitive.

You might even find yourself feeling a sense of déjà vu because of this. Your next class is the one with the crazy kid who likes to scream about Pokémon at the top of his lungs — wait. Wasn’t that the last class? Or is it the next? No, it’s all of them.

Japanese preschool kids all have their own personalities but when put in a classroom environment, it’s my experience that they have a habit of fitting into one of six main categories. These personality types are fairly similar the world over, but each of these student classifications comes with a Japanese twist.

1. The Crybaby

As soon as they see you — they cry. When you say “hello” to them — they cry. When you smile at them — they cry. It seems that there is no winning with this particular type of kid. There will always be one and if you don’t inadvertently make them cry, then the other students will. Games are a big part of early ESL lessons and if one of these kids loses a game they will sulk like a teenager at a family gathering. At least quiet sobbing is better than loud wailing.

If your Japanese is good enough, you might understand what the child is saying through the sobs. “He’s too big” or “he’s scary” are the responses I typically get. If they keep coming to class, a lot of crybabies get over these worries. The foreigner becomes less scary and they get used to the sight of someone over six-feet tall.

… if one of these kids loses a game they will sulk like a teenager at a family gathering.

The breakthrough I finally had with my worst crybaby student was getting him to take the box of pens from the shelf to the table. I noticed that, for some reason, he loved doing this and didn’t cry when I asked him. After succeeding in that one task, he would try to join in with the class and as I asked him to do this more and more, he eventually stopped crying for the entire lesson.

Try asking students like these to complete super easy requests like carrying something, watching a video or coloring in to make them more comfortable. Now, my worst crybaby only does so 20 to 30 percent of the time.

2. The Comedian

Just when your class is going well, there is an unplanned for moment of silence. Maybe you go to get some more flash cards or to load up an English song. It is at this moment the comedian strikes.

He or she will leap into action doing the most bizzare things. They might start slapping their backside like a baboon chanting “oshiri tantei” (butt detective) or singing the latest pop song at the top of their lungs. You might be confused but the rest of the class are in stitches. Laughter erupts all around you as the comedian starts pretending to be Japanese food-based superhero Anpanman.

You will learn a lot about Japanese TV through these kids. You’ll find out all about Doraemon and Anpanman and that kids are somehow still watching Dragonball.

Just when your class is going well, there is an unplanned for moment of silence. […] It is at this moment the comedian strikes.

They are also prone to singing Japanese pop songs. Recently my comedians chant “Come on Baby, America.” It’s kind of exciting to hear them use English in the classroom until you realize that every time you say the words “come,” “baby” or “America,” the class is going to break out into song.

The traditional teacher’s approach to this type of behavior would be to keep a stern face and tell them to be quiet. I’ve found that this just makes them look for more praise from their classmates since they are obviously not getting it from you. Better to — at this age — tolerate a little bit of craziness, but make sure not to let them go to far. Definitely break out a stern pointing finger if it looks like they might hurt someone.

If they become a real problem, keep them busy with new and interesting tasks and games. Comedians tend to have short attention spans so if you keep the lesson fast paced, they won’t have any time to mess about.

3. The Copycat

A lot of the kids you will instruct as an eikaiwa (English conversation school) teacher are siblings. All preschool kids are usually lumped in together at ages six and under, so naturally this sometimes means brothers and sisters end up in the same class. This usually leads to a copycat situation.

The older sibling hops on one foot, so the younger one hops, too. The older one uses a certain color on their coloring sheet, so the younger one needs that same color. It can get to the point where the older sibling will say something and the younger one will parrot it, which can get pretty annoying.

… if you get one student to behave the copycat will follow suit.

It’s important to remember this behavior comes from a place of love and that they just want to be like their older brother or sister. It can also happen with kids who aren’t related and one just looks up to the other. The advantages of this are that if you get one student to behave the copycat will follow suit. If you have the older sibling listening and focused on the task at hand, then the younger is going to make sure they are listening, too.

4. The Royal

The Royal normally shows up in designer clothes or at least clothes that are far too nice for a child who will grow out of them in a few months. They act as if they are in charge of the proceedings and conduct themselves as if you have to listen to them and prioritize them over all the other students. Teachers must make it clear to these children that all students in the class are equal. One can only wonder how these kids manage when it’s time to go to elementary school.

When royalty appear in your classroom, it can be a real pain. It can be even worse if you understand Japanese. Often selfish, they are always talking about “me, me, me.” On the rare occasions they do talk about other students, they invariably say something mean and then don’t understand why the other kids dislike them. And because you are a foreign teacher, they might try to push their luck, saying rude words they would never say in front of a Japanese adult.

they invariably say something mean and then don’t understand why the other kids dislike them.

These kids usually have no siblings at home. At first, they will stare at the other kids like they are looking at a zoo full of wild animals. They might try and spend more time with you, not wanting to interact with the other kids. It can seem like a good thing to have a child who listens to you and isn’t distracted by the others at first — that is, until you start giving attention to another student.

Royalty expect special treatment and you have to make it clear that they are not going to receive it. They will do just about anything to get you to stay focused on just them, even if that means acting out or yelling at you. They can start arguing with students and this can even lead to fights when the royalty tries to show the other kids who is boss.

If you keep treating them like the other kids and encouraging them to join in with group games or activities they will eventually get the message that they are not superior to their classmates. I recommend ignoring any pleas for attention and letting them win a few games (royalty — as history proves — can be sore losers), especially when playing with other kids.

5. The Lost Potential

Another curse in disguise, the lost potentials are students who have returned from abroad. Many Japanese children travel internationally due to their parents work and are enrolled in international schools where curricula are all in English — even if that isn’t the language of their home country

For a young child, even going to an English-only daycare center for one year can transform them into a near-native speaker of English. The problem starts when their family returns to Japan and they enter Japanese society again then start to lose their English language skills.

The parents of these children enroll them in eikaiwa lessons to keep their English sharp. At first, they are the best of students, ones with whom you can have full conversations. It’s a relief to have the question “How are you?” answered with something more than a snot bubble and a laugh.

It’s a relief to have the question “How are you?” answered with something more than a snot bubble and a laugh.

You talk to them about all sorts of things, like their favorite cartoons and their time abroad, but this gradually stops.

As they spend more time speaking Japanese, their sentences become more Japanified. They stop pluralizing. They drop particles. They start referring to common items by their Japanese names. In a group setting, they will still be your best student but they will make you question your teaching skills as you watch them get worse and worse at English every time you see them.

The best way to preserve their English is to separate them from the other students and teach them one on one in a totally English environment. If the parents agree to a private lesson this really helps. Pack your classes full of fun, challenging but engaging games. Make sure they still feel like it is worthwhile speaking English. I would also suggest getting them to read English books or watch English TV at home, if possible.

6. The Tornado

Tornadoes sweep through a classroom and destroy everything in their sight.

Sometimes they do it for attention. Sometimes they do it out of frustration. These are the easier to deal with, the kids who can learn social skills and just need some special treatment to calm down. The ones to fear especially are those who wreak havoc for no reason other than they like it.

I’ve had kids like this destroy items in the classroom, draw all over my assistant’s shirt and cut other students hair. You can’t even scold them for it — they just find all the destruction so funny. It’s like teaching the Joker.

… they just find all the destruction so funny. It’s like teaching the Joker.

A lot of this behavior comes from a lack of discipline at home. You can spot tornado kids a mile away. Often you will hear them demanding candy from their parents. A weary looking mother will refuse at first and then give in a few moments later to shut them up.

You might be tempted to raise your voice and give them a good scolding, but at my job we don’t do this. One of my Japanese coworkers once compared it to beating a child. It’s often difficult to know how much you should discipline a child when their parents can stop bringing them to class at anytime. If the kid isn’t happy, the parents might just quit — and this isn’t good for the school’s bottom line. Usually, I find that a stern and controlling voice is enough for most kids but these little terrors can seem unstoppable.

The best thing to do is just batten the hatches and hunker down, waiting for the tornado to finish. Try to ignore them, not giving them any of the attention they crave. Remove anything breakable or potentially dangerous within reach of the natural human disaster. They will eventually tire themselves out and might even join in with the class. Trying to control them without yelling at them can often take up the entire lesson.

Of course, they all grow up. The kids mentioned above will change and develop. They will eventually become socialized middle and high school students. Try and enjoy these personality quirks before the school system hammers it out of them.

While I’ve encountered all of this annoying behavior, I’ve also taught children who scream my name with excitement when they see me, often hugging me and giving me presents. Just be vigilant. Try to keep your classes from being boring and remember the benefits of working with small children, and you will be able to survive even the worst tornado.

To see what their personalities morph in to once they enter middle school, check out our other article the six types of students language teachers will meet in Japan.

If you’ve met any of these Japanese preschoolers, what strategies have you learned or developed to deal with them? Can think of any other common archetypes? Let us know in the comments below!

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Japan101: Teaching English

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