George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Making Transitions Work for Students and Teachers

Transitions can be a time to give students agency to meet their own social and emotional needs without being disruptive.
Two girls chat during a short transition break in class.
Two girls chat during a short transition break in class.

Some of the most challenging moments in a teacher’s day are during transitions—those moments when we move between academic subject areas or activities. Students may see transitions as an opportunity to release tension built up after long periods of passive instruction. Teachers, on the other hand, generally want short and efficient transitions from one activity to another.

These differing needs can lead to conflict. Students may be frustrated that they have little opportunity for social conversation or individual self-care. Teachers may be frustrated that their transitions are taking too long precisely because kids are indulging in social conversation or individual self-care.

But we may be missing an opportunity here. After all, what students are craving is the opportunity to relate to one another positively and practice self-management by giving themselves a break between sessions. These are important social and emotional learning (SEL) skill areas, and transitions can easily be infused with SEL skills practice. Let’s think together about how we can create transitions that fulfill both our needs and the needs of our students.

The Teacher’s Need for Efficient Transitions

How many of us have stopped instruction to remind students to refrain from side conversations? It’s a frustrating experience for any teacher. Because presentational instruction is often more effective and efficient when students are silent, some of us conclude that students should be silent during transitions as well. But what creates effective and efficient transitions is clarity, not silence. We need to consider the possibility that transitions could involve talking, laughing, moving joyfully, or listening to music and still be efficient, if we are clear about what should be happening in the transition.

Understanding Student Needs

Classroom climate is determined by the quality of the relationships in the room. Positive relationships make everyone feel safe and supported, which, as research tells us, increases academic performance. Our students’ urge to have social conversations throughout the day speaks to this need. In addition, sitting still and absorbing information for long periods is truly challenging for many students, as it is for many adults. In addition to connecting positively with their peers, students may need a chance to cultivate their own self-management skills by engaging in some type of self-care between long periods of passive academic instruction.

Meeting Teacher and Student Needs

If we accept that our need for efficient transitions and our students’ needs for social conversation and self-care are equally valid, we can look at transitions as an opportunity to provide everyone with more of what they need. We just need to provide some guidance about what kind of social conversation or self-care students can engage in during transitions.

Sometimes kids simply need a break between activities. These breaks can be as short as two or three minutes. The more autonomy that we provide during breaks, the more willing students will be to join us in the next planned activity. Consider providing a menu of break activities and let students choose. You could allow them to chat with friends quietly, draw, write in their journal, listen to music using headphones, daydream, or stretch or move around in some other way—especially helpful between sedentary tasks.

Sometimes, you may want to suggest transition activities that address the particular needs of the moment. For instance:

  • Calming techniques: Invite students to sit at their desks or on the rug and lead them through a series of five cycles of deep and slow inhaling and exhaling before shifting focus to the next academic activity. This practice can help students calm down, especially between recess or gym and a return to the classroom.
  • Put-ups: While moving from the table to the rug, invite kids to give “put-ups,” or compliments, to one another on the work they just completed. When kids arrive at their seats or the rug, ask a few of them to share the put-up they delivered or received. This activity is especially helpful if students have been experiencing conflicts or negative feelings.
  • Self-talk: After a challenging academic lesson, ask kids to practice positive self-talk during their transition to the next activity. You might suggest they practice saying things in their mind such as, “That was hard, but I tried my best and I’m proud of myself.” Or: “I understand more today than I did yesterday.” Or: “I know what I still have questions about, and that means I can find the answers with some help.”
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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Kristen, you have some solid ideas. I do many of those and they work well. I also do what I call an R &B transition. Reading or deep Breathing for a few minutes. It takes some intentional teaching but this sort of transition works well after we return from a special or particularly hand-on classroom activity where noise levels were increased. We teach belly breaths where my first and second graders put their hands on their belly when the breathe. The belly should go out when they breathe in and in when they breathe out. It is more calming and grounding than raising shoulders when taking deep breaths. :)

Kristin Stuart Valdes's picture
Kristin Stuart Valdes
Senior Program Manager, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

Hi John, What a nice description of a creative approach to transitions. I really appreciate your tips on teaching deep breathing to younger children. I think many teachers capitalize on transitions to meet students' social and emotional needs and I hope more people share their approaches. The options are endless. I was working with one teacher who had dance breaks between subject areas! That was fun!

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