Child smiling and coming down a playground slide

Managing Transitions: Strategies for Enhanced Learning Environments

by Dana Keil, Director, Room on the Bench: A Project of Luria Academy of Brooklyn

Students who present challenging behaviors can struggle when they have little structure. Often, these moments occur during transitions from one place or activity to another, such as entering from recess, shifting from tefillah to reading, or leaving the classroom for a special activity. To some students, this lack of structure can feel hectic, and as a result, they may exhibit unwanted or even dangerous behaviors to fill the void, such as shouting, running, aggression towards peers or climbing on furniture. Teachers from preschool through high school become frustrated when these transitions become overwhelming, and lament about how much class time is wasted with seemingly simple tasks like putting Tanachim back on the shelf or filing away math packets.

Based on an article from the Council of Exceptional Children, here are some tips and tools for teachers and support personnel to add structure to transition times:

1. Prepare yourself

Before educators can help students, they need to visualize for themselves how they envision the transition. Ask yourself questions like, “What are my expectations?” (For example, “I want the green group to go from the rug to their desks within two minutes.”) and “What should the transition look like?” (Should students walk? May they talk? Where should they sit?) Having answers to these questions will better help teachers to communicate expectations. 

Additionally, educators need to decide, “What’s the shtick?” In other words, “How do students know when the transition starts or stops?” For instance, a teacher saying, “If you can hear my voice clap once…”, dinging a bell, or turning off the lights can all be used to communicate that a transition is starting, while using a specific intonation to say, “Good afternoon!” can be a cue for students that the transition is over and the next lesson is beginning. If a specific student needs his or her own cue, communicating with a post-it note, PECS (picture exchange communication system), or “secret” signal can be effective.

2. Be transparent about routines

Once educators have a clear idea of what the transition should look like, they should teach these expectations to students explicitly. Educators should not assume that students will walk instead of run, unless they communicate that expectation. When educators teach correct examples and show what incorrect examples look like, they create bounds for student behavior to function within. They are communicating verbally and with their body language what is acceptable, and what is not. While this may run the risk of seeming patronizing to older students, teachers should not avoid this critical step and can instead look for ways to make it more fun or humorous. (Picture a rabbi dragging his feet with exaggeration while slowly putting the Talmud on the wrong shelf, for example.)

Once the behavior is taught explicitly and modeled, students need multiple opportunities to practice. Students should go through the transition in simulated situations  two or three times, while the educator monitors and provides feedback. And after winter break, when students seem to forget all their routines, transitions can be re-taught as needed.

3. Build in pre-corrections

Teachers can provide additional support to solidify student skills with a quick reminder of expected behavior before transitions. This reminder can be withdrawn as needed. Educators should anticipate the challenges of specific students, such as students with Autism, ADHD or anxiety. One way to preempt this difficulty is by providing a two-minute warning and standing near these students to guide them with extra support as their peers model the transition.

4. Reinforce the positive

When students are transitioning effectively, tell them! Incentives for appropriate behavior show students that they are in line with your expectations. Not all positive reinforcement needs to be physical, and specific praise can be more powerful than tangible rewards. At the same time, teachers should either ignore or quickly redirect incorrect behavior.

5. Provide active supervision

Monitoring students involves scanning, moving and interacting with students as needed to keep the transition on track. It’s important to avoid performing other tasks or conversing with other adults during these key moments.

A final tip: If students are transitioning from a previous activity and don’t seem ready to enter your teaching space, it’s okay to close your door and tell students they can enter one by one when their body language demonstrates they are ready. They will set examples for one another, and most should be able to transition smoothly. If there are one or two who cannot, a private conversation can take place in the hallway.