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February 08, 2007

The Saving Grace of Effective Transitions

Like any good professional educator, I spend hours and hours designing lesson plans.  In pre-k, it is especially important that lessons excite and center on the children’s four-year-old interests.  Yet my planning is not complete until I also determine how to transition my children from one lesson activity to the next.

Why are transitions so important in pre-k? Well, take an example from my first year of pre-k teaching.  On a typical morning, my students read independently after breakfast, and when that less structured activity was over I struggled to motivate the class to clean up and get focused for the more structured whole-group circle time that followed.  I noticed that I spent, on average, 10-15 minutes transitioning the children between the two activities - precious minutes that could have been instructional time.

I reflected on how to minimize time lost to off-task behavior and learned that simple songs and rewards kept the children engaged and attentive as they put away their books or play materials and prepared for the next lesson.  Among the little ditties we now sing are:

•    “Read, read, read a book, we are getting smart” (to the tune of “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat”)
•    “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere, clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.”
•    “Clap, clap, clap, snap, snap, snap, now it’s time to take a nap.”

I also began providing incentives like short “dance parties,” a parent visitor, or a fruit we hadn’t yet tried in return for the class consistently getting ready and focused before I could count down from 10 to zero.

Before long, my class was able to clean up and be ready for our morning meeting in less than one minute.  Reclaiming those ten minutes each day for the entire year adds up to 1,800 minutes of instructional time.  Think of what you could teach in 1,800 minutes?!  And that’s just one transition time among eight or nine in a given day. 

But time saved is just one benefit of an effective transition.  When four year olds are standing around while their teacher scrambles to move to the next part of the day, they are apt to fill that vacuum with undesirable behavior.  By laying out behavioral expectations at all times, including transitions, and designing transitions that meet students’ developmental needs for plenty of movement and singing, transitions help curb those undesirable behaviors.  For instance, Ravon, who swung his arms and legs aggressively in the beginning of the year, is far less likely to engage in such behavior now because he knows what is expected at all times.

Transitions can also reinforce the concepts and skills we learn throughout the day.  As in the examples above, we use counting skills to get ready for circle time and rhyming skills to get ready for nap and to clean up.  Instead of just saying “line up,” we line up in a pattern.  Individually, the songs and counting just seem like normal pre-k classroom sounds, but, together, they ensure that the children and I get the most out of each day.

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