just how important is spending time in building structure and routine?


that’s the short answer to this question.

in a conversation with a friend at the beginning of the school year, our friend expressed frustration that her daughter’s teacher hadn’t gotten down to “real work” yet in the first week of school. in her description of what the class was doing, our friend saw time wasted, but we recognized the important work of teaching the routines that lead to independence.

in our classroom, we spend a lot (A LOT) of time at the beginning of the year making sure that our kids are able to follow routines in our room with independence. we don’t mean that we show them one time how things should be done and expect that they’ll do it. we mean we model and practice many times. this means we’re teaching how to enter the classroom in the morning (which includes how to unpack a backpack efficiently), and how to pick a just right book.

parents may not view practicing routines like how to unpack your backpack and learning how to pick a book that’s just right as “real work,” but we can assure you that this is time well spent.

what our classroom might look like without structures and routines…

here’s the thing…until our students have learned how to function independently in the classroom, it’s next to impossible to get down to the “real work” we want to do. our kids won’t be doing their best work and we won’t be doing our best teaching if we have to constantly stop what we’re doing to prompt and remind them of what they should be doing. and, we can’t expect that our kids will come to us knowing the routines of our classroom just because they’ve been in a classroom before. we know that all classrooms are different, and so it’s important to spend time teaching how things will go in their classroom this year.

maybe it’s just us, but we sometimes enter the school year remembering how our kids were at the end of the previous year, forgetting that it took a whole year of teaching to get them there. what’s automatic to your kids in june will not be automatic in september. and so, we think the end of the year is a perfect time to think about the routines and procedures that are automatic to your students now, but will need to be explicitly taught to your new kids in the fall.

here’s some of what we explicitly teach during the first few weeks of school in an effort to create a classroom that has clear expectations and procedures that will maximize time (to spend on both teaching and independent work) and our kids’ independence:

(first, it’s important to note that when we’re introducing a new routine or procedure at the beginning of the year (and, really, everything is new at the beginning of the year), we most often use the responsive classroom’s interactive modeling approach, the gist of which is: we say what we’re doing and why, we model it, name out as a class what was done, ask a student to model it, name out what the student did, have the class do it, and give feedback. repeat until the routine seems automatic.)

our morning routine: 

over the first days of school, we practice entering the classroom and unpacking many times. we’ve found that there can be a lot of lost instruction time if we’re not able to get started when our schedule says we are. if we start reading workshop five minutes late, then we only have 40 minutes instead of our scheduled 45, which maybe isn’t a big deal for one day, but over the course of a week, we’ve lost 20 minutes!

we start by having kids sit at the carpet with their backpacks still on while we model how we come in each morning and unpack our backpacks with one of the kid’s backpacks. then, once kids have named out the steps we took, we ask for a student volunteer to model. almost always, the student volunteer will need some reminders on the steps. next, we have the whole class line back up with their backpacks and practice the whole routine that just been modeled for them. we’ll gradually release responsibility to our students, so, after a few days of repeating this practice, we might start with just a student modeling before the rest of the class unpacks. then we might have them go straight to unpacking, but continue to do some reflection about the time we’re spending unpacking.

over the first few weeks of school, new parts are also gradually added to their morning routine – unpacking math homework, filling out a reading log, etc. – and whenever a new part is added, we spend a few days modeling and practicing how that new part looks. as the adults in the room, this feels super repetitive, but the result is that, after the first few weeks of school, most of the class is able to unpack all of their belongings successfully and independently and be ready for our day to start on time.


by transitions, we mean any time we’re making a transition in our classroom. so, this includes changing from one subject area to another, but also transitions within a subject. we usually begin transitioning to and from our whole-group instruction, which takes place at the carpet in our meeting area, by calling one table at a time to come to the carpet or head back to their seats. once the class is successful in this, we transition to using a signal that allows students to come individually.

in our class we use a rainstick to signal a transition to or from whole-group instruction. we like that the rainstick is a calming noise and that we can flip it about ten times to give students time to get to the carpet so that those students who need help to keep themselves moving could count to themselves as they’re moving from one thing to the next. most classrooms we’ve seen have some sort of signal, whether it’s a rainstick, a bell or a clapping pattern.

once we’ve established a signal, we practice using it by modeling it and having a student model. if we’re transitioning to a lesson, our practice will include bringing materials to the carpet that will be needed for the lesson. we’ll also time student transitions so they can be self aware about how efficient their transition is. if a transition doesn’t go smoothly, we don’t hesitate to rewind and try it again. if students head back to their seats and start conversations instead of opening books, then we make the time to have them repeat the transition.

while this may seem like a time consuming act in the short term, we know that if our students learn to transition quickly and quietly, it will save us time across the school year.

on working independently during reading:

we know how powerful a 1:1 conference or a small group can be to targeting a student’s needs. we also know that neither of these teaching structures feels effective if we need to spend most of our time redirecting the behavior of other students. when we start the school year, we start with lessons on choosing just right books. this is an important topic that can be read about in more depth here.

once students know how to choose their own books, we teach what our independent time should look like and we model it! as we model, we have students observe and name what they observed. it can help to ask students focus on what independent reading looks like and sounds like. these observations will be used to co-create an anchor chart that will serve as a resource and reminder for our students.

the build up of stamina during independent reading takes time. while our goal may be for our students to read for 30 minutes, depending on their age and their background experience, the time they’re actually able to sustain may only be a minute at first. but, if they add a minute a day over 2 weeks, they are well on their way to increasing reading stamina! we’ve found success in charting our class’s independent reading (and independent writing) stamina over the first few weeks of school until it’s consistently where we need it to be.

border patrol:

on a mission trip we’ve been on in appalachia, we have to check-in each morning before we head to our worksite to make sure we have everything we need for the day. there’s someone standing at the edge of the parking lot for “border patrol,” and this person has a checklist of the materials we should have in our car. nothing makes for a more unproductive day than getting to our worksite and having to go back to get the materials that we left behind. we’ve recreated the concept of this border patrol in our classroom to support students in making sure they have everything they need to be able to complete their work at home each night.

at the front of our room, we have a small whiteboard on which we post the border patrol for the day. a few of the items are on the board every night (so we don’t need to do anything to those day to day), and then the remaining items change based on what the night’s homework is.

at the beginning of the year, we review border patrol each day. we go item by item and have students stack the materials at their seats. we eventually move to having the teachers’ helper hold the border patrol and review it while the class checks what they’ve stacked at their seat to be sure they didn’t forget anything until, once we release the responsibility completely, students automatically check the border patrol whiteboard as they get their border patrol stacked at their seat. this process helps kids be accountable to what they need each night and also serves as a built-in reminder for those students who have trouble with organizing their materials.

still not convinced explicitly teaching routines and procedures is important? we challenge you to invite twenty-five children over to your house for a sleepover and ask them to unpack their overnight bags. once you see what your house looks like, we think you’ll be with us on the importance of spending time on this.


8 thoughts on “just how important is spending time in building structure and routine?

  1. Adrienne Screen says:

    Just discovering your blog and loving it as I am about to start back to school. I would love to see more about artifact cards in writer’s workshop! Also these back to school post on routines and procedures are great!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • taraandkate says:

      thanks for the comment, adrienne! it’s always nice to know there’s a reader out there :). can work on a post for some artifacts that may be helpful. what grade (or subjects) will you be teaching! hope you’re feeling excited for it!


  2. elle1955 says:

    This is such an excellent post for all teachers – and especially for new teachers. The investment that you make in the beginning of the year certainly pays off with huge dividends. Your detailed descriptions of how you set up your classroom routines gives a clear picture of what to do and why.

    Liked by 1 person

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