Any advice on how to "manage", "gain control" and get the "attention" from a class of 4 yr olds? This was not covered in my University course.
Note: English is their second language, and I must only speak English to them.
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Sergio and Dave BOTH have good answers for general activities, but if you are simply looking for a signal to get them to quite down and look at you for transitioning to the next activity there are a number of things to try depending on the specifics of the situation. You have to teach them it will be a signal and then use it pretty often first, but there are a number of things teachers, camp counselors, parents with large broods, etc. use for this. Again, most of these have to be taught first, especially with a group that doesn't speak english, but they are quick, simple classroom management tools to get the kids ready to listen or watch for your next instructions.
I used to use all of these:
Sing a popular jingle, but only the first half - for example the MacDonald's Da,da,da, da da. Wait for them to follow with "I'm lovin' it." The point here is to choose something with which almost everyone will be familiar.
Clap a rythm and expect them to repeat it.
Flip the light switch off and then on again twice.
Whisper, "If you can hear me clap twice." Then follow that with, "If you can hear me clap three times. . . and so on. when you have everyone's attention, congratulate them, you only had to clap _ times this time. Lets see if it can be less next time!
Use a song you can play on your musical player (whether it be a CD, Ipod . . . ) that is a motion song like "Jim along Josie" or "I Had a Little Bicycle." They do the motions and when the song is over, sit down listening ready.
Have a picture of what they should look like to be "ready" for the next activity that you simply stand and point to until most or all of them are in the "ready" position.
Put up one hand in the air and the other in the "shh" symbol by your lips and wait quietly - many kids will have experienced this in other environments (yes, even at age four and in other cultures) and will simply copy you.
For an idea that will only work once or twice - but requires no "training time" do something completely silly and random like Moo loudly (my favorite was to bray like a donkey). They'll giggle a lot, but you'll have their attention. You'll only have them for a few split seconds right afterward, but you will have their attention - now you just have to keep their attention.
In addition to Sergio's answer:
This is based upon the experience of my lad who started school at 4.5 and his noob teacher. She'd try to make them concentrate for 30~45 minutes at a time. This was not possible, even for the older kids. She reads books so slowly that the kids get bored.
Many kids (like our boy) crave movement and exercise - he needs it in order to concentrate. We've taught him to do things like chair push-ups if he has trouble concentrating. This can be incorporated into the day. For birthday parties, we'll get the kids to do some light exercise before the entertainment comes on; it helps.
Some loose suggestions:
Praise and ignore, praise and ignore, praise and ignore. Works miracles with everyone from young children to full adults. Despite my ardent belief in this, I am still shocked every time it works. "Thank you Beth for sitting quietly and listening! I see Ronnie is quiet and ready to learn; great job Ronnie!" They'll fall in line.
(Seriously, this is how I get my partner to do the dishes and other household chores. Please don't tell him.)