Tuesday / April 23

Want More Teaching Time? Shorten Transitions… Here’s How 

By about this time of the year, most teachers have experienced the sensation of playing Whack-A-Mole: They keep addressing and re-addressing the students who aren’t quite where they should be when they should be, and then, by the time those students are in their places, other students have started to squirm.  

These interactions detract from instructional minutes and distract teachers from their best thinking and delivery. Additionally, while lengthy transitions affect all learners in a classroom, striving learners especially benefit from maximizing instructional minutes and independent work time. Striving learners also are the ones who frequently distract and become distracted if teachers do not establish clear routines for transitions.  

Recently, a colleague and I did some quick math about transitions, theorizing that in some cases, it takes five minutes to move children into a place of instruction and the average elementary classroom has a minimum of four transitions a day. (I would bet there are more than that, but this is just for the sake of argument.) That’s 20 minutes a day spent just on transitions. That’s 3,600 minutes — or ten full days of school — over the year.  

Instructional time is a precious commodity, so it’s worth thinking about ways to make transitions as efficient as possible. When we teach explicit strategies for transitioning smoothly and efficiently, we not only have more time for instruction, but we also avoid behavioral issues that distract all learners from the task on hand.  


Here are three ideas for minimizing time spent during transitions: 

  1. Set clear expectations for what students should look like and where they should be when you are teaching. It could be that they stay at their desks, but in that case, they should know what materials to have ready and the expectation that their feet are on the floor, their head is up, and they are looking like learners. If they come down to the rug, they might need semi-permanent spots, such as a masking tape X or circle, so that there’s not a ritualistic debate of where they will sit. No matter what the routine, spend time discussing expectations — and practicing behaviors. The best time to do this is early in the year, but it’s never too late! 
  2. Instead of singing or counting as students transition, consider having a story that starts your lesson and begin telling it as students are transitioning to instruction mode. One of my favorite kindergarten teachers taught her students to transition to their instructional places by using the power of a story. While she waited for transitional stragglers (and those definitely exist in kindergarten… as well as in all grades!), she told a story. Each day, she added a short adventure or scene, and she told her story in a quiet but engaging voice. The students who were in their places got to hear the developing story, and as word got out that it was a really good story, more and more students hurried to be there to listen. While Caroline had a bit of pressure to keep composing the next installment, the overall benefit was high! Students not only arrived at their instructional places quickly and quietly, but also they experienced listening to and internalizing a story that someone they knew was creating. Furthermore, the slower transitioners did not miss part of the lesson; they missed part of the story.  
  3. Use the power of visualization. Asking students to picture themselves doing what we’re expecting leads to much more success-oriented behavior. When a transition took longer than it should have, I asked the third-grade students to sit back down at their seats before their teacher said another word of instruction. “Picture yourself,” I began, being a little theatrical, “sitting criss-cross, watching your teacher, close to your classmates, but not touching anyone. Picture yourself thinking about how her lesson is going to work with your writing. Are you ready?” I asked. I even gave them a moment to close their eyes and really visualize that. When we invited students back to the instructional circle, they all were much more attentive throughout the rest of the lesson.  

Ways to Address Students and Specific Transition Challenges 

It’s possible even after implementing the three tips above that you still have transitional outliers–those students who just can’t get themselves ready– and these are often times your striving writers. Once you have systems and routines in place for transitions and you’re not playing Whac-A-Mole, you can teach into specific challenges. This can even be a conference or a small group instructional focus. One of the charts that I keep in my notebook is flexible and can be customized given the challenge I’m seeing. Some students started calling it the Green Greatness Form. Maybe I love it for its simplicity– it just asks what’s not so great and how can I make it great! 

Instructional minutes are so valuable that we don’t want to spend them waiting for students to settle in and redirecting the students who don’t. When we teach explicit routines and expectations, we set the stage for success for all writers in our rooms. Transitions are an important aspect of those routines, and worth spending the time on to make them efficient and maybe even fun!  

Written by

Melanie Meehan is the Elementary Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, Connecticut. She develops curriculum and assessments, coaches teachers, and works with students to send them off into the world as confident writers who love to express their ideas. Melanie is a co-author of Two Writing Teachers, a blog dedicated to the teaching of writing, as well as a regular contributor to Choice and Lead Literacy. Her book about strategies for striving writers will be published by Corwin Literacy in 2019. In addition to learning with both students and teachers, Melanie loves to spend time with her family, doing almost anything that has her close to the ocean.

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