Welcome to post number two in the back-to-school starter series! Today we’re tackling all things classroom routines and I can’t wait to dive in. But first, did you miss our first post on setting up a classroom?
Here’s my hot take: Plan your routines first, then plan the rest. Why? As a Responsive Classroom teacher, I’ve learned that routines are the scaffolds that hold the classroom in place, freeing up mental space for learning and creativity. Routines provide consistency and transparency of expectations that help kids thrive and feel safe.
But building classroom routines isn’t easy! We’ll go through the most common questions about classroom routines and talk about everything, from deciding basic routines to fit your needs to how to teach them to your students.
Think About the Basics
My first attempt at establishing classroom routines was… a work in progress. Sometimes my classroom felt like pure chaos (and still does occasionally). Traffic jams. Rushing for supplies. Messy classroom supplies. The typical culprit: I forgot to create and teach a procedure.
What needs a classroom routine?
“What needs a routine?” is an uncommon but highly important question that I’ve noticed many frustrated and first-time teachers (myself included) not asking.
The answer is simple: everything needs a routine.
Think about every time your students move and act throughout the day. Ideally, each action can happen without you giving explicit directions every. single. time.
Every classroom will be different. But, you will need classroom routines for each type of activity that happens with your group.
Here are some routines that I make sure to visualize and plan before the year begins:
- Transitions to and from the meeting area
- Morning meeting procedures
- Attention grabber routines
- Clean Up
- Line Up
- Take Home/Homework folders
- Cubby routines at the beginning and end of the day
- Gathering materials for lessons, activities, and free time
- Center rotation routines
- Group meeting procedures
- Finding a space to work (if flexible seating)
- Library routines such as selecting and PUTTING BACK books
- Going to the bathroom (and coming back)
- Putting away finished and unfinished work
- COVID-19 Safety Routines (clean masks, table wipe downs, etc.)
How Do You Decide on a Classroom Routine?
Once I’ve decided that a routine needs to be set, I visualize how it should happen. In doing so, I try to keep in mind three things:
- Routines should be as simple as possible
- Routines should have a clear purpose
- Routines need space
Simple & Purposeful Classroom Routines
Simple routines with a clear purpose help our students get where and what they need efficiently and independently.
Think about the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. For example, when creating a line-up routine, ask yourself: what are the essentials? Students need to line up at the door for lunch. They must put away their materials, push in their chair, and clean up communal materials. Then, they need to get their lunch box from the cubby and line up in a pre-determined spot (this could be in number order or alphabetical-this saves a lot of frustration). The end result is always the same: a line that is calm and quiet and ready to head out.
Simple routines create a sense of ease in the classroom. On the surface, you can see students independently navigating their space. During work time, they can follow expectations without asking questions about “what to do next” or waiting for verbal instruction. On a deeper level, students feel secure in the steps it takes to be productive.
Space for your Routines
This may sound silly. We often forget to think about space. This leads to a big problem: traffic jams. Make sure students can follow the routine without getting stuck.
As you visualize 20+ students moving through your classroom, factoring space into your calculations can make or break how a classroom routine works for your students. Perhaps that means you need to create a routine that involves waiting. Or, maybe your routine needs two points of entry/exit.
Start Classroom Routines from Scratch
Never assume anything.
That is my motto for teaching classroom routines. Even if students have been in school for years, every classroom runs differently. Just because you teach students one way doesn’t mean their previous teachers did the same.
How and when do you introduce routines?
Don’t wait. Begin immediately. We can’t expect my students to read minds and know routines on the first day of school.
Students should begin learning routines as soon as they enter the classroom. This may seem quick. However, establishing basic procedures helps students feel safe and can free you and your students from frustration.
That doesn’t mean you need to teach every routine immediately, just the most basic and most frequently used.
As you plan for the first day of school, keep it simple! Think about the basic routines you want to teach your students. Identify the procedures you want to teach and pick a few meaningful activities that support those classroom management goals. For example, my meeting area routines are fundamental to the classroom. In addition to teaching the basic flow of morning meetings, I plan other activities in the meeting area, such as read-alouds, so that students learn those routines.
Bonus tip: Don’t forget to have fun and compliment success! Even though classroom routines are basic expectations, treat each routine like a lesson. All people, including our young students, thrive when they feel successful. Did they follow your directions? Nice work! Were your students able to find their meeting seats quickly? Awesome job! Make sure your students know that you’re noticing even those small steps forward.
Demonstrate and Model Classroom Routines
Go slow, to go fast. This is the closest you’ll get to a magic trick for classroom management. You’ll need to demonstrate, model, and practice routines for activities AND transitions before seeing any level of student independence.
Note: Teach one routine at a time and be repetitive. We demonstrate, model, and practice each routine multiple times. It can feel awkward and boring. That’s okay. While it may feel slow at first, repetition empowers kids. I never expect students to remember a routine after one demonstration.
A demonstration is key when you use a “start from scratch” approach.
First, I model everything to the whole class. While many of our routines become part of small group work, it is easiest to introduce procedures to everyone simultaneously.
My demonstration isn’t the last time students see a routine. Immediately, I ask for student volunteers. Student volunteers (trust me, you will have many) replicate my demonstration. That way, the majority of the class gets an opportunity to review a routine. Why not just watch me again? Seeing multiple people perform the same task is much more effective. It also allows students to participate!
Modeling and demonstration are vital for teaching routines in an inclusive manner. Not all learners are auditory processors. Many need visuals in addition or instead. I always teach routines with visuals directly connected to the respective activity or transition.
Visuals come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes, I use images or printed ACTIVE resources, such as a rotation board that will be part of the routine. Alternatively, visuals can be the physical items in use.
After both the teacher and one or two students model new classroom routines, it is time for the whole class to try! Whole-class practice allows students to test out the routine with teacher scaffolding, reminders, and support.
Note: Practice doesn’t end after the first six weeks of school.
Why? Because revisiting classroom routines reminds students of procedures before they forget them. Proactive classroom management will help you review routines before there is a problem. Therefore, it isn’t seen as a consequence. Rather, it is part of learning and practicing community values. After all, we review math concepts or spelling rules. We need to review the routines we teach.
When should I expect students to follow routines independently?
We are teaching humans. And humans make mistakes. Furthermore, every human is different. Some students will commit routines to memory immediately after your demo. Others will need reminders.
Classroom routines aren’t all the same either. Some routines will stick quickly. Others, not so much. For example, my guided math routines are much more complex than my line-up routine.
A few key indicators help me know when students are ready. First, they need low to no teacher intervention to complete a transition or task. Second, the materials are well organized and taken care of. Third, students are helping each other find materials and remember instructions.
My biggest piece of advice: gradually release responsibilities. Expect to review classroom routines before they happen throughout a routine’s first week or two. Then, slowly minimize the number of reminders.
Reflect on Classroom Routines!
Reflection makes a difference. The reflection process ingrains classroom routines as structures that will be intentional every day. Through reflection, students notice and understand the system more deliberately. It allows you to explain the “why” behind each procedure. That sets them up for independence in the future.
Reflection also gives time for students to ask questions. They will let you know when they see a simpler way. Their feedback is a gift. Use it!
Now it is time for you to visualize your first few days of school. Write down every routine, every transition, and every procedure. You’ve got this!
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