Chaos to Calm: Classroom Transition Strategies

Apr 16, 2024

We've all been there: the classroom is buzzing with excitement and energy as students participate in a fun and engaging activity. The room is loud and maybe a little chaotic, but students are engaged and learning so you’re okay with it. But the whole time you dread the part that comes next: reeling them back in. Transitioning from a fun activity to one that is less energetic but just as important is a common dilemma for most teachers. And the result is often avoiding energetic activities for fear of being unable to bring the energy back down. 

This is why it's crucial to have some strategies in your back pocket for the transition from an energetic activity to a more subdued yet equally engaging one. Here are a few of my favorite ways to make that transition.

Engage in a Brief Discussion

Like in writing, the best transitions are the most seamless ones, where students don’t even fully realize that transition is occurring. A quick discussion is a great example of this. Facilitate a brief discussion about the fun activity to help students transition mentally. Encourage them to share their experiences and thoughts, keeping their minds on the fun that occurred, but also doing something that requires quieting down, listening, and less energy. To give an extra dose of calming, use think-pair-share to conduct the discussion. 

Give students the discussion prompt and one minute to write their response, then two minutes to share their writing with a partner, and finally a few minutes to share with the class.

Use Recognizable Signals

Starting at day one of the school year, introduce a signal students recognize as indicating a transition is about to occur. It could be turning on a certain lamp in your classroom (colored bulbs can be great because they are noticeable when turned on. Here’s some cheap ones on Amazon). You can also play a gentle chime, use a call-and-response, or even play animal sounds. It’s taking one out of Pavlov’s playbook, creating a mental cue that subtly prepares them for the shift in focus. 

Use a Timer

Structuring the time of an energetic activity and making that time known can help ease the transition. If you have a screen in your room, project a timer for the “energetic” activity. That way, students can see how much time is left and when they will need to redirect to the teacher. If you have an Amazon Echo in your room, you can tell Alexa to set a timer for ___ minutes. This way, there will be no surprises when you have to get your class’ attention (and Alexa can call them back for you).

Incorporate Movement:

Incorporating movement into the transition can help students transition both physically and mentally. Encourage them to stand up, stretch, or participate in a brief physical activity before moving on to the next task. This is about resetting and signaling closure so that students are prepared to transition.

Build on the Fun Activity.

In writing, the best transitions act as hooks, connecting one idea to another. But what often happens in classrooms are completely unrelated tasks happening one after the other. This is why thinking through how to articulate the connection between the energetic activity and the calmer one is so important. Even if it’s a loose connection, highlight the relevance and value of what students were doing in the first activity to help them see the bigger picture and stay engaged in the learning process.

Use Positive Reinforcement.

Another way of using signaling to reinforce smooth transitions, offer praise and positive reinforcement to students who transition back to focused learning quickly and effectively. Whether it’s words of affirmation, a classroom economy system where students earn ‘class dollars’ to be spent on prizes or privileges, or even just a simple smile or thumbs up, positive reinforcement is powerful and effective. And once students learn to transition smoothly, you will not need to rely on praise and prizes for it to happen more regularly.

Set Clear Expectations Early On in the School Year

This is possibly the most important one of them all. Communicate clear expectations and boundaries with students from the very beginning of the school year and do not budge on them. Share your primary transition system with students, spend the first week practicing it, and then stick with it. When students inevitably have a bad transition, they don’t settle down for the quieter task or do not return to their seats as asked, review the protocol with them. Have them share what the protocol is. 

These types of conversations are often skipped because they take time, and time was already wasted on a bad transition. But students work better within strong boundaries, and the more those boundaries are established, especially early in the year, the better students do to stay within them. 

Setting Boundaries Helps Everyone

And what I’ve found over and over is that the more students learn your class’ boundaries and how to work within them, the less those boundaries feel like pointless rules and the more they feel like structures to help them succeed. Students respond positively to structure, and the more they see how it benefits them, the better they get at thriving within them  “The more you show me that you know how to transition from a fun activity to a calmer one, the more fun activities we can do in this class.” It’s a win-win for everyone. 

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