5 Ways to Create Efficient Classroom Transitions

Photo of a sand timer with text that says "5 Ways to Create Efficient Classroom Transitions"

Classroom transitions. For the teacher: a time for chaos to break out. For students: a time when anything goes! But, with careful planning, you can change that.

I remember my first few years teaching… I was starting to get the hang of instruction. My lessons went pretty smoothly. I was differentiating and adapting lessons to meet individual student needs. I had good relationships with my students. In my mind, I was pretty successful.

Until the lesson ended and we tried to transition to the next activity. Things went downhill fast. The noise level went up. Bodies were all over the place. Wrestling matches broke out on the classroom carpet.  It wasn’t pretty.

I knew I needed to do something about it. So, I did some professional reading and consulted with co-workers and tried a few things. Then I reflected on what worked, revisited those resources and tried a few more things. With time and reflection, classroom transitions improved in my classroom and I no longer dreaded transitions. Many, many years later, I still can’t say it’s perfect. We are dealing with children and unexpected things come up: I get distracted or need to deal with a pressing issue, it starts snowing, someone loses a tooth, or we all have a bad day. But… Transitions in my room now go so much more smoothly than they did that first year teaching!

I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned about classroom transitions in 20+ years of teaching. First I’ll share what classroom transitions are and why they get crazy. Then I’ll share tips to make those transitions go more smoothly.

What are classroom transitions?

Classroom transitions are the time between activities in the classroom. They start as students arrive and complete their morning routines. They can include the time moving from one activity to the next (ex: moving from a reading lesson to a math lesson.) And those times where students leave or enter the classroom, for lunch, recess, specials, end of the day, etc. No wonder the school day feels chaotic at times – there are a lot of transitions in one day!

Photo of morning routine cards, each with clipart and words: wash hands, backpack, morning work, play a game, read books, and lunch count.

Why do transitions get so crazy?

Transitions create chaos in many different ways. First of all, there are usually a lot of things going on at the same time. For instance, in a typical transition between small group lessons, students need to put away center materials, get new materials, remember which kids are joining the teacher and actually move to join the teacher. As they do all these things, they pass by friends and naturally want to chat with them (think of what it’s like when you see your favorite co-worker in the morning!)

Then, teachers are often a bit distracted during these transitions – after all, we are transitioning between activities and need to get out new materials, too. Plus, we are dealing with student concerns that pop up during that time (like lost materials, questions, and tattling.) 

Add in the fact that kids move at different speeds and it makes transitions even trickier! You’ve seen how half the class can arrive on the carpet in 10 seconds, while the last child takes well over a minute. That leaves a lot of kids on the carpet waiting, with nothing to do. So they find something to do – chat, braid hair, wrestle.

From time to time, teachers do a few things that inadvertently add to the chaos. Sometimes our directions aren’t clear (kids get confused and we have to repeat ourselves.) Or we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of our students (like asking a 5 year old to remember a 5-step direction we just rattled off orally). And sometimes we ask students to engage in a classroom procedure without teaching them what we expect.

When thinking about these things, we can identify a few strategies that will help transitions run more smoothly in classrooms.

What can we do to create smooth classroom transitions?

Teach students how to transition

First of all, plan and teach the procedures used during the transition. To do this most effectively, you’ll need to envision the students going through the transition. What steps are involved in moving from one specific activity to the next? What steps do students need to be able to do quickly and efficiently? Think specifically about your current class. Where do things start to fall apart? Noticing and reflecting on these things will help you anticipate and prevent them in the future.

Once you’ve identified the procedures you will use, take the time to teach them to students. Yes, every single procedure. You’ll find some helpful tips on teaching procedures (and a list of procedures to teach) in this blog post.

Sometimes you’ll be able to take a shortcut because the procedures are similar. For instance, you might be able to tell students, “Remember how we practiced putting our math book in our desk. What did we do for that? We are going to do the same thing when we put our reading response journals away.” List the steps and allow students to practice it.

The time spent intentionally teaching classroom procedures will pay off with a more efficient use of class time throughout the year.

Use an attention signal

An attention signal is key for classroom management. You need a clear way to get your students’ attention. This is helpful for providing announcements, clarifying directions, freezing out of control behavior, or ending the transition. Here are some easy ideas or attention signals:

  • ring a bell or a chime
  • flash the lights off then back on
  • use a clapping pattern (ex: 3 fast claps, followed by 3 slow claps) – students repeat the clapping pattern
  • call and response routines (see this post for some suggestions)
Photo of a set of wind chimes hanging against the wall.

But to make the signal effective, you have to practice it. When you first introduce it, you can have kids talk (or pretend talk) to each other. Then use your signal to get their attention. Model what their behavior should look and sound like when they hear the signal. Repeat the practice 2-3 more times. Later in the year, feel free to introduce a new signal. Sometimes the new signal is refreshing. Sometimes you need a different signal for when you are in a different place (like lining up after PE, or not near your light switch.) Regardless of which you choose, you will find an attention signal incredibly helpful to classroom transitions.

Provide a 5 minute warning

It seems so basic, but this truly is helpful for students. It allows them to adjust their pace to finish the task, and to start thinking about the transition in advance. You might even use a think aloud to show them what to think about when you give a five minute warning. (Ex: “I have five minutes left and I really want to color the picture on my writing. I need to finish this sentence quickly so I have time to work on my picture a bit. If I don’t finish my picture before the timer rings, maybe I can work on it during snack time, too.”)

This post from Responsive Classroom goes into detail about teaching students to use a five minute warning to better pace themselves.

Beat the timer

When you play Beat the Timer you allow a set amount of time for cleaning up or transitioning and encourage students to beat that time. Some ideas include:

  • a visual timer
  • a clean up song
  • “before I count to 10”
Image of a digital timer, available online. Timer is a yellow circle that turns black as time is counted down.

Note: This timer is available for free from Online Stopwatch.

This provides students a visual or auditory cue to help understand how much time is left. It helps them better pace their transition – and allows a clear cut end to the transition.

Plan “sponge” activities

Sponge activities are small time filling activities. Head-off crazy behavior by planning something engaging during a time that could get out of control. Sponge activities can be fore the whole class, or for fast finishers.

Sponge Ideas for Fast Finishers

First, let’s think about fast finishers. They are students who finish their work quickly and need something else to do (besides socializing with kids who are trying to work.) Offer students a few (slightly engaging) choices if they finish work early. If the activities are too engaging, kids will rush through work to do them; if they are not engaging, fast finishers will find other things to do. Here are a few suggestions for your fast finishers:

  • read
  • write (in a journal, blank book, or a note)
  • play a partner math game
  • partner read a readers’ theater script
  • fun practice sheet (like a color by number page or a word search)
Photo of color by number pages for numbers 1-10. Image on page is a sunflower surrounded by colorful spaces.
Whole Class Sponge Ideas

Whole class sponge activities can be engaging and rewarding. You can use them as you wait for the final stragglers, or as an intentional break or movement activity. A few ideas include:

  • movement video (like Go Noodle or Jack Hartmann on You Tube)
  • play Simon Says (or a silent version where one leader comes up and students copy the leader)
  • sing a silly song
  • do 20 jumping jacks (or other exercises)
  • practice counting to 100 (or skip counting)
  • play I Spy (you can incorporate shapes or other concepts)
  • allow students to share something from the lesson
  • play Hangman (you can create a sun with a smile instead of a hanging person, if you prefer)
  • do a number talk or math talk
  • quickly show subitizing cards

It’s helpful to have one or two sponge activities that need no supplies, in case you need something todo when you arrive a specials too soon, or something similar.

If you want more sponge activity ideas, this blog post on What I Have Learned Teaching has a phenomenal list of 80 different ideas.

So take a few minutes to think about which of these ideas might improve the transitions in your classroom. Pick one or two and try them tomorrow! Remember to pin this post so you can refer back to it later!

Featured in this post:

Learn more about classroom routines:

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5 thoughts on “5 Ways to Create Efficient Classroom Transitions

  1. This information is really helpful. I would recommend this to anyone.

  2. I can see why it is important to have a smooth transition. Thanks for the sponge ideas.

  3. Love the idea of sponge ideas (especially partner math games and journaling).

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