Mastering Classroom Transitions
Move students in and out of class and between activities smoothly to save valuable instruction time.
While facilitating a demo lesson in front of eight Georgia instructors, my credibility crumbled when 35 cranky middle graders gridlocked themselves in a failed attempt to move their desks into small groups. Charitably, the observing teachers pretended not to notice.
Botched transitions are not only embarrassing, they’re lost time. If you save 15 minutes a day through more efficient transitions, that will result in 45 extra hours of instructional time per year. Therefore, shifting students from one task to the next is worth getting right.
There are essentially three types of transitions: entering class and taking a seat, switching from one academic activity to another, and exiting class. And just like any academic procedure, transitions are taught through explicit explanations, clear models, rehearsal, and review.
Whether students are transitioning from reading to math, or PE to the drinking fountain, author Mike Linsin recommends standardizing the process with five steps that I paraphrase this way:
- Secure students’ attention: “Focus on me, please.”
- Explain the procedure: “In a moment, return to your desks and take out your history textbooks.”
- Prepare kids for the signal to start: “When I say ‘smooth,’ you’ll quietly proceed.”
- Initiate the transition: “And... smooth.” Don’t say “go,” warns Linsin, because that word cues students to race.
- Observe: Watch to make sure all students are complying.
When transitions take too long or learners misbehave, it’s time to don your figurative Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat and reflect on these questions:
- Did I provide too many or too few directions?
- Did the transition catch kids off guard when they were absorbed in an activity?
- Did too many kids have nothing to do?
- Are there specific students who created chaos?
After answering those questions, try some of the techniques described below.
When transitions take too long: To counter students dragging their feet, announce how many seconds are left before the next event begins. Teachers like Tyler Hester take out a stopwatch and challenge kids to beat the transition times of other classes (see a video example at the 35 minute mark). And here’s a personal secret: Slowly counting down from five in a booming voice never fails to accelerate transitions.
When procedures aren’t followed: Lining up her students at the end of the day was a problem for one fifth-grade teacher. Her challenging class often erupted into fights, and the assistant principal chewed her out for delaying the buses. As a solution, she affixed black dots to the floor three feet apart for students to stand on and provided more time for packing belongings. After a few practice sessions, her students’ dismissal behavior improved.
Any transition benefits from showing young students how to ninja walk. Other routines are equally engaging; Watch Madeline Noonan’s fifth graders ready themselves in “super scholar style” or with “word of the day” signals.
A number of studies show that reminders called precorrectives reduce misbehavior during transitions. Right before a transition, ask a child to describe the proper progression of steps for, say, entering the class after recess. Or play “correct the teacher” by performing examples and non-examples while learners indicate incorrect actions with a thumbs-down signal. Then call on someone to articulate or model the correct procedure.
In another precorrective, described by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a child walks through the procedure while the teacher narrates: “Let’s watch Noel at the sink. First, she turns the handles a bit. What does she need next? That’s right, soap! She pumps once because that is all she needs. Now she is rinsing off the bubbles and is ready for her paper towel. How many pulls does she need? Let’s say it together—one, two, that will do!”
Finally, an effective strategy for reteaching transitions is simply to direct the entire class to start over. Budget extra time for do-overs during the first two weeks of class and be patient. As the Navy SEALs say, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
When students don’t want to quit what they’re doing: Have you ever seen a boy wail when bedtime is announced? More than likely, he felt blindsided. In the classroom, many kids feel the same volcanic emotions when asked to stop doing an activity that absorbs them. However, displaying a countdown timer, like E.ggtimer.com, Online-Stopwatch.com, or Timer-Tab.com—when combined with verbal time signals—helps students anticipate and prepare for an approaching transition.
When younger children get distracted: In an article on transitions, Sarah E. Mathews cites a 2007 study that showed how “children appeared excited to engage in many routines that were part of music.” Singing the following song, says Mathews, will help kindergartners straighten their work areas between activities: “A helper I will be. A helper I will be. / There’s work to do. There’s work to do. A helper I will be.” Or play this clean up song.
Letting students take charge of transitions: Transitions don’t have to involve an entire class. Watch how Wendy Hopf’s sixth graders use hand signals: Raising one finger requests help, raising two fingers asks for a bathroom or water break, and raising three fingers indicates that a pencil needs sharpening. “I love it,” says Hopf, “because I have the option of saying no.”
Research suggests that successful transitions are quick and have clear beginnings and endings. Meeting those requirements will maximize learning time. However, don’t be afraid to add in some whimsy, like the North Carolina teacher who greets each student with a charming individual handshake as they enter the classroom each morning, thus illustrating that transitions happen with kids, not to them.