Teaching transitions & routines for effective classroom management

Classroom management is something we teachers think about every day. Rules, consequences, building rapport, and a predictable routine all have a huge impact and keep things running smoothly. But one of the best things you can do to create a positive classroom environment, and spend less time on discipline, is to teach your students how to make successful transitions.

what Types of transitions are used in elementary school?

A transition period is that empty space between structured activities. Sometimes we call it down time. There are 3 different ways transitions happen in the classroom:

  • Entering the room from somewhere else

  • Moving from one task to the next activity or next lesson

  • Leaving the classroom to go somewhere else

why are Effective transitions so important?

Younger children thrive on routine. They enjoy knowing what is expected of them and, for the most part, like to please their teacher. But without structured routines, students will look to each other for cues on what to do - and this is not what you want happening in your classroom. Any semblance of order can quickly spiral out of control when you don't have clear expectations in place.

There are a few key times during the day when students have the most trouble maintaining appropriate behaviors - and any transition time is at the top of the list!

One of the best practices for your classroom management strategy is to set up very specific procedures and routines for your class to follow when transitioning from one activity to another. Without smooth transitions, you'll have a hard time getting students back on task and will lose valuable instructional time. It's much easier to be proactive.

Specific Transition Activities for Students

Now that you know WHY effective teachers spend time teaching transitions, let's look at some quick ways you can tweak your classroom procedures and get your students transitioning like pros.

Morning Arrival

Quite often, the first few minutes of the morning will set the tone for the rest of the day. The most effective strategy for managing morning arrival is to have a very specific routine for your entire class to follow every, single day.

transition routine for morning arrival hanging up backpacks

It can be as simple as:

  1. Hang your backpack on your numbered hook

  2. Put your daily folder in the red basket

  3. Sit down and start your morning work until announcements begin

The trick is to keep it simple and consistent so students always know what they should be doing without teacher direction. You have enough to tend to in the morning without having to corral your class and tell them what to do.

It's best to keep the routine the same every day, but if you want to change it up (sometimes a worksheet, sometimes morning work bins, etc.), use your whiteboard to show your students the expectation. Have a specific spot on the board where students should look every morning to find out what the task is.

Afternoon Dismissal

Dismissal time is difficult for many teachers to manage. The kids are worn out and excited to go home - just the right recipe for crazy behavior. If you don’t have effective transition strategies set up for the end of the day, you will surely pay the price.

A good idea is to use the same strategy you use during arrival - a simple 3-step routine that students can memorize. Mine looks something like this:

  1. Clean up your personal space

  2. Put your daily folder on your desk

  3. Go sit on the rug for afternoon meeting

Did you notice that I didn’t have them go get their backpacks or lunch boxes? I like to keep dismissal time VERY CONTROLLED. It prevents a whole lot of problems. So, my routine simply gets them ready to pack up and in a spot where I can run the show.

Once everyone’s desks are tidy and they are all sitting in front of me on the rug, I send them a few at a time to quietly get their backpacks and then return to the rug. This is also when my classroom helpers can do their jobs. Everyone else is kept seated with every students’ attention on me for our afternoon meeting.

What about the rest of the day?

Arrival and dismissal aren’t the only times you need to plan efficient transitions. One excellent way to keep things running smoothly is to post your daily schedule for your students to see. This lets them know what is happening next in their day and will give them a sense of control.

Here are a few other times that you’ll want to have specific transition routines in place:

Lining Up

How many times during the day does your class have to line up? Going to specials, going to lunch, going to recess - at least three, right? Having a set procedure for each of these will save you a lot of time! They key is to practice, practice, practice until your students can do it quickly and independently.

One little trick for a quick line up is the use of line spots. This is incredibly helpful with young students who will do almost anything to be first in line.

Line spots are simply numbers placed on the floor that tell each student where to stand. You can used colored masking tape to keep it simple. At the beginning of the year, assign each student a number and that’s where they stand to line up. I like to mark the very first spot with a star for my line leader because that person changes every week. It gives everyone gets a chance to be in front at some point. Whenever a child is the line leader, his or her regular numbered spot is just empty that week.

Another effective way to line up is using a special saying or chant to help students remember what good behavior looks during hallway transitions. My favorite is the acronym HALL:

  • Hands at sides

  • All eyes facing forward

  • Legs in line

  • Lips quiet

This reminds students exactly how the line should look. I hang my HALL sign above the door so it’s the last thing we see as we leave.

Changing Subjects

There isn’t enough time in the school day to fit everything in no matter how hard you try. So it’s super important to to eliminate downtime between subjects. Switching from from one academic activity to another needs to be quick and efficient. This will preserve class time and also keep students focused on learning.

One easy way to transition between subjects is to use a countdown timer. If you want to be a little bit fancy (who doesn’t love fancy?), there are some great free online timers. You can project one onto your whiteboard and the visual will keep students moving.

classroom countdown timer