Why transitions are the key to an effective classroom & how to improve them

When we think of effective teaching strategies, we often think of the big ones: having a clear lesson plan to guide our instruction, building rigor into our lessons, fostering student independence.

But what about classroom transitions? 

The reality is that transitions make up a significant part of any instructional time. Depending on grade level and time allotment per day, there can be from 5-6 academic transitions over the course of an hour or two.

Many teachers may not think much about transitions because they tend to happen without conscious thought during classwork. But when you start thinking more critically about your own practice as well as those around you, it becomes apparent just how important these little moments really are to having an effective classroom.

Effective Classroom Transitions
Why transitions are the key to an effective classroom & how to improve them 10

Transitions help us move smoothly between activities in order to stay focused and engaged with each task. They also allow for some downtime so that we can process information better later on. And finally, transitions give us opportunities to reinforce concepts and skills that were covered earlier in the session.

In this article, I’ll share some tips for making transitions work well for you and your students. First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with the basics.

What are transitions?

A classroom transition occurs whenever you have to leave one activity/lesson/event and enter another. It could be leaving math and entering reading, going from recess to lunchtime, or even switching classrooms. Transitions occur throughout the day but most commonly at the beginning and end of periods.

what are transitions in the school day

Based on this understanding, we can classify transitions into two major categories:

  1. Entering or exiting the classroom space
  2. Moving from one academic task to another

When we look at these more closely, it can be easy to see why entering and exiting the classroom are often the most time-consuming transitions. Arriving or leaving for the day are two major pieces of this, but the biggest impact at the elementary level is really the time spent on transitions from recess, lunch, or specials. 

Not surprisingly, in-class transitions are can more easily be modified and made more efficient. For example, moving from one academic activity or subject to the next. This includes transitions during the day that we don’t even think about, such as students moving from instruction to independent work, or moving from your small group table back to their seats.

Academic Learning Time: Why classroom transitions matter

Why do classroom transitions matter so much?

It all comes down to maximizing Academic Learning Time. Also called ALT, this is defined as the time between transitions, is a key principle of research-based instruction.

Academic Learning Time

When you think about it, making the most out of every class period requires that you make good use of your ALT. But how do you figure out how to maximize your ALT?

The first step is to ensure you’re not wasting time transitioning between activities. Studies have shown that in the U.S., 20% to 40% of instructional time in middle grades classes was devoted to teacher transitions and administration tasks. During much of this time, the students are just waiting for either the teacher or their peers.

Even small changes can have a huge impact!

This means that from the moment students enter the classroom until they leave, at least a third of their instructional time is spent on moving from place to place within the classroom or between rooms. This means that out of an hour-long class period only 40 minutes are left for learning activities. 

effective classroom transitions 4 classroom transitions

Studies show that even small changes in transition length can lead to large increases in student achievement. For example, researchers found that reducing transitions by 10 seconds increased reading comprehension scores by 0.5

So if you want to get the best possible return on your investment of time, then you need to spend less time transitioning and more time doing meaningful things. That’s where transitions come in.

How to determine if your transitions are efficient

So if you want to get the best possible return on your investment of time, the first thing you need to do is minimize wasted transition times. This begs the question, “How will I know if my transitions are efficient?”

Assessing the efficiency of your classroom transitions

Here’s one way to answer that question: look at the data!

The first step is to take stock of how long you’re currently spending on transitions during your school day. Just be prepared! The number might shock you. 

Data Collection: Time your transitions

Timing your transitions across the period of a few days time can be an easy way to get a baseline of how much of the school day is lost to transitions. To do this you’ll just want a timer or a stopwatch. I personally like the stopwatch better because I can keep adding time across the day more easily, but both follow the same principle.

Start your timer when you signal students to stop working and prepare to give them directions for the transition.

Allow the timer to run until the end of the transition. If you’re doing a transition without a direction, simply time from when the students begin to move to a new location. Stop the timer when you give a direction or signal for students to get work out or get ready for a new lesson. 

Take note of how long it takes to complete each of your transitions during class, and keep track of how many times per day you need to do each one.

A post-it note can be an easy way to record transition times.

You can also write the time for each transition in your lesson plans if you still keep a paper-based planner. Doing this allows you to have both a total transition time and a clear set of data for how much time is spent on specific transitions so that you can most effectively target the ones that are not efficient.

Consider doing this once a week to look for trends.

The more you track, the more you’ll begin to see a trend emerge. For example, perhaps some of your transitions take shorter than others, or perhaps it differs depending on the length of the class. Maybe you can reduce or eliminate several unnecessary transitions by utilizing certain adjustments.

Having a clear understanding of how much time is currently being used for all of your transitions means you can think about ways to adjust or eliminate certain transitions to maximize Academic Learning Time.

Think about it this way, even if you can save 10 minutes a day by improving the efficiency of transitions, you’ll gain 30 extra hours of instructional time per year. See what I mean about transitions being important to an effective classroom?

A Busy Teacher’s Guide to Successful Transitions in the Classroom

Like any other aspect of your classroom routine, the first step to getting smooth transitions is to establish clear expectations. If you’re lucky enough to be reading this article before the school year begins, start by determining what an efficient transition should look like, sound like, and feel like for both you and your learners.

Once you’ve envisioned the ideal, you can begin planning how you’ll get your students to this point. Transitions are just like any other class skill. Children don’t necessarily know how to do them, so we have to teach them. This is where routine comes into play.

How to teach classroom transitions

Directly teach your expectations through modeling and practice.

When you begin planning transitions, you can begin by laying out your procedures. According to Smart Classroom Management, transitions are a five-step process.

  1. Get their attention.
  2. Prep them for what’s about to happen.
  3. Give directions.
  4. Signal the start of the transition.
  5. Observe & redirect individual students.

Although I think you could combine the second and third steps of their process, this is a great place to start so let’s look at each piece a bit more.

Step 1: Get their attention

The goal of this step is to get students to stop what they are doing and attend to your directions. Depending on your school or classroom management philosophy, there are many different ways to do this. You might consider a call and response, like Class-Yes used in Whole Brain Teaching,  or you might utilize something like a bell or wind chimes to get students’ attention. Regardless of which method you choose, you’ll want to pick something you like because you’ll be using it frequently.

As you introduce this step to students, make it clear that once you’ve given the attention signal, you expect that they stop what they are doing and look at you to get their next directions. Eye contact and a noise level of zero are both good indicators that you’ve got students’ attention.

Steps 2-3: Prepare them and give your directions.

Prepping students is simple. It is literally a short, one-sentence explanation of what’s about to happen. This sentence is the framework that gets students ready to listen to your directions. For example, “We are about to start our writing time.”

Then move into giving them directions for the activity they’ll be doing. You’ll want to give students your directions in the simplest, most direct way and include multi-sensory cues when possible.

You’ll also want to tell them when you expect them to begin following these directions. Much like you’ve cued students to stop working, it is important to cue them to let them know when the transition has begun. Again, this can be a special noise or sound. You might even pick a vocabulary word to indicate its time to begin.

For example, your directions might sound like this:

“When I say go, I want you to quietly put your math notebooks away and take out your science journals and colored pencils. I’ll know you’re ready for our next steps when your voices are off and you’ve got the materials on your desk….”

If you know that this may be a difficult transition or you’ve got more complex directions, you can end this step by asking students whether they have any questions before moving to Step 4.

Step 4: Signal the transition.

At this point, you’ll signal the transition. In the above example, this would be as simple as saying “Go”.

Signaling that the transition has begun is important because it gives your class a clear indication about when they should begin. This can help make sure everyone hears all the steps before starting and can help reduce transition issues.

Step 5: Observe and redirect.

Once the transition is underway, your goal is to observe that students are following the directions you’ve given efficiently. If you notice a student having transition difficulties, you can redirect them back on task. However, if you notice more than 20% of your class is not doing transition activities correctly, stop the entire group and begin the process again.

As you’re observing look for specific issues that arise. These are things that may require revisiting and reteaching in order to reduce the likelihood of transition difficulties and achieve the tight transitions you envisioned.

The best way to make transitions smooth is by observing and supporting students across time. By doing this, transitions can then be held to the same standards as any other part of the school day.

Troubleshooting Classroom Transitions

While all this may seem simple as you read it, the reality is it doesn’t take many botched transitions to have a behavior problem on your hands. Many students struggle to move from one activity to the next, and this extra time used transition makes it more difficult for you to achieve the academic goals you have for your class.

Classroom Transition Troubleshooting

In this section, I’ll share some troubleshooting advice for different transition issues that commonly occur.

General tips for transition issues:

Efficient transitions are necessary for effective classroom management. Without proper planning, transitions will become chaotic and unstructured. Here are a few general troubleshooting tips if you’re noticing issues with transitions:

  • Give students advance warning. Providing both a verbal warning and using a visual timer can be great ways to let students begin to mentally prepare to move on.  It allows everyone involved enough time to prepare themselves mentally and physically for their next steps. For example, you might tell students something like, “In about five minutes it will be time to wrap up your reading journal so we can move on to our math lesson.”
  • Display timers to help students visually track when the transition will occur.  There are many fun online timers that you can display on your projector to make students aware of exactly how much time they have left before the transition will occur. Check out Online Stopwatch and look at the fun options available to keep your kids informed as transitions approach. 
  • Consider visuals to help guide students through the routine of the day. Visual schedules are a great way to keep upcoming transitions from coming as a surprise. They are also great for supporting a variety of different learners. Preparing students for transitions also helps reduce anxiety among students who might feel overwhelmed or have difficulty moving from a preferred activity.

Common Transition Issues & How to Solve them

Problem: Transitions take too long.
Solution: Create a class challenge

Most kids love competition.  If your classroom is set up in group settings, you can set up competitions for the group that cleans up the quickest or are all seated and quiet in the fastest time.  They can earn points that can be redeemed for prizes at the end of the week.

This will be a great way for your leaders in the classroom to help those who may not have the organizational skills learn from a mentor in the group.

Problem: Everyone is finishing the task at a different time so there isn’t a clear transition.

Solution: Create a routine for early finishers.

With some activities, like snack time, it can be hard to coordinate a clear transition time. Effective transitions can still be achieved by having a clear expectation for what early finishers should be doing. This can help ward off challenging behavior that occurs due to boredom while waiting for peers, and it can also allow you to boost Academic Learning Time, even though it is just a short chunk of time.

Challenging students with brain teasers or a Word Problem of the Day activity is a great way to build critical thinking skills during these short chunks of time.

Daily Problem Solving - 6th Grade

Problem: My morning transitions are chaotic because my students don’t arrive at the classroom at the same time.

Solution: Provide a “Do Now” or warm-up activity to engage students when they arrive

When students enter the classroom, have a purposeful activity for them to do. Often called morning work or a bellringer activity, this might be something you hand to them as they enter or that they keep in a special folder and take out each day. Many classrooms use this time to have students review prior learning using a math spiral review or language spiral.

Regardless of what you select, your arrival activities should be something that is part of their everyday routine. This will give you a few minutes to go over your attendance, take care of any odds and ends, and get the students’ minds right into the topic of the day.


Here are some great morning work options for your classroom: 

Problem: Most of my class is rocking transitions, but one student consistently struggles & it throws us all off.

Solution: Focus on the function of the behavior & create an individualized plan.

f you’ve got a student who consistently struggles or displays challenging behavior during transitions, the first thing you’ll want to do is take a function-based perspective on the behaviors you’ve noticed.

Consider when these difficulties typically happen and what they look like. Sometimes a student may struggle to transition from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity.

In this case, it can help to create a plan that includes giving the student a one-on-one warning in advance, and giving them a clear job to do as a part of the transition process. For example, they might be asked to participate in a physical activity like collecting papers or getting the books needed for the next lesson.

Managing escape or avoidance behaviors

Behaviors that end up creating a difficult transition can also be a way to avoid or escape non-preferred or challenging tasks.

If a student often displays transition behavior issues as you move into reading and you know this is an area of difficulty for the student, it can be important to evaluate whether the work you’re giving is too far above the student’s instructional level or whether they may need some type of personalized reinforcement plan to encourage them.

Addressing power struggles

If transitions result in a power struggle, consider using a visual transition strategy with the individual student instead. The lack of opportunity to argue can diffuse situations and reduce the likelihood of chaotic transitions for peers.

Supporting students with sensory needs

in a different vein, you may have students that struggle with the rapid increase in sensory input that often comes with classroom transitions and end up feeling overwhelmed with the flurry of activity occurring during transition time.  Finding ways to adjust the sensory input, whether through the use of headphones or the option to hold a transition object (like a fidget), can be helpful.

Consider these proactive strategies for reducing the amount of class time spent trying to calm the student after a difficult transition occurs.

Conclusion: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Each class and each school year will bring a new classroom dynamic.  Some transition strategies that work for one class might not work for another.  As time passes, you will learn to develop new ways that will help achieve efficient transitions in your classroom. While quick classroom transitions are always the goal, it is also important to consider your students’ needs and how you can make modifications to your routine that factor in student learning. 

Classroom Transitions

Enjoy exploring new ways to find what works best for you.  I promise that with time and a clear vision, you will find the classroom strategy that works best for effectively transitioning from one activity to the next.

To wrap up the  article, I wanted to share a great video from Teach Like A Champion that includes a few additional strategies that teachers have used to move learners from one activity to the next.

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