Classroom Routines Eliminate Chaos and Confusion

Classrooms with clear systems, routines, expectations, and workflows run more smoothly, eliminating behaviors that can derail a class. Our work as educators is not simply to teach students content and skills related to our subject areas. It’s our responsibility to cultivate independent, self-directed learners capable of sharing the responsibility for learning with us, their teachers.

As we integrate more technology and online learning into our courses, students must develop stronger self-regulation skills and the ability to drive their learning. This is easier to do when students know what to expect in both their physical classroom and online learning environment. This is why establishing and maintaining clear classroom routines and procedures is critical. It helps students develop confidence in navigating both the space and the learning activities.

Begin Every Class with a Welcome Routine

When I coach teachers who request help with classroom management, the first question I ask is, “Do you start each class with a welcome routine?” Beginning class with a consistent student-directed welcome routine is the best way to eliminate unproductive behaviors at the beginning of class and maximize our time with students.

The goal of a welcome routine is to get students to 1) enter the room and take a seat, 2) access the activity (online or offline), and 3) get started without any prompting from the teacher.

The benefits of a student-directed welcome routine include:

  • Giving teachers the time to greet students at the door as they enter.
  • Improving classroom management. 
  • Eliminating downtime as teachers deal with administrative tasks (e.g., taking attendance).
  • Providing consistency and structure for students who struggle with anxiety.
  • Prioritizing tasks that might get neglected in a normal lesson (e.g., self-assessment or retrieval practice).

The activity or task can change daily, but the routine of entering the classroom and accessing the welcome task must be consistent. Some teachers use the welcome routine for retrieval practice or spiral review, others encourage students to write in response to prompts, while others use it to develop metacognitive skills, like goal setting and reflection.

Establish Clear Protocols and Classroom Procedures

Clear workflows, protocols, and procedures eliminate unnecessary chaos and confusion in a classroom. It is critical that students know where to:

  • Access work (e.g., videos, resources, handouts)
  • Submit work (e.g., digitally via LMS or physically in a class bin or tray)
  • Find and complete absent work

It is helpful to provide video overviews of these workflows and post them in your LMS or on your class website so students and families can review the expectations for accessing and submitting work. Teachers can create short video tutorials with Screencastify or Loom to provide a clear explanation. If a student joins the class late or needs to revisit a workflow, they can watch the video.

In addition to the literal and digital workflows in a classroom, students need to know where to get supplies and how the technology and materials in a classroom should be used, treated, and sanitized.

Technology Tools

Students need to know: 

  • Where to find devices & headphones
  • How to log onto the device
  • What to do with the device when working offline or when the teacher makes an announcement (e.g., close it or tilt the screen)
  • Whether shared tech needs to be cleaned
  • Where in the room they can charge devices

Learning Materials

Students need to know: 

  • Where basic materials are stored (e.g., paper, pencils, scissors)
  • How to clean up materials provided for a specific activity (e.g., station work)
  • How materials, like manipulatives, get cleaned or sanitized (e.g., disinfectant wipes)
  • What to do if materials are missing or broken

Teachers using blended learning models should consider how they will transition students between learning activities. For example, if teachers are using the station rotation model, they can project a timer so students can track how much time they have for a task. When the time allocated for a specific task is over, teachers can use a simple 1-2-3 transition strategy like 1) wrap up and clean up, 2) stand behind your chair with your belongings (until everyone is ready), and 3) walk to the next station. Without clear transition strategies, movement around the room can suck up precious instructional minutes.

Set Up Your Classroom Spaces to Support Learning

When setting up our classrooms, safety and accessibility should be top priorities. Some teachers have more room to work with than others. In a perfect world, teachers want to arrange their rooms to:

  • Minimize the distances students need to move between learning activities. 
  • Create open spaces and clear pathways between workstations (e.g., wheelchairs, crutches). 
  • Have a clear expectation for backpack placement.
  • Keep anchor charts at eye level for visually impaired students and to eliminate unnecessary movement.

Once teachers have set up their space to increase physical safety and accessibility, it’s helpful to think about how we are arranging the furniture to support learning. When I coach teachers, I encourage them to set up the furniture so it reinforces the task students are doing. For example, tables grouped together suggest that students will be collaborating so conversation and interaction are encouraged. By contrast, if desks are arranged in rows, it suggests that students will be working independently.

Use Your Furniture to Reinforce the Task

I realize teachers do not always have access to furniture that is flexible or moveable. For years, I had bulky two-seater desks that were heavy and hard to move. I positioned them in an L-formation running the length of both sides of my classroom. When students were working independently, the desks stayed in the L-formation. When they were working in groups collaborating around a shared task, they swung one side of the desk around to create one big table group. It wasn’t ideal, but teaching is one make-it-work moment after another. So, when you are planning your lessons, think about whether the furniture is set up to reinforce the task or create management issues.

End Every Class with an Exit Activity

As a coach working in various classrooms, it’s not uncommon for me to observe students packing up with several minutes left in class. Once they’ve put their instructional materials away, many spend the last minutes of class chatting or crowding by the door. Given how short on time teachers always feel, this pattern of student behavior doesn’t sit well with me. I want teachers and students to maximize their time together, and an exit activity can keep students working until the end of class.

An exit activity should provide closure to the lesson, collect formative assessment data teachers can use to measure how successful the lesson was at meeting learning objectives, and/or encourage a reflective practice. You can end class with a simple 3-2-1 activity that asks students to share 3 things they learned, 2 questions they have, and 1 thing that surprised them. You can tailor the actual prompts to work for your specific lesson or group of students. Alternatively, you can have students complete an exit ticket designed to gather formative assessment data or ask students to reflect on what they learned, how they learned it, and what they are still confused about.

The goal of the exit activity is to have students pause to think about their learning in an intentional way before packing up and heading off to the next class. This routine can create a higher level of awareness about the impact the work they are doing in class is having on their content knowledge and skill set, while also providing you with useful information about their progress.

It does not matter what grade level you teach–kindergarten or 12th grade–students need to practice routines and procedures. Like most things in education, the more time we invest on the front end in establishing clear systems and workflows, the more effective and efficient our classrooms will run. Not only will we have more time to dedicate to working directly with learners, but they will have the structures in place to be more confident, independent, and self-directed.

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