Anyone who has been a teacher knows that classroom transitions can be tough. Children often find it challenging to transition between physical places, activities, and objects of attention. Having to stop one thing and start another can lead to the manifestation of unwanted behaviors.
by Letty Rising
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Thanks to our long uninterrupted work cycles, in Montessori environments, there are fewer adult-prescribed transitions in our prepared environments! One of the many benefits of the uninterrupted work period is that children aren’t transitioning from one subject matter to another in lock-step as many would in a traditional setting, or doing so before they are finished with what they are working on.
Still, a Montessori classroom has a fair amount of transitional moments that occur throughout the day. While there are whole group transitions that are more obvious, it’s also important to recognize the numerous small group and individual student transitions that are happening throughout the day. These are more subtle since most of these types of transitions are happening throughout the work cycle.
You probably have noticed through your observations of students and in your conversations with them, that some of your students weather classroom transitions more easily, whereas others indicate with their behavior that transitions generate feelings of confusion, anxiety, and frustration. The most difficult transition is to move from a preferred activity to a non-preferred one. This is hard for everyone! Whether it be a whole group transition or a smaller, more nuanced transition, you’re bound to find at least some of your students, whether it be physically or cognitively, struggle to get from point A to point B. This journey from A to B can be long, full of missteps, and bring about heated emotions.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, we are talking about elementary-aged students here! They aren’t like the children in the first plane of development, who don’t have a strong grasp of time and struggle with articulating their feelings, needs, and concerns.”
While it is true that early childhood educators tend to be more aware of transitions because young children are prone to a more disruptive expression of emotions when shifting from one activity to another, it is crucial to recognize that transitions can be tough on many elementary students as well. While the first-plane child will likely demonstrate difficulty with transitions by crying or acting out with aggression, the elementary child’s struggles are more subtle, and can look like the following:
- Resistance. A child struggling with classroom transitions might express this through resistance. Resistance can take on many forms, and one of the most common is complaints. Maybe they balk every time you invite them to a lesson. You might in fact think that they don’t want to receive the lesson, but in this situation, the child might be excited once they arrive and get settled, but it’s the process of getting them there can be tough!
- Avoidance. The child demonstrating avoidance might fail to put away their work to get ready for lunch. You might give them repeated reminders, only to come back to them to see that they haven’t made any progress.
- Distraction. Sometimes a struggle with transitions manifests itself as distractibility. Perhaps when it’s time for daily classroom jobs to be completed, you find that one student, Abby, is always flitting about the classroom, talking to one person or another, or wandering and watching without getting connected to their designated job.
When considering transitions in the elementary years, one can look to the Psychological Characteristics of the Elementary Child to identify and plan for areas where there is a potential for challenging transitions to occur.
Elementary children have a strong desire to be connected with each other, to talk with each other, and to work together. This means that any transition involving a student having to be pulled away from the group they are a part of can be especially difficult.
The second plane child has a LOT of energy. Because of this, any interruption from an adult can be met with protest. If they are in the midst of a great game of soccer and the game is ended abruptly without having come to completion, they may express frustration. If they are involved in a dynamic project that is keeping them on the move and have to come to a stopping point, they will express discontent because the energy is high, they’re on a roll, and they don’t want to stop.
Separation From Family
At this age, children naturally separate from their families and want to attach to their peers. You will see evidence of this at the end of the school day when you observe children negotiating with their parents about after-school playdates. They don’t want the fun with their friends to end, so the transition between school and home at the end of the day can be difficult unless friends can continue to spend time with each other.
Elementary children can become fixated on issues concerning what is right and what is wrong. If a child is trying to suss out a situation to see if someone is being unfair or unjust and they are called to another activity before the situation has resolved itself, they will become upset. Second plane children need closure, and if something seems unfair, they want to see a resolution that is just, before they can move to another activity or location.
It’s no secret that elementary-aged children get attached to people who inspire them. These can be heroes in real life or even heroes in stories! If you’ve been reading the Harry Potter series for read-aloud, and have come to an end, the children might struggle with this ending, as it means a parting of a beloved hero. So transitioning from one book, series, or genre, to another, and leaving beloved characters behind, can be a difficult transition for this age. To use a real-world example, one of the greatest heroes of the elementary child is you, their teacher! So when it comes time for them to have a new teacher, the initial transition can be difficult.
If a child is imagining an idea or something to create, and they have to stop and do something else or stop for the day, it can be frustrating. Just imagine that you decided that you wanted to create a leopard gecko habitat and that you want to make a diorama for it, but then you find out that there are no more shoeboxes at school, and you’ll have to wait awhile or find another way to make a habitat. As is true with all humans, if we can’t implement the vision we have in mind, it’s hard to shift away from that and do something else, especially if that vision lit a fire in your soul! So transitioning from a more exciting imagined idea to a less exciting one (often suggested by someone else after it was determined that the first idea couldn’t come to fruition) is a transitional moment that your big thinkers might find to be difficult.
Development of the Intellect
While the younger child is struggling more with physical transitions, the elementary child faces challenges in regard to intellectual transitions. Fortunately in Montessori environments, children have a lot more say when they are switching from one topic to another. They don’t have to end math at 10 a.m. to start language arts. Most of their transitions are self-induced. However, when it comes to elementary children, they are drawn to ideas and want to explore and discuss their ideas. If a transition is imposed in the middle of their explorations, certain students in particular will object. We need to help them learn how to be accountable, which means that a child cannot be investigating their favorite period on the life timeline all day every day, and never venture into math. Helping them learn how to self-regulate so that they are transitioning themselves in and out of different topics will be important, along with transitioning them to and from a lesson.
Developing Powers of Abstraction
Developing powers of abstraction means that children in the elementary years are going from tangible materials to paper and pencil, which is a huge transition in and of itself! It’s important to observe the child and note when they are ready for this transition. If it happens too soon or too late, there is a good chance that the child will exhibit behaviors such as resistance, avoidance, or distraction. We want to transition the children away from the materials when they are ready, as opposed to before they are ready or long after they’ve been ready.
When students are getting ready to do “great work,” there is usually a lot of materials involved. Whether it be shoeboxes, construction paper, and clay to make a diorama, or watercolors, paper, gel markers, and yarn to make and bind booklets, part of the work involves transitioning from one part of the classroom to another to find the items that are needed to produce the product they have in mind. Going from one spot to the next to collect items can be difficult for some children, and these children might benefit from a list of steps for where to go first, next and last.
Another transitional moment with great work involves moving away from great work to a lesson, or to practice a skill. Pulling children away from great work can be the toughest transition of all because great work can be the most thrilling aspect of the Montessori environment for many children! This is important to keep in mind as you consider ways in which children in your class can come to a stopping point with their big work when needing to shift over to something else.
Sense of Responsibility
If a child promises a peer that he will finish the illustrations for the Ancient Egypt timeline that they are working on because the friend was going on vacation for a couple of days and they want to be able to present the timeline to the class when the child returns, then you will have a laser-focused child who wants to finish this work not only for themselves but also because of the commitment made to their friend. Therefore, interrupting this child for a lesson, or having them stop this work to clean up for lunch, is likely to be met with some opposition. Along with a sense of responsibility for their work, they have a sense of responsibility to their friend and the promise they made, and are loathe to the idea of possibly letting the friend down.
Possible Transitional Times Throughout the Day, and How You Can Support Students During These Times
When classroom transitions are tough, you will want to think about and consider the systems you have in place. Often, implementing or fine-tuning systems and procedures will help transitional moments be easier. It’s important when developing systems and processes to support major transitional times to be aware of the times throughout the day that are transitional in nature. A long, drawn-out transitional time will cause more anxiety and negative behaviors in children than short and smooth transition times. The following are some of the transitional times you’ll want to watch out for and plan carefully to increase the possibility of a calm flow for your day:
- The beginning of the school day
- Before and after a large group gathering
- Before and after a small group lesson
- Before and after lunch and recess
- Before and after clean-up time
- The end of the school day
What NOT to Do During Classroom Transitions
What you will want to steer clear of, is any time where you have children WAITING… waiting for other children, waiting for you to get ready. In particular, having children line up and wait is often a recipe for disaster. This kind of transitional time can quickly go off the rails. I’ve seen time and again well-meaning teachers line students up to get ready for going outside while trying to corral a couple of straggling students, and before you know it, a majority of the class has been waiting in line for 15 minutes and negative behaviors are starting to reveal themselves.
What to Do Instead of Waiting
Instead of having children waiting in line, you can slowly move children from point A to point B. Are there places where you can have them trickle out a few at a time? When I was teaching, I liked to go around to small groups of children and let them know that it was time for lunch, and have them slowly get ready. The ones who looked most ready were the ones I’d reach out to, and the ones who were engaged saw what was happening, but it gave them a few extra minutes to come to a stopping point.
If you have children waiting in line to get ready to go home, or maybe even wandering around unsure what to do while other children are still finishing classroom jobs, what can you do? Can you instead have the finished children sit in your gathering area and grab a book to read, or instruct them to sit in your gathering area and have a quiet conversation with a friend while they are waiting? The children having a clear understanding of what the options are during transitional moments is crucial to the success of these times of the day.
When I dismissed children from class to recess or to lunch, sometimes I’d play a game, where I’d ask them to answer facts that came to the top of my head. For example, I might say “Can someone tell me what a 5-sided polygon is called?” or “Who can tell me a sentence containing an adverb and a preposition?” Then I would dismiss the children one at a time as they answered questions.
Things That Help With Classroom Transitions
Time-keeping devices such as clocks or timers can be helpful during transition times. These devices can help students and teachers keep track of the time and understand when it’s time to move on to the next activity.
Schedules can also be helpful during transition times, as they provide a visual representation of the sequence of events and can help students understand what to expect.
A list of steps can also be useful during transitions, as it can help students understand what they need to do to successfully move from one activity to another. This can include simple steps such as packing up materials, and how to perform a classroom job.
Providing choices during transitions can be helpful, as it can give students some control over their environment and can help reduce anxiety.
A verbal, audio, or visual cue that change is coming can also be effective during transition times. This can be a simple phrase or signal that students can associate with the need to transition to the next activity. Using a consistent cue can help students understand what to do during transition times and can help transitional moments run smoothly.
Time Your Transitions
A strategy you might want to try is to time the major classroom transitions that happen throughout the day, and see how long they take. If they take a long time, that is a signal to you that your systems might need to be reviewed and refined. You can time them, modify your systems, then time them again, to see if your new systems produced a shorter transitional time.
Story About Jack
I want to share a story about a student named Jack. Jack balked every time he was invited to a presentation. His teacher caught himself feeling reluctant to invite Jack to lessons, out of fear of hearing protests and/or complaints. It would have been easy to think of Jack as a difficult child who didn’t want to participate in all that the prepared environment had to offer him, but upon deeper investigation, his teacher noticed that he struggled with ANY transition. Coming to a lesson can be a huge transition for a child who is “in the flow.”
However, NOT giving Jack lessons wasn’t an option either, so the teacher devised a plan. In collaboration with Jack, he told him in a one-on-one conference that he was going to be inviting Jack to a lesson every day, and that he would prefer that he come to the lesson with an open mind and an open heart. He told Jack that he would try to give him a lesson first thing as he walked in the door before he became deeply engaged in one of his personal projects. If that wasn’t possible, he would give him 10 minutes’ notice before inviting him to the lesson, to allow him enough time to come to a stopping point. This strategy proved to be transformational! Giving Jack advanced notice was a significant support during transitional moments, and he was much more agreeable to joining in on lessons than he was before.
Final Thoughts on Classroom Transitions
Supporting transitions in elementary classrooms is essential for creating a positive and effective learning environment. By using strategies such as visual schedules, transition songs or signals, and providing support for students who may need extra help, teachers can help make transition times a smooth and successful part of the school day. This can help reduce stress and frustration for both students and teachers and can support student learning and engagement.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several pubic and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. She currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.