Do you dread the moments after the bell rings and you know you are going to have to calm down a room full of kids? Whether teaching secondary and the kids are coming in from a frantic rush down hormone-laden halls trying to get into the room on time-- or teaching elementary where you will have them all day so they are squeezing the last bit of freedom from the day before you make them stop – calming them down is hard.
Let’s make today’s conversation really simple. Let’s talk about a way to calm down a classroom full of kids. Next time we will talk about calming down an individual student but for today, let’s talk about a classroom.
One of the things working against a teacher is that you are outnumbered. Sure, you have authority and accountability and rules on your side and students recognize this. They also know they have to calm down and usually, eventually they will. The problem is that it takes too long and it takes too much effort, and you feel like you are losing your grip on the class when they make you tell them to “Be Quiet” over and over. You feel the momentum of the class constantly teetering and sometimes tipping.
When this is happening, you have to realize this is not the students against you. This is the students against environment and momentum. Transitional times between lessons or between classes or, heaven help us, between lunch or recess and class time, is by design a time for a mental break – a cool down time. It is necessary, so don’t take it away. But that cool down time is when focus is lost, distractions become the focal point and pent up energy is released. Believe it or not, this needs to happen. There needs to be a mental and even a physical transition between activities so that a refocusing can occur. Instead of trying to avoid or dreading it, embrace it. But most importantly, define it!
Define the limits of the transition time.
Tell your students how far they can go. Maybe they can talk in between lessons, maybe they can stand and stretch in between activities or maybe they can have 60 seconds from the time the bell rings to be in their seats and quiet-- or maybe they can hoop and holler when they are outside but have to bring it down to a whisper once they cross the doorway coming in. Don’t take it for granted that your students understand how far they can go or how long a transition time should and can last. Define it for them. Let them know exactly what they can get away with in your classroom and, more importantly, what they cannot.
Here’s how you define the transition times: look at your scheduled day. Your lesson plan calendar already denotes the time in between lessons and activities and class periods. Build into those your expectations. You know when an activity will not take the allotted time. On the front end, define what the class can do when they are finished individually and when they have finished collectively. Before walking to the cafeteria, tell the students when their voice and volume levels can and cannot change. Go over the same instructions for the return. Give them a physical marker for when they need to use a quieter voice. Tell them when they pass through the doorway that every voice in line is now a whisper. Stop the line dead in its tracks if you hear more than a whisper and whisper to the front of the line that it is time to whisper and pass it back. Use the momentum of the group coupled with the defined parameters of acceptability to guard and enforce your rules. Momentum is a powerful thing when it comes to a group and that power can be used to the negative, when it is not controlled, or the positive when it is defined and controlled.
Finally, when you define your parameters and make them known to the students, do so realizing that at least a couple of your students will forget and at least one or two will just not believe you. This means you have to have a signal reminding the entire group of the rule that is signaled as soon as a breach occurs. If you are walking from the cafeteria to the classroom then it might be a clap or a whistle or something that signals to the compliant kids, who still have the momentum, to self police and stop the non-compliance. Don’t wait until you lose the momentum because it is too hard to get it back.
If you are in the classroom waiting for kids to settle down and you have given them a 60 second window to get organized and quiet, have a clock with the countdown visible to all and have a signal at the end of the time. Again, if and when you have a non-compliant student use the group momentum to correct the situation. If you have time in between lessons and begin to see the students losing control, have a classroom signal that brings them back into focus. It can be a whistle or a buzzer or something that grabs their attention. The point of the attention grabber is that it immediately stops momentum because it causes an immediate shift in focus to the signal. Then you use the inertia of the group momentum to redefine the expectations and again place the onus of compliance back on the momentum of the group.
Transition times can be hard if they are left to chance.
But if they are defined, if they are planned for and if they are used appropriately then they can actually be a learning tool for the students. Transition periods can be used to blow off steam, expend a little energy, get your social fix, and just mentally brace yourself for more classroom work. Embrace the transition periods, and more importantly, own them!