After teaching for a couple of years, I found that transitions were the only
times during the day when my third-grade students were out of control. After
most transitions, I found materials left out, scraps on the floor, and desks out
of position. It would often take two or three reminders to get the class ready
for the next activity.
Because of these issues, last year I avoided many transitions by having students remain seated at their desks, but I didn't like the results. Because of their developmental need to take physical breaks during lessons, students found it harder to pay attention to me. Before the current school year began, I decided to go back to teaching on the rug, in a tight circle or clump format. I hoped this would help my students pay better attention. But it also meant I would have to tackle my transition problem, because the rug-to-desks and desks-to-rug transitions would become common routines.
Before the year started, I made a transitions goal for myself: each transition would be quick and efficient. I vowed to be more vigilant in watching each transition to ensure that students maintained proper behavior. I planned to use reminding language before and reinforcing language after each transition.
Finally, I resolved to resist my tendency to assume students could already do certain things well. Perhaps this tendency had been the source of some of my transition problems. I had said to myself, "They should know how to walk from the rug to their desks," and I had neglected to teach them how. This year, I would break routines into manageable parts and teach them carefully. I felt that if I could rigorously pursue these goals for several weeks, good practices would be firmly established and I'd be able to relax a bit.
I modeled each detail of my transition expectations. For example, I made sure my modeling showed that students were not to touch desks as they passed by them. This had been a problem during the first week in the past. Some students would push up against the desks and swing between them as they walked to the rug-an activity that hampered transitions. In my demonstration, I kept my hands at my sides and walked to the rug. Sure enough, when I finished the demonstration and asked students what they had noticed, one student mentioned the fact that I didn't touch anything. More often than not, they noted the details when I asked them what they noticed. When they didn't, I pointed them out to make sure everyone understood the expectations.
I asked the students what the transitions should look, sound, and feel like, and showed their thinking in a Y-chart:
- calm bodies
- clean, straight line when appropriate
- materials made ready or returned quickly
- calm bodies
- footsteps or materials clinking or sliding as they are put away
Rigorous observation and reporting
When we transitioned, I looked for specific examples of behaviors that met or failed to meet these expectations, and I shared with the students what I noticed.
In the first several weeks of school, I used reminding language before each transition. I asked questions like: "Who can remind us of something we need to keep in mind as we transition to the rug?" and heard a few responses. After each appropriate transition, I used reinforcing language, such as, "I noticed students moved quickly and safely to the rug. Hands were kept to selves. Desks were left alone."
Return of gymnastics
During the year, I gave students many chances to reflect on transitions and discuss ways to improve them. At one point in October, behaviors were starting to slip. In particular, swinging on desks had recurred. Asked to describe how things had been going lately, students noted some were touching or bumping into desktops and moving supplies during transitions. They didn't need me to point out the problems-they noticed them.
When I asked what we could do to improve, students came up with a simple plan: if a student touched another student's desk or possessions during a transition, she would have to clean that student's desk top. This plan was very successful in solving the problem. Because they had identified the problem themselves, listened carefully to each other, and created the solution, the class endorsed the consequence.
I made important adjustments that supported the hard work the students were doing to change their behavior. First, my classroom materials and space are better organized this year. I've made a point of keeping supplies labeled and in the same place, and I have turned over to the students the responsibility for keeping supplies well-organized. No transition is complete in my room until everything is returned to its proper place.
The second and critical change is that I broke transitions into two parts: cleaning up (putting away materials and supplies, picking up and recycling scraps of paper, etc.) and moving to the next activity (to the rug, lining up at door, etc.). I had never separated these before. Doing so provided a level of specificity that helped students pay complete attention to what they were doing and allowed me to better monitor each part of the transition. The cleanup phase ends with students sitting at their seats. Then we finish the transition by moving to the next place or activity.
The disruptions during transitions have declined each month. When there are only one or two disruptors, I tell these students to take a break and we continue our work. When disruptions are more numerous, we stop as a group and start over. During September, there were few transitions that did not need to be redone. Typical disruptions included students congregating somewhere to talk, looking in their desks for something, or drifting around the room. By October, at least 90% of the transitions were appropriate the first time through. In November, very few "do-overs" were necessary, and other than a few side conversations I had little active behavior management to do.
Our orderly state of affairs happened through three months of vigilance. If I had loosened up or thrown in the towel at any point along the way, lots of the old behaviors would have resurfaced. I have learned that if I want to change student behavior, I need to teach the behavior, and then practice and reinforce it to make it stick.
William Stenross taught 3rd graders at Peter Hobart School in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and currently is a technology integration specialist for the district.
This article first appeared in Origins: A Newsletter for Elementary Educators, Winter 2011