Smooth Transitions and Routines

We have just finished a math test, and students are engaged in various free-time activities that they began as they completed the test. Some are buried in books. Several are drawing or coloring pictures, and one is doing a puzzle. I say, “OK, class, it’s time to get ready for science. Please put your other things away.” There is no immediate response. After a few moments, students slowly begin to prepare for science class. One student who is lost in a book makes no move at all until he suddenly sees that everyone else is ready.

I used to be frustrated by this kind of scenario, until I began to contemplate how much I would hate to shift from one activity to another without warning, as I was expecting my students to do. I like to know what is expected and to have time to prepare. Perhaps the problem in this situation was not so much the students’ negligence as my own lack of management.

So now I use a new approach. In the type of transition described above, I will give a warning or two: “Class, it looks like almost everyone is finished with the test. We will be starting science class in just a few minutes.” And then I always give at least a one-minute warning: “Science class begins in one minute. Please put your other things away and try to be ready in a minute or less. You may stand beside your desk when you are ready.” This has resulted in much more smooth and peaceful transitions.

Students thrive on routine, and although surprises and spontaneity can be fun on occasion, students in general like to know what to expect. It is helpful to have the day’s schedule posted in plain sight. I did not do this in my early days of teaching, and I was amazed by the difference it made in my classroom when I started posting a detailed outline of the day’s activities. Somehow students seem to find security in this. Also, I no longer need to field as many questions like, “When’s lunch?” or “What’s after this?”

Most of my third graders cannot yet calculate time very well. Although they may be able to tell you that it is 11:15, they do not know that this means it is fifteen minutes until our 11:30 lunch break. So, I have found that telling them how much time they have left for a particular activity is another helpful tool in managing transitions and letting students know what they can expect.

For example:

“You have ten more minutes to work on your art project right now.”

“You have five minutes left to work on the test. If you don’t finish now, you will need to finish in study hall.”

“We will spend five minutes playing this flashcard game, and then it will be time for break.”

I also use a countdown occasionally, especially when we are doing a turn-and-tell activity, or if the students are doing another short activity in small groups. Slowly counting 5-4-3-2-1 gives them a bit of time before they need to be quiet and back in their seats.

A fun activity I like to do with my students every year to teach them to be prepared and to think about what is coming is a challenge I call Beat the Bell. At the beginning of the school day, after our morning break, and after lunch, a warning bell rings. Two minutes later, another bell rings, and by that time students are expected to be quiet and sitting in their seats. Except for those few little risk-takers who try to spend as much time on the playground as possible before going in, most students are usually in their seats with plenty of time to spare before the second bell rings. If left to their own devices, they will be sitting there chattering and giggling with no thought of preparing for the next class.

For our Beat the Bell challenge, I teach students to be prepared for the next class by the time the second bell rings. This means having a sharp pencil ready to go and having books and other necessary materials out on their desks. If any students are unprepared when the bell rings, the bell scores a point (I put tally marks on the board to keep track of this). If the bell does not score any points in a day, I write up one letter of a mystery word or phrase. The mystery word or phrase is a treat or privilege that the students will get when they have earned all the letters.

Sometimes I can’t help but chuckle to myself when I see how well this little motivational tool works. My students will come in from break saying to each other eagerly, “Beat the bell!” If they see someone who is unprepared, they will be likely to say, “Hurry! Get your books out!” The challenge of trying to figure out the mystery word as more letters are earned becomes part of the fun. And even after the challenge is completed, and the students have received their reward, I find that they usually carry on the habit of being prepared for class.

Taking small steps to help students know what to expect and to help them think ahead and be prepared for the next thing can make a big difference in the long run.

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