Classroom routines can be quietly powerful. They help daily activities run smoothly so teachers and kids can focus on learning, not procedures. And both students and teachers feel more confident and secure when their daily activities are familiar and predictable, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
There's a big difference between routines and rules. Rules tend to focus on expected individual student behaviors, like being on time for class, respecting others, or not talking on the phone during instruction. Routines are simply practiced responses to the teacher's directions that add structure to the day. "Rules have consequences, and routines have reminders," says Rebecca Alber, a UCLA literacy specialist.
Further Reading: 5 Activities to Make Your Classroom Morning Routine More Productive
Here are a few of those small but mighty routines that teachers find effective in their classrooms.
Routines to Start the Day
To immediately set the tone for students, try these routines at the start of the day:
- Greeting students at the door. "I used to just sit at my desk during the change of classes," says my friend Crystal, who teaches seventh grade. "Now, the routine is that students and I greet one another at the door. They've come to expect it, and they like that little moment of eye contact and attention. And they actually seem more ready to learn." Crystal says the routine is particularly effective when a student has been absent or had a bad day the day before. "I just welcome them to class," she says. "We start fresh."
- Starting class on time. Some teachers spend the first 10 minutes of class taking attendance, handing back papers, or even collecting money for various activities. But those first minutes are prime teaching time, says Ohio high school teacher Jenny Baker. "My kids know the drill," she says. "When the bell rings, they need to be ready to roll, because they know I'll be."
Routines During Class
As the day progresses, more distractions are likely to arise. These routines can help you keep things running smoothly:
- Bathroom breaks. Many teachers use a regular bathroom procedure that doesn't involve kids interrupting the entire class by raising their hands to ask permission to leave. A few kids have told me they would rather be uncomfortable for the next 45 minutes than risk having to explain why they didn't go between classes, a question some kids consider too personal. The routine many teachers use is to have a bathroom pass that students can just pick up as they leave the room. Kids who appear to overuse the pass can be talked to privately.
- Walkabouts. Students have lots of reasons to leave their seats, says Rebecca Alber, and that's fine. Pencil sharpening, getting supplies or a tissue, and turning in work are all legitimate "missions." But sharpening a pencil shouldn't involve stopping at a friend's desk to chat, she says. If that happens, she reminds kids of the classroom routine by asking, "What's your mission?" The key word here is reminds—this kind of situation doesn't need a consequence.
- Accessing materials. It happens. Kids forget all kinds of stuff. Just last week, I had to take track shoes to a student-athlete who forgot to pack them for her regional track meet. Students who need a pencil, pen, or paper should be able to just follow the routine. Keep a few of these supplies in a designated place in the room near your desk so they can be borrowed without making it a big deal or into a class interruption. I have to admit the first year I loaned students pens and pencils, kids forgot to return them at the end of class. I changed the routine so anyone who borrowed a pencil or pen had to leave something of value on my desk that they would get back when the items were returned. That didn't work either, and I soon had a collection of kids' watches, dollar bills, and even jackets they forgot. Finally, I decided they had to leave one of their shoes. That worked. Today, I would probably ask for their phone.
- Handling late work. A good routine for kids with late work is to deposit it in a basket near your desk. But the routine for returning graded late work is to keep it in a folder for you to hand back so other students can't leaf through papers to see their classmates' grades.
Routines to Wrap Things Up
As the day comes to a close, students tend to get antsy, so it's important to have a few routines in place to keep them focused:
- Planning time for closure. End instruction with a few minutes left to review the lesson and share important reminders, like when the next test or project is due. Students will learn to expect closure and know it isn't time to pack up yet. If you tend to forget to stop a few minutes early, set a timer.
- Dismissing students. Class is over when you dismiss students, not when the bell rings. Kids can learn that this is the routine in your class even if that's not the case in all their classes. Yelling, "Don't forget the test tomorrow," as students scurry out isn't a good look.
Why Routines Matter
These are just a few of the routines teachers can use to minimize disruptions to the learning process. Teachers use plenty of other routines for transitioning from one activity to another, working in groups, or just lining up and walking down the hall. In fact, educator Dr. Fred Jones calls classroom routines "a teacher's primary labor-saving device."
Further Reading: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Classroom Management
It does take time and effort at the beginning to teach students routines and remind them about procedures every now and then. But the payoff is that the classroom runs more smoothly and kids are comfortable knowing what to do—and you can focus on teaching and learning.