A Primer on Smooth, Efficient Transitions

Triathletes know that races can be won or lost not just during the swim, bike, or run, but during the transitions in between. During my first triathlon, I had just completed the 12-mile bike when I entered the gate to the bike racks and ran my bike towards my row. Only one event to go! As I approached my spot, I saw my mom and my husband cheering for me by the sidelines. I smiled hugely, waved exuberantly, and… ran right past my spot. I finally caught on as my dismayed family started yelling at me to stop and turn around.

Not my best transition.

Transitions in teaching are just as important as they are in triathlons. More important, because student learning (and not just my bruised ego) depends upon them.

People who don’t teach elementary school don’t realize how little time there really is in the typical school day. At my school, students enter the classroom at 8:32 am. They leave at 2:40 pm. The day is 6 hours, 8 minutes long. In that time, we have…

  • 8 minutes for Morning Meeting
  • 10 minutes for snack/read aloud
  • 1 hour for lunch and recess
  • 40 minutes for a special (P.E., library, music, or art)
  • 5 minutes for assigning homework
  • 5 minutes for dismissal

That leaves 4 hours for everything else. In those 4 hours, we’re supposed to allot:

  • 2 hours for language arts
  • 1 hour, 10 minutes for math
  • 30 minutes for intervention/extension time (when our students change classrooms for differentiated word study and spelling work)
  • 40 minutes for science or social studies
  • 15 minutes for Open Circle (social competency curriculum) or handwriting instruction

That adds up to 4 hours, 35 minutes of instruction to fit in 4 hours of time. Yikes!

And in that time, we also have to move children from place to place, transition them from one activity to another.

Clearly, smooth, swift transitions are essential. And they’re Teaching 101. But even though they’re basic, there’s always more to learn. I’ve been teaching for seven years, and I just learned a great new method last week. So, for new teachers out there, here’s my primer to transitions. And to veterans, perhaps I can share a new trick or two. Please share your favorite methods in the comments!

Quick Transition Signals

I like having a variety of transition signals, since not every signal works in every situation. Here are some of my favorites, arranged from the quickest to the most gradual:

  • Laser eyes: I say, “Laser eyes!” Heads swivel to look at me immediately, eyes popping, as if kids had lasers burning a hole straight through me, or whatever I’m holding. To reinforce this, I say, “The fastest laser is Jenny. The hottest laser is… ooh! These lasers are hot! [I mime overheating, panting, fanning myself.] I think it’s Sophia! Now listen to this…”
  • Shave and a Haircut: I sing, bum-bada-bum-bum (shave and a haircut), and the kids answer, in unison, BUM-BUM! (two bits). They stop what they’re doing and look at me.
  • Class-Yes: I say “Class!” and the kids respond, “Yes!” The key is that the kids use the same voice and intonation as the teacher. So, if I say, “class class class!” they respond, “yes yes yes!” If I say, “classy classy class class,” they respond, “yessy yessy yes yes!” And if I use a squeaky mouse voice, they use a squeaky mouse voice. Really silly, really fun, from the Whole Brain Teaching website.
  • “If you hear my voice, clap once. If you hear my voice, clap twice…” This one’s a little more gradual. My kids earn a transition star (see below) if they are silent within two claps. They lose stars if it takes more than three claps.
  • “If you hear my voice, do this [do silly movement].”
    As kids turn to listen, I wiggle my fingers, pat my head, pull on my ears, or do any other silly movement, which kids copy. I say, “I can see who’s listening.” It sometimes takes a few motions before everyone’s quiet, but this is a nice signal since it can also provide a quick motor break. This is especially true if you have kids stand and do things like flap their wings like a chicken, do disco dancing, or do the mashed potato.
  • Counting back: When kids are having a conversation and I don’t want to interrupt them mid-sentence, I sometimes count backwards slowly from a number. “Be ready to share in 10 seconds. 10… 9… 8… ending your sentence in 7… 6… 5… turning this way in 4… 3… 2… hands raised to share in 1… 0.” By 0, it’s silent, and everyone has hands up to share their thinking.

Teaching Transitions at the Start of the Year

Teaching children to transition efficiently is a major goal of the first weeks of school. We start on the first day by learning to line up and walk silently down the hall, in a single-file line. Every aspect of this seemingly simple routine is taught explicitly, modeled, and rehearsed. Together, we talk about why transitions are important, why we have to be silent in the hall. We learn that transitions are about maximizing our time for learning and for practicing respect for other learners in our building.

Students sit at five large tables in my classroom, and I love having them model transitions for each other. I ask, “Which table thinks they can model how to put their snacks away?” Eager hands shoot up. “Table number 4, would you please show us how you transition from snack to Writer’s Workshop?” As we all watch table 4, I ask, “What do you notice table 4 doing?” Kids raise their hands to notice that: “Everyone at table 4 is tucking in their chairs.” “They’re silent.” “They’re silent in the hall.” “They’re sitting correctly at the rug for Writer’s Workshop.” “They’re showing leadership by using the silent signal.” Then we all practice, as table 4 watches and evaluates our work.

When we’re walking down the hall, I walk to the side or behind my students, almost never in front of them. If I’m in front of them, how can I tell who’s misbehaving? But behind them, I can see everything. It’s the job of the line leader to follow my directions. Line leaders learn that they have to check behind them to make sure the line is still together. They have to stop at every corner, and when the line is ready, I give them directions to move on. We always stop at the same, predictable points in the hall to recollect our line. It’s all about routine.

We even practice turning around. The class learns to follow the line like a snake, even if we turn all the way around, back to our classroom. If we need to quickly change direction, kids learn to pivot 180 degrees so the last person in line becomes the line leader. We learn to navigate around people and objects, and we learn to pick things up that we find lying in the hall, even if they’re not ours.

Re-teaching Transitions When Kids Lose Focus

When students make mistakes or start to get sloppy with transitions, we revisit my expectations and, if needed, go back to practicing and modeling. There are also consequences when transitions take too long. I have no problem sending kids all the way back to the classroom to re-do a sloppy transition, particularly if we’re on the way to lunch or recess. Consistency is key.

Teaching Transitions Again After Vacations

Come December, your kids transition beautifully. You can’t even remember what they were like when you met them in August. And then comes winter break, and when they return to school, you remember exactly what they were like in August. You see all sorts of regression, as if they had completely forgotten how to act in school.

So, before that happens, I proactively reteach transitions. From the very first transition on January 2nd, as we leave the rug for the first time, I have students model and discuss transitions, just like we did at the beginning of the school year. One day of slowing down the routine and reminding everyone of the expectations saves a week of frustration.

An Incentive System for Transitions

I’ve found that some classes of students need no incentive to transition well. They just do. But other classes need some external motivation, especially at the beginning of the school year.

For me, a simple incentive system works best: if kids save us time during transitions, I reward them with class game time or extra recess time. Every time we have a smooth, swift, silent transition, I award a star on the board. 10 stars by the end of the day = 5 minutes of class game time. 15 stars (very rare) = 10 minutes. Classes often like to store their time and use it all at once. They even like to use it for quasi-academic purposes, like computer time to use Garage Band to make podcasts or Photo Booth to make silly pictures.

The flip-side to this system is that poor transitions lose us stars. And if we have fewer than 5 stars at the end of the day, kids get extra homework. It’s a simple rationale: if you save us time, I’ll give some back to you. If you waste our time, I’ll take some of yours away.

Constant Positive Reinforcement

One of my first mentors told me to avoid calling out kids negatively by name, as in, “Jack, stop talking.” Over time, poor Jack will hear his name called over and over again, almost always with a negative reminder.

Instead, I give reminders to parts of the line, as in, “The front and back of the line are so quiet. Can I see the middle be quiet too? Oh, thank you, that is so much better.”

And better yet, I give positive reinforcement constantly. “I love the leadership I see at the front of the line.” “Thank you, Sophia, for showing the silent signal.” “I notice that Jack is making a good choice about where he’s standing in line.”

Pre-alerts for Transitions

Pre-alerts are good for all kids, but especially important for kids who have trouble stopping what they’re doing. When we need to stop work that kids are engrossed in, I try to give them some warning that the transition is coming. “We have five more minutes to write today.” And, three minutes later, “We have two more minutes to write.” And, a minute later, “Finish the sentence that you’re writing, but don’t start a new sentence.” And, finally, “It’s time to stop writing.”

Setting Transitions to Music

Last week, I was lucky to participate in an alumni roundtable at Tufts’ early childhood teaching seminar, and one of my fellow alums, Katherine Grenzeback, described how she plays music during transitions. In the morning, she plays a song that tells students it’s time to move from their morning work to Morning Meeting. When students hear the song begin, they know it’s time to start cleaning up. By the end of the song, they know they’re supposed to be sitting at the rug. She doesn’t have to give any verbal directions during this transition.

Similarly, on Fridays, when the class cleans their room, Katherine plays a cleaning song. The kids clean merrily, even wiping down the legs of chairs and tables.

But my favorite part is that one Friday, after the cleaning song, it happened that the morning song started playing on Katherine’s iPod. Immediately, the children moved to sit down at the rug! Now, that’s an effective transition signal and a well-practiced routine!

Since then, I’ve started using music during my class’s most difficult transition: clean up at the end of the day. When kids are stacking chairs, organizing their caddies, and cleaning the floor, I play “Upside Down” by Jack Johnson. By the end of the song, the kids are at the rug, ready for our Closing Circle. In just a week, I’ve seen a huge improvement. My kids are calmer and happier at the end of the day. They are more focused on cleaning and helping each other than they are on socializing, and it sets the right tone for our Closing Circle.

It makes me wonder, what other times of the day could we use music as a transition signal? How else could this method be used?

The school day is so short, and there is so much for children to learn, we just can’t afford to waste time. Effective transitions increase time for learning. But they do more than that. They teach children important skills: organization, teamwork, and self-regulation. And they reduce stress for children and teachers alike. A class that transitions effectively is a well-oiled machine that hums along, all the parts working together in harmony.

2 thoughts on “A Primer on Smooth, Efficient Transitions

  1. I hope that you are able to integrate some science, social studies, and social competency into all of that language arts time…

    Just found your blog recently–love it!

    • Oh yes! We’re doing a nonfiction reading unit right now, and — no coincidence — many of our guided reading texts are about the rainforest, the same subject we’re studying in science. Still, I’d like to have another hour in the school day.

      So glad you’re enjoying the blog. Thanks for the comment!

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