Developmental Changes Prompt Changes in Routine

Problem-solving meeting guides students to appropriately satisfy needs

For Middle Level

Typically, my sixth grade classes begin the year as a delightful group of smallish, eager and earnest children. By the end of the year, they mature into an engaging group of awkward and sometimes challenging young adolescents. Every March I begin to sense The Change: autumn's agreeable, keen students begin to find each other much more interesting than anything else and disregard classroom routines that have worked smoothly for months. There are negative consequences when this happens. Rules are ignored, which can result in an inadvertent lowering of expectations, and I begin to sound like a broken record in my attempts to redirect their behavior. Students might respond positively to these redirects, but within minutes chatter returns and routines are again ignored.

In years past, I've wondered why rules and routines that worked great for most of the year didn't work at the end of the year. It never seemed as if the students were being willfully disobedient; rather, they seemed engaged with each other at every moment, at any cost (much to the detriment of academic learning).

This year it occurred to me that perhaps I needed to change my approach in response to the changing needs of my students. It dawned on me that the breakdown in routines was related to the changing developmental needs of my students. I felt that they might be ready to engage in a discussion specifically about their changing needs and how we could meet them appropriately in our classroom community. As a start, I decided to use a problem-solving meeting to see if we could make some positive changes to one time of day that was becoming especially unruly: our morning routine.

Problem-solving meeting
I launched the meeting by posting the rules of the meeting and having students show their thumbs to indicate their understanding and willingness to follow the rules. Then I posed two focus questions to the group: What happens when almost everyone is breaking a rule? What is your responsibility? The students pondered the questions briefly, and then a few shared their responses. One offered that rather than ignoring the rule, they should talk to me about it. At that moment, I knew we were on the right track. I asked the students to remind us what needs to happen when they arrive in the morning. They referred to our posted morning routine, which required students to prepare for the day by completing a series of chores and then working silently and independently until our community-building meeting, the Circle of Power and Respect (CPR). I told the students what I'd noticed was happening instead, and I asked them to show with their thumbs if they were noticing the same things. Indeed, they were.

Connecting behavior to needs
Next came getting to the root of the problem. At this point, my goal was to help students connect their recent behavior to their needs. Many students were able to honestly and maturely articulate their needs. I asked them to think about what had changed and to ponder why the routine wasn't working anymore. One student shared that maybe it was they, the students, who had changed. Maybe, she said, they had more to say to each other now that they knew each other so well. Maybe they needed a chance to "get it out of their systems" before the academic day started. Right on! I thought.

Building trust
With this new understanding, we were able to brainstorm solutions by talking about how they were changing, and what they needed now. Two good things came out of this conversation: I showed that I was flexible and responsive to their needs, and they felt respected and excited to try something new. Because of this mutual trust and respect, I knew that whatever we came up with together would have a good chance of succeeding.

Charting the work
We made a list of requirements, called must-dos for students' morning arrival. These included unpacking, turning in homework, reading and responding to the message chart, getting a chair, and checking in on the daily clipboard. We decided together that once these tasks were done, students would be free to engage in some choices, called may-dos (e.g., doing morning puzzles, eating breakfast, talking quietly). I clarified that while "talking" was a may-do, "quietly" was a must-do. They agreed with this distinction. Once we reached consensus, we created a wall chart listing the must-dos and may-dos.

Next, we created a Y-chart that described what it would look, sound, and feel like in the room when our new protocol was happening correctly. After gathering student input, this is what the chart contained:


  • people are following the routine
  • clipboard is filled in
  • people sitting together
  • people eating and cleaning up


  • volume level 3 (quiet talking)
  • chairs moving
  • backpacks opening & closing, hellos
  • chewing


  • focused
  • organized
  • on task
  • safe
  • good

We decided to implement our new routine the next day.

Tracking performance
At our CPR for the first few weeks of the new routine, the students rated themselves using a Fist of Five (show of one to five fingers, five being the highest rating) on how well they had completed each of the must-dos. I made a small weekly chart recording the students' self-assessments (I estimated an average of their Fists of Five scores for each item on the must-do list). These were posted on the chart. The first week saw many threes and fours. By the second week we were hitting fives on almost every expectation!

Students are now following the established routine rather than ignoring the expectations. They attend to their must-dos so they can enjoy their may-dos and satisfy their need to socialize with each other. They are ready to focus on learning when class begins. Since the routine has been adjusted to meet their emerging developmental needs, they are earnestly striving to stick to our new guidelines. While it's been a challenge for me to adjust to the orderly commotion – I rather enjoyed silently sliding into the day – I came to realize as a member of this community I needed to adapt and adjust to the needs of the group.

While mornings are now much more harmonious in our classroom, I've found that I still need to lead the students in a self-assessment occasionally, or they drift away from completing their list of must-dos. The self-assessment keeps them on track. There remain other times of the day (for instance, mini-transitions during academic blocks) when these new developmental needs still derail our learning, but based on the success of our problem-solving meeting, and with the creative use of engaged-learning structures, I'm optimistic that we can address these issues too.

Growth requires change
My students change every day, every week, every month, all year long. As their guide through this ripening process, I need to keep in mind that I, too, need to change. In order to meet their shifting needs, I have to adapt, adjust, and follow their lead sometimes, always honing the changes to an optimal learning environment.

Emily Hoyler taught 6th graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence, Rhode Island.

Published January 2011