Making it Look Easy – Routines and Procedures in the Inspiring Classroom

The number one problem in the classrooms is not discipline; it is lack of authentic learning tasks, procedures and routines.
— Harry Wong


Have you ever walked by a classroom in which all students were engaged; they easily moved in and out of various groupings, and they seemed happy and productive? Your initial response may be, “That teacher is so lucky. She must have been gifted a fabulous group of well-behaved, highly motivated students. I could teach like that if I had those kids.” However, the truth is that teachers who make things look easy have generally done a lot of groundwork at the beginning of the year to make their classroom run that smoothly.
In today’s differentiated classroom, teachers must to be able to effectively work with students in small, flexible groups. While it takes a considerable amount of time at the beginning of the year to set up a differentiated classroom and to set expectations for your students, it is time well spent. Students need to learn how to transition in and out of your room and in and out of groups, manage themselves (work independently), and manage each other (work interdependently). We have to go slow to go fast!
Routines and procedures not only help classes run smoothly and minimize interruptions, but they also give students a sense of comfort and security. Many behavior issues arise when students do not know what is expected of them. Perhaps they have finished their work earlier than others, but they don’t know what to do next. Perhaps they need extra help on an independent assignment, but they haven’t been taught a way to appropriately ask for support. We build confidence in our students and inspire them to become successful learners when we create routines and procedures that allow for success. 
Harry Wong, the guru of routines and procedures notes, “In an effective classroom students should not only know what they are doing, they should also know why and how.” This month we will focus on how to create timesaving transitions with your students. In order to be able to differentiate instruction, move students into and out of flexible groups, and maximize the use of every second in the classroom, it’s vital to have clear expectations for transition times.Teachers should share these expectations intentionally and transparently with students so they understand the importance of getting these procedures down pat.
Here are the five steps to keep in mind while intentionally and transparently teaching any procedure:

  1. Explain: The exact steps in the sequence you want followed.
  2. Model: The teacher should visually demonstrate the procedures.
  3. Role-play: For elementary students, it helps to have a couple of students demonstrate the steps while the teacher is stating the steps (and providing auditory and visual support will increase the chances of understanding). You can also engage students in “Find the Flaw!” by having students intentionally NOT follow the procedure. Then see who can figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it! 
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice: Everyone will practice doing the procedure several times before it is actually needed.  
  5. Review after weekends, vacations, or when they are not being followed. 

A helpful way to prepare students for transitions is by using specific directions. Lee Canter (2010 Assertive Discipline) suggests that specific directions relate to three main areas:  MOUTHS, BODIES and MATERIALS. A fourth direction is added when needed, which is, what to do when you finish (aka: anchor activity). Tune in next month for more information on that topic!
Silence (Avoid using "quiet"; it is vague.)
Whisper/indoor voice
Raise your hand and wait to be called on.
One person speaks at a time
BODIES Examples:
Face forward.
Eyes on the speaker.
Stay seated.
All six legs on the floor (yours and the chair’s).

Bring designated materials (specify – pencil, paper, etc).
Return materials to proper place.
No materials needed.

Auditory Cues:  Auditory cues are an excellent way to signal transitions. This cue could be a song, a sound (ringing of a chime), or a spoken phrase. The purpose of an auditory cue is to communicate expectations in as little time as possible. To avoid confusion, choose a word or sound that would not otherwise be heard in the classroom (EX. The Jeopardy theme song, a xylophone, or “Yabba Dabba Doo!”).  The same cue should be used all year long.   If choosing a spoken phrase as an auditory transition cue, be sure to speak the signal in the same voice tone you want the students to use thus modeling the appropriate behavior.
Timing:  When communicating expectations for transitions to students, remember to let them know how quickly you would like the task to be done. For example: when students enter your classroom, how much time do they have to prepare for the lesson? If they are transitioning from whole-group to small-group work, how long should that process take, etc?

The benefit of using a short song to signal some transitions is that it serves as a built-in timer. Students will become accustomed to the length of the snippet that you choose and should be able to transition accordingly. For transitions that are cued by a single sound or spoken phrase, it can be helpful to use a timer to monitor students’ speed. You can motivate students by encouraging them to beat another class, smash their own previous time, or meet a time goal that you set together.   

Putting it all together:  Teaching all possible transitions to students at one time would be ineffective and overwhelming. It makes the most sense to teach expectations for each transition as the need arises in your classroom and before the students need to implement them. Infinite Horizons has included a printable cheat sheet entitled “Framework for Designing Routines and Procedures” in this month’s newsletter to serve as a guide when setting expectations with your students.

Routines and procedures are meant to simplify life in the classroom, create a healthy learning environment, and ultimately allow for more instructional time. If you get the routines down pat, you’ll be the “lucky teacher” who has been “gifted” the easy group of students every… single … year.  

 Written by: Michelle Leip, with Kathleen Kryza