It's human nature to not want to stop what you are doing. For example, trying to get my husband to go to bed when he is slumped over his book in a chair sound asleep. Adult man suddenly becomes recalcitrant toddler. (“I'm reading!”)
So getting elementary students to transition without drama can be a big challenge. Here are some ideas to try out in your own classroom.
This is been around for quite a while. Even a kindergarten class can learn how to respond to a slow count to the number four. If the kids are starting out on the rug, for example, it might go like this:
- One: they stand up
- Two: they turn around
- Three: they walk to their desks
- Four: they sit down, fold their hands and look at the teacher
Let me tell you, if you’re used to chaotic transitions, then observing this will make you think that the classroom is filled with magic!
Chants and clapping
Chanting is sort of enhanced counting. You can take a little lesson from the Army and do a “you say/they say” chant that is easily accompanied by some clapping or pounding on the desk. This echo chanting may sound like:
- This is what I learned today
- Math and science is fun to learn
- Can’t wait
- To learn more
- Sound off (one, two)
- Sound off (three, four,)
- Sound off (one, two, three, four)
- Math and science is fun!
You might notice that it doesn’t exactly rhyme. But you know what? The kids don’t care! They just like chanting and clapping. So don’t let a lack of a rhyming gene stop you.
You can use this for nearly any subject. But be warned that kids who are clapping and pounding their desks will not be able to multi-task and put away and get out folders at the same time. Therefore, such an approach is a good way to start or end a transition, in contrast with playing music which accompanies the entire transition.
If you’re handy with some MP3s or streaming on your phone or computer, you can try this out. One teacher told me that she plays the theme from “Hawaii Five-O” when she transitions to math and the theme from “Bill Nye the Science Guy” when she transitions to science.
After she wraps up a lesson and they start to hear the song play, they know to quickly put away their things and get ready for the next subject.
Sounds like super fun to me! The kicker is that they know they must be ready before the music stops. That’s an awesome way to get them to stay focused and not talking while they dive into their desks. Of course, to be truly effective, there has to be a little bit of incentive. My teacher-follower said:
“For every minute they go over, I take a minute off of their recess. After the first week, it is extremely rare that we miss any recess!”
“Get moving” music
One teacher said that when it’s time to switch classes, she plays “I Like to Move It, Move It.” In the morning when kids are coming into class and putting away their coats (a transition in itself from before-school to being-in-school) she plays upbeat music such as “Staying Alive.”
Almost any modern pop song will do as long as you carefully screen it for appropriate language. Just keep the songs quick-paced and the kids will move along smartly.
Some followers pointed out that there are all kinds of great timers online that can be used on smart boards or projected on any screen. If you give kids a challenge to “beat the timer,” they will be very motivated. This kind of motivation will usually encourage your rule followers to influence the slowpokes to get with the program.
There’s that little competitive edge in every human that makes them want to show they can rise to the occasion when given a challenge.
If you are following a classroom reward system, perhaps they might earn a minute of dancing at the end of the day if they beat their best time.
Quizzes and brain breaks
One of my followers had the great idea of doing a five- or six-question quiz with the kids using signals for their answers such as doing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. This is a great way to wrap up the subject you’re working on and also check for learning.
After this, transition into a little brain break that includes some kind of physical movement for a very limited time (even just a few seconds) and then launch them off to their next subject.
Change the learning location
Speaking of transitioning between subjects, it’s usually very helpful to physically move from one location to another if possible. For example, if they have been on the carpet, then for the next subject they go back to their desks or vice-versa.
Humans do like some variation to keep things interesting, and this is as true for elementary school students as it is for adults.
Your mini-lesson as the transition
Many subjects are kicked off with a mini-lesson on the carpet. The very act of moving down to the carpet for that brief period of time can effectively act as your transition between subjects.
It also gives you an opportunity, after teaching the mini lesson, to explain exactly what they need to do to transition effectively when they get back to their desks. And if you follow some of the steps above, you can have them stand in place to get some wiggles out before they follow your instructions.
Upper grades mean more flexibility
You may find that you must carefully control transitions in the lower grades, meaning the kids do explicit tasks in an explicit order, such as I outlined in the counting sequence above.
But as they get older, once you’ve set expectations for a well-ordered and respectful classroom, you may find that some groups of kids are able to manage a two- or three-minute transition on their own with activities such as:
- Sharpening pencils
- Very light conversation with their neighbor
If you consistently praise them for doing a great job, in many cases you will be able to let transitions naturally take care of themselves over time. However, it doesn’t hurt to give them a countdown from 5 to 1 in order to help them reengage. If you set the expectation that they need to be in their seats ready to learn at number one, they’ll learn how to quickly wrap up and get back on task.
Transitioning from recess to learning
Students should not be allowed to think that their break continues into the classroom, or that rowdy behavior is acceptable even if they just finished a wild game of soccer and won. But you have to wind them down step-by-step.
As always, set clear expectations for what the transition will look like.
Step 1: from playground to classroom
During the first week of school, meet your students out on the playground and wait until they meet expectations for walking in line.
Then move indoors where silence and straight lines are expected. March them right to the drinking fountain for a quick sip, give them a bathroom break, and them move into your room.
That’s step one. It is filled with lots of cues that tell the kids it is time to settle down and get back to learning. Frankly, if you allow a thundering herd to stampede all the way into your room, you’ve lost the battle before it has begun.
Step 2: an interactive activity
Step two takes the activity level down one more notch. A great activity is to have them engage in a partner activity for ten minutes. These activities can be designed to be appropriate for any grade level:
- Spelling activities with a partner. If your spelling program – like the one I use – includes activities such as sorting words by rule, this is a great time for kids to team up to get that done.
- Flash cards for math facts. A classic partner activity.
- Partner reading. Taking turns reading each paragraph or page.
By the time they are done, they are ready for the final “calm-down” step.
Step 3: silent reading
This is done for an age-appropriate number of minutes with a proper book for individual reading levels. For example, in 4th grade, we start at ten to fifteen minutes, but gradually increase to thirty minutes (max!) as the year progresses.
At the end of silent reading, twenty to thirty minutes have passed since the end of school recess. These minutes have not been wasted; except for a few minutes at the drinking fountain and bathroom, your students have been engaged in curriculum-based learning.
And they are now ready for any subject, no matter how amped up they were after recess.
Video tips: transitioning from recess to learning
Putting it all together
The key to elementary school transitions is to:
- set expectations
- practice as much as necessary until all students can be successful
- maintain the routine every day
After a week, your students will know exactly what to expect and what to do. Kids crave consistency; this is a great place to give it to them!
If they are held accountable for expectations once they have thoroughly practiced, students will be on auto-pilot, smoothly transitioning through activities on their own.