One of the hardest things to master as a new teacher is a smooth and quiet transition from one task to another. The class can turn from calm to chaos in the blink of an eye, as soon as you make a change in what you are doing. While some children can move easily between activities, there is always a group who just struggle with transitions. When chaos breaks out, only your toughest do-gooders stay focused. Everyone else sinks to the lowest common denominator.
Here are ten tips on how to build smooth transitions into your classroom routine.
1. Give notice before it time to make a change. By announcing to the class before making a transition, you allow them time to get ready. Depending on what you are doing this could be five minutes in advance for a large activity or just 60 seconds for a math page. “You have five minute before clean up. Think about a good stopping place.” This way they won’t be in the middle of something when you ask them to transition. It saves a lot of mess and frustration.
2. Make personal contact with hard-to-transition kids. You know who doesn’t understand or like transitions. Take a moment to stop by his desk to guide him to get ready to make the change. “I want you to stop after this math problem.” Or “Don’t start gluing today. You can put the things you cut out in this envelope.” This helps the child cope and avoid panic. In fact, hard-to-transition kids frequently are the children who want or need extra attention anyway, so you are able to give them that attention in a positive way.
3. Teach them to freeze, or at least, stop talking. I used a variety of ways. Hand signals, call and response, spelling the word “quiet,” or a sound such as clapping or ringing a chime. Call and response is when you announce a word in your teacher voice and the class responds. For example, you call “Macaroni and.” The class will reply with “Cheese!” You can also use a fact you are studying. For example, if your class is learning about magnets: “Attract or” “Repel!”
The real secret to making freezing work is that when everyone stops talking, you wait. Wait! Wait for at least fifteen seconds before you begin to give instructions. This requires patience on your part, but I promise you, they will learn to listen better if you start when the class is completely quiet.
4. Give an honest amount of time to put things away. Be realistic about how much time it takes to put books away or clean up after a science experiment. It gives everyone the chance to do it right.
5. Avoid too much empty transition time. Let everyone know what to do or where to go next. If they are done quickly, consider letting them stay put and talk quietly until you are ready to give instructions. You can even give them a question or topic to discuss such as the weather or “Do you think whales can talk to each other?”
6. Crowd control. Letting a class of 27 kids move from one place to the other en masse is asking for trouble. Try moving them in smaller groups. Be sure to mix it up so they don’t anticipate who they will be able to start something with. You can move them by table numbers, birth months, clothing attributes, or whatever. Wait until a group is nearly to their next location before moving another group.
7. Notice without naming. I love this trick because it works like a charm, every single time. Say in your teacher voice, “I notice six people have their notebooks and pencils out.” Suddenly, ten more have their pencil and notebooks ready. “Okay, let’s see. Seventeen people are ready.” Lo and behold, the whole class is poised for the lesson. Everyone wants to be noticed. Be sure to make eye contact with the child who will blurt, “Notice me!”
There is one caveat to this. Don’t notice bad behavior this way. Remember that everyone wants to be noticed works both ways. If you acknowledge negative behavior by saying “I see six people are still at their desks,” your middle-of-the-road kids will join them in a flash. Keep it positive.
8. Make it fun. Have the class tiptoe or walk like a zombie to where they are going. Let them try to whistle as they wait. Have a quiet contest. Keep it light and they will look forward to the transitions rather than losing control.
9. No whining or complaining allowed. The classroom is not a minivan. It is not even a democracy. A simple, “I know no one wants to stop right now, but we have more things to accomplish today” goes a long way. When the whining begins just practice that freeze tactic of waiting. Use your most impassive teacher face. Don’t respond to the whine. YOU are in charge.
10. Practice, Practice, Practice. Yes, this works great by the third week. And yes, they will forget it at the end of October, the week before Winter Break, in March, and certainly at the end of May. When it falls apart, make everyone go back to where they were and do it again. In May, it may take three tries but they will fall back into the habit. Don’t let the class get by with a messy transition, unless the fire alarm is ringing.
A good transition is not just quiet and calm. It can be a mental break when needed. It can be refreshing. It can help us regroup. It can change the mood of the room. Best of all, the reward of smooth transitions is less chaos and more joy.