The Power of Positive Routines

Anderson_MikeThink about the amount of time that you spend on autopilot each day. Do you drive to work along the same route? Do you tend to park in the same spot when you get there? Once you enter the building, I bet you follow a predictable path. You might hang up your coat, put your lunch in the fridge, turn on your computer, and start to check e-mail. Most of this time, you’re probably not even thinking about what you’re doing. You’re simply following your daily routines.

I think this is a good thing. As long as our routines are healthy and productive, they can be a great asset. Having predictable rhythms and routines allows us to focus our energy on the harder and more complex tasks of the day.

Our students also develop routines, which can either help or hinder their learning. I recently visited a couple of 5th grade classes. I watched a group of students enter one room for science class. They came into the room quietly and immediately sat down at their seats. They took out their science books and journals, made sure they had pencils, and started chatting pleasantly with their classmates as the teacher got ready for her lesson. Forty-five minutes later, I saw this same class head into a different room for their math lesson. They burst through the door, pushing, shoving, and talking loudly. They dropped books on the floor, wandered the room, and had to be reminded multiple times to get out their math materials. In each room, these students had a routine that they followed. And in each room, this was a direct result of the time the teacher had taken to directly teach students expected behaviors and then follow through to enforce those expectations.

One of the most important things we can do for our students is help them establish positive routines so that their “autopilot” is respectful of themselves and others, allows them to feel safe and supported, and helps them be ready for learning throughout the day. In my article in the April 2011 edition of Educational Leadership, “The Leap into 4th Grade,” I describe a process for teaching routines to students called interactive modeling.

What routines do you teach to your students? How do you help students set positive and productive rhythms and routines in your classroom?

Post submitted by Mike Anderson, professional development specialist for the Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.


  1. This was an area I struggled with at the beginning of the year. The students would switch back to my class (I teach 5th grade all subjects, except we switch for science and social studies) and would be loud and I would have to remind them several times to get their materials out and quiet down. I then decided to put a visual up for the students to see when they came back to class. I would usually write on the board a couple of sentences saying exactly what they needed to do. I would also have a clock in the room and tell them how long they had to do this in. Anyone that didn’t follow the directions was held accountable and there would be a consequence. This is something I still do and I found it is very effective in getting accomplished what I needed without me having to say anything.

  2. This is an area that I have struggled with. I am a substitute teacher, so as you can imagine, it is hard for me to establish a nice classroom environment within the time frame I am in a classroom. I, personally, always try to establish the classroom rules when I enter the class. I then let the children know that I expect the same behavior that their teacher expects. I just started a long term teaching position in a first grade classroom almost three weeks ago. Of course the students have already learned a routine from their teacher but I have been working to establish my own. I expect the students to move from one task to another quickly and quietly. The students always chit chat while doing so. I have implemented a system where if the students are talking they have to get up and flip their behavior card to yellow if they are on green and red if they are on yellow. My students thought at first that it was a joke, but now they know that if they decide they need to talk then they have made the decision to change their behavior card. It has been working really well and we have been getting more accomplished since there is less chit chat between activities and tasks. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has trouble establishing a classroom environment in the beginning.

  3. I think it is best to have a routine, when you have structure in the classroom your students will know what they need to do and when. It is very important to start a routine and do it daily so your students will not misbehave in class. Whenever students have a free second it leaves room for them to miss behave.

  4. Setting a routine is one of the most important things that can be established in a classroom, especially in the beginning of the school year. Not only does routine allow students to know and understand what is expected of them and provide them with a sense of familiarity and security throughout the day and school year, it ensures structure in the classroom. Some children thrive on structure and routine, and their entire day is thrown off if their schedule is disrupted. Routines eliminate chaos and confusion and allow teachers to stay organized. It has been suggested that achievement and appropriate behavior are related to how well teachers establish routine and procedures. A classroom with an effectively established set of rules, procedures and routines will most likely produce higher achieving students.

  5. I think that a structured routine is necessary to maintain a safe, orderly class, especially in the primary grades. It is important to teach and reteach routines as well as being consistent with them. I think there should be a procedure for just about every part of the day, it will leave less “down” time for children to get into mischief. If children do not know exactly what is expected of them, you can be sure that the children will find their own way to do things (which can result in disaster!).

  6. I think it is very important to set classroom routines and procedures as well. I also try to give my students some responsibility in how the room is run. For example, I don’t care where they do their work in the room, as long as they are focused and are accomplishing what they should. I try to let the students have some freedom of choice if they can handle it. For the most part, my students this year have been able to do so. However, with that said, I’m feeling the need to review the classroom expectations at this point in the year. I’ve noticed many students taking that freedom for granted. It always seems to happen at this time of the year, and it is so important to have classroom meetings to review routines and expectations.
    In addition, my school has been starting an initiative called PBIS which promotes positive behaviors within the school. We meet periodically to discuss teachers’ expectations within the school, and these expectations are posted everywhere in the school. These expectations are general and can easily be incorporated into all classrooms. Having them posted around the school allows everyone to point out to a student exactly what is expected, so the student gets immediate feedback about a given behavior.

  7. Establishing a routine is necessary in all classrooms. The teachers in my high school try to establish a similar routine so that students will have more structure throughout their school day. Students can move from classroom to classroom and know that as soon as they sit down, they have a focus activity, and then we review or tie the activity to the previous lesson, and move on to new material and finally practice, which may become homework. We feel that with this continuity, students will achieve more. I have also found that it is very important that I set time limits for our activities. If I do not tell my students, “You have ten minutes”, when they begin, it is a lot harder for me to reign them back in after ten minutes; and timers are life savers, I think they should be installed in every classroom.

  8. I think routines are the lifeline to productive learning in my Kindergarten class. We have procedures for everything: arrival/journal, turning in papers, rotating around the room, transitions, lining up in an orderly fashion, reentry into the room after enrichment and lunch, and even what to do when we wake up after nap. When the students know what to do before they ever enter the room, transition time is limited to just a few minutes. This frees up that time for more productive learning activities. Just a few minutes each day over several weeks could mean hours of additional learning time.
    I am very particular about classroom procedures. I get complimented by other teachers and administration at how well my students are behaved. They are well behaved because they know what to do and they know they will be rewarded for following the procedures. They are rewarded individually, in teams, and as a whole group depending on the circumstances. Sometime the rewards are just bragging rights – “Our team got the most tally marks today!”

  9. Routines and rituals are a must in every classroom, especially in the elementary grades. While working on my degree in one of my undergraduate classes, I was introduced to a man by the name of Harry Wong. As a class, we watched several videos of Mr. Wong on having good classroom management. One of the most important aspects to having good classroom management is having procedures in the classroom. I learned how much time can be saved every day if the students follow the same rules and procedures that were set up at the beginning of the year. Simple procedures like how to walk into the classroom, how to turn in papers, how to sharpen pencils, how to line up, how to transition throughout the room, etc. The list can go on and on. Having procedures is a positive routine that any teacher can do.

  10. As a first year teacher, I attended a workshop given by Harry K. Wong. Mr. Wong is the author of the book “The First Days of School”. He stressed the importance of “routines and procedures” in schools. I have tried to remember this at the beginning of each school year. I spend the first few days explaining and modeling our classroom routines. I teach kindergarten and most of my students have never been to school prior to walking into my classroom. We go over how to walk in the hallway, where to put your things, what to do when you enter the classroom, where to stand when waiting in a line and so on. The routines are very helpful for them. You would be surprised how quickly students get hooked into these routines. If for any reason our routine is changed for one day, I can almost guarantee that it will be a difficult day for the students. I have had several new students throughout the school year and my regular students get so upset when the new student doesn’t do something the “right way”. I think spending time at the beginning of the school year getting your students adjusted to a routine is definitely a must. It will save you so much time and energy in the long run. Read “The First Days of School” by Harry Wong for great advice on setting up your procedures and routines!

  11. I agree that classroom routines are very important, and I spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year setting up these routines with my Kindergarten students. As time goes on during the school year, however, at times my students need to be reminded of these routines, such as lining up quietly. One way that I remind my students is playing a “notice” game. For example, I have 1 student go to line up and then I say what I notice about how they lined up. “She walked to the door without talking.” Then I have other students say what they notice. “She kept her hands to herself.” “She did not run.” etc. After that I have the rest of the students line up, and they now have that criteria that we previously talked about of how to line up in their minds. It’s something that I have found helpful when teaching or reminding students of classroom routines and rules.

  12. It is true that having a routine does help with my classroom management skills as well as keeping my students on task. I think that in order to avoid boredom, teachers need to make their sessions interesting and interactive. This helps to maintain a smooth operation of daily schedules, while avoiding frustration. I am not a new teacher, but I am new to the country where I now work and I find that having and maintaining a routine helps to keet students on task and also adds to classroom organization as well.

  13. I agree that routines are needed to provide a comfortable classroom setting. As a high school science teacher I have set assignments and expectations that must be met on certain days of the week. Students can expect an essential question on my board daily that they must record on a given sheet and then answer before class begins. This prepares them for the big picture of the class day. I then test my students on these essential questions every Monday at the beginning of class. Each Tuesday students know that they have a written homework assignment due. After the first week students become familiar with the routines and they enjoy knowing what to expect.
    I also agree that setting expectations at the beginning of the school year is essential. In past years I have assumed that students knew what I expected. This was an incorrect assumption. I now spend the first week role playing my expectations and literally practicing procedures. The classroom you described that was in disarray sounds familiar, however with practice and set expectations my classroom now most resembles the pleasant group of students you mentioned. I have also found that it is helpful to review my basic expectations, etc., as I see students wandering from them.
    I look forward to reading your article.

  14. In my early childhood classroom, I work really hard to teach transitions. One transition, for example, is the transition from lunch to nap time. The process is: 1) Throw away your trash, 2) Wash your hands, 3) Get on your mat. Then, when everyone is through, or it is 12:00, I turn off the lights and turn on the music. This is the que for everyone to quiet down and go to sleep. I was having difficulty getting some students to go straight to their mat, stay on their mat, or eat in a timely manner. What I decided to do was to put a book from my library on each mat during lunch. Then I set the timer for 12:05. Students have until the timer goes off to eat, clean up, and read their book while lying on their bed. When the timer goes off, all food is put in the garbage and all books are placed under their mat for after nap time. So far, this has helped calm the nap time confusion. If that does not work, sometimes I call the “Nap Fairy” to bring special treats for good nappers. This might be a silly routine, but it works.

  15. I am very glad to see that so many fellow teachers agree that positive routine is essential in a learning environment. Our whole day consists of routine and procedure. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was afraid of being too rigid and “soldier-like”. However, after many years of teaching, I know that it is very productive and extremely important for time management, behavior, and learning standards to have procedures for everything. My students actually thrive when following specific routines. A definite “must-do” at the beginning of each year and reflected on all throughout the year!

  16. Love Harry Wong! I totally agree that “the First Days Of School” is a fabulous tool! I was fortunate enough to have had Wong present to our school district…so motivating and very helpful!!! thanks Ashley!

  17. This year has been difficult for me to set up a routine due to the turnover that I have had in my class. I just get the class settled in to a routine and then someone leaves and we get someone new. We then have to go over the routine and rules. By the fifth time that we had to do this the ones that have had to go over the rules all the time are starting to get bored and frustrated with all having to do this. How do you keep the children who have always been there still moving forward when you always have to keep going over the same thing all the time?

  18. Having a positive routine will create an environment that is conducive to learning. It will make the students feel safe and comfortable in that environment. I feel that you need to set this tone on the first day of class and make sure to enforce it throughout the year. As soon as you start to let little things go, then bigger issues will start to surface. I found that giving the students a handout on the first day of class with the expectations and routine listed on it will help. I have them keep that list in their folder at all times. I also post the routine on the door of the classroom so they see it when they walk in each day. Finally, I also post the routine in the class for all to see, so taht if I need to reference it or point it out they can see it on the wall as well. The key is to be consistent. You may have to discipline students at time, but make it clear what the punishment will be for not following that routine.

  19. I agree with you here. I teach kindergarten and a routine is a must. I tend to keep things fairly similar from day to day. I have found that this does help with behavior issues and keeps the students from the constant “what are we doing next” question! Structure and the power of a positive attitude can go a long way.

  20. I also watched the Harry Wong videos and use a routine with my high school students. Fortunately, at this age a slight change here or there does not cause major challenges. Though every now and again external influences have more to do with student performance. A special school event or something that keeps them up late or has them very excited. I try to make allowances when this happens but get right back to the routine as quickly as possible.

  21. When I have a new student come to my class I speak with them separately to let them know what is expected. Typically, I find they will follow what the rest of the class is doing so if I can keep everyone else moving forward I am in good shape. We change students when the semesters change and one of my classes had 27 new students and 2 students who had me before. That seemed to be a bigger challenge because the 2 students who “knew” what I expected seemed to want to take advantage of the short term “craziness” that occurred as I was trying to get the new class used to the routine. I pulled them oneside and had a conversation about how their behavior said about how they respected me and the experience they had the first semester. It was a brief conversation and it helped them to see that they were sending a message to me and the rest of the students that was unintended. The next day they followed the routine and within a couple of days the rest of the class was right on track too. I appreciate how lucky I am but I believe strongly that if you treat the students respectfully and give them a chance to discuss things they will generally do what is right.

  22. I always find myself wanting to skimp on practicing of routines. Every new school year I must remind myself how important it is. This is my third year at the first grade level and I still feel that there are a few routines I haven’t fine-tuned yet. There’s so much that goes on in a classroom and it takes a while to find the best way to do things, whether it’s seeing what works with your particular set of daily activities or learning from colleagues. I always have this fear that when something works, I don’t want to over-do it, because I’m afraid my students will get bored with it. This really hasn’t ever happened to me, but I don’t want to “wear it out.” I guess I have to remember that they are only first graders and what might get boring to me is actually settling for them.

  23. I completely agree a routine is so important to classroom management. As a teacher in a 12:1:1 classroom I start teaching our routine from day one. There are so many reasons why routine is key to student learning my top three reasons are:
    1. Structure- students know what to expect, any thing out of our usual routine without preparing my students ahead of time will throw them off for the entire day.
    2. Transitions- routine allows for easier transitions, at the beginning of the school year our transitions from one activity to the next take forever! Once a routine is in place the transitions become much quicker and we accomplish more work.
    3. Planning- a routine allows for easier planning from day to day. It also makes writing up sub plans easier and allows for things to run much more smoothly for the sub.
    Routine makes the day go by so much smoother.

  24. How I establish routines in my classroom start is to start right at the beginning before the bell rings. I start with a problem of the day displayed on the white board as the students walk in. I select a student’s name using a random name selector from the website and the students have the option of a tasty treat or extra credit for a correct answer. After that we will spend ten to fifteen minutes checking homework and then take a three question quiz over the homework in which they are allowed to use their homework and their notes from a the previous lesson. Next we spend about 35-45 minutes taking notes over new material. During the note taking portion students are asked to take notes, copy examples, and complete board work. To complete the lesson students are given time to complete their homework and depending on their behavior during the notes portion can work with their classmates.
    The way that I help set the positive and productive rhythms is by enforcing the expectations from day one until the routine because established. I also as a friendly reminder have the expectations written out on a poster board on the front wall. I find this to be an ideal placement for the expectations because this is a focal point of the classroom because this is where the majority of the notes are taken.

  25. I am one of those teachers who spends a whole lot of time establishing and reviewing routines throughout the first few weeks of school. Some might even think I spend to much time on this issue, but I find that my students and I benefit from it in the long run. When I first entered the teaching field, I was a little more laid back with routines. I quickly learned that students enjoy structure and perform better with routines. I am teaching second grade this year, and my students know exactly what to do throughout the day. Our day usually runs smoothly. Some of these children have no stability or structure at home, so I know how important and comforting it is for them to experience structure in the classroom on a daily basis. When a new student joins my class, I either talk to them individually about our classroom routines. Sometimes, I will pair the new student with one of my more responsible students so he/she can explain the routines and procedures to him/her.

  26. With preschoolers I find it a little harder to speak to them individualy. I have the students who have been in the class from the beginning help explain the rules.

  27. Routines are essential to a successful classroom environment. I set high expectation at the beginning of the school year and include my preschoolers in creating our class rules. I take pictures of my students following the rules and display them at their eye level for my students to “read”. This is their first experience with school and routines so I spend a lot of time modeling and practicing routines at the beginning of the year. My preschoolers have a difficult time following routines when I begin to assume that they know them. I have discovered that if I take the time daily to review the rules and expectations the day goes more smoothly for everyone. I also provide a lot of positive reinforcement -“Look how James raised his hand without talking” or “I like how Sara used her walking feet when she got in line”. My students enjoy being complimented so I use positive praise to encourage other students to act accordingly without calling attention to negative behaviors. It is also important to be constant with your routines and daily schedule.


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