5 Tips for Creating Empowering Structure & Routine in Your Classroom

by | Sep 15, 2019 | K-12 Education, Tips

A lot of folks seem to think that all kids have trouble shifting from unstructured summertime to the structure of the new academic year. Some do, of course. But when the first day of school rolled around here, my granddaughter Anna jumped out of bed, excited to get back to a routine.

As much as she loves summer, the structure of the school year is stabilizing to her.

In fact, just the other day, when one student in her class asked about which days they had PE, the teacher replied that she didn’t remember the weekly schedule yet. Anna, on the other hand, had already memorized it and shared it with the class.

Anna relies on routine. It gives her a sense of control in a world that can often feel out of control, despite our best efforts to shield her from the chaos surrounding us. And she’s hardly alone.

What Can Routine Accomplish?

daily class schedule displayRoutine is such a simple yet powerful thing to add to one’s life. It’s the regular practice that shapes our habits and patterns and can create lasting change for the future. Like small drops of water can, over time, carve canyons out of solid land, the small steps we make can lead to amazing change in our lives.

And it can do more than simply relieve anxiety or provide reassurance and a sense of control.

Research suggests that establishing routines may help reduce symptoms of conditions such as bipolar disorder and ADHD. A 2018 study in the Lancet found that keeping a solid sleep routine improved sleep quality enough to improve depressive, as well as bipolar, symptoms. An older study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that family routines have a positive effect on children’s impulsiveness and oppositional symptoms.

And that’s just a sample of the evidence base.

Routine = Dependability

When we attended a neighborhood potluck at Anna’s school to celebrate the beginning of the year, I felt a deep gratitude to see all of the school personnel there – and to know that they’ll be there to support her in their various roles.

smiling teacher in classroomEvery morning, Susan will be in the office if I need to call. The counselor will be available if Anna’s heart is hurting. The cooks will be cooking lunch.
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And, the principal will be there orchestrating it all – an amazing feat, operating a school for 400 children!

I know just how hard it is and how much each person commits to the daily routine.

When I was a school counselor, I found that having a weekly time slot for children to come to group helped them regulate their emotions. They knew that each week, they had a half hour where they could share their thoughts and feelings among friends. I’d see them in the hall and they’d say “Hey, Ms. Gillen! I’ll see you on Thursday at 10! I have lots of things to tell you.
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“Okay!” I’d respond. “Looking forward to it.”

If I were to cancel, it would throw them off. They would have to hold onto those thoughts and feelings for another week. That’s a very long time for a 7-year old.

How to Balance Structure with Freedom

Of course, we also need unstructured time, too. After a long day at school, children need free time. Balancing freedom and structure is key — having enough routine for security and yet, enough freedom to explore our own interests and lives as our hearts lead us. And this holds in the classroom, as well – a space you can think of as a home for students, where they can practice this kind of balance.

Here are a few tips for creating this type of space.

1. Start with more structure and loosen it later. This was advice given to me as a young teacher, and I found it extremely helpful. It’s so much easier to release structure later in the year than impose a new routine. Early in the year, though, it helps establish expectations and manage behavior accordingly.

2. Design a routine that suits your personality. Every teacher has their own style. Some want or need more structure than others. Children are intuitive. If you’re comfortable, they’ll be comfortable.Provide opportunities within your structure where students can have free choice. If the structure is too rigid or severe, there’s apt to be pushback. Everyone needs a little time to be creative and to integrate new concepts.

4. Give names to structured time that allow for options. For instance, calling it “quiet time” allows the time to be used in a variety of quiet ways – making art, reading, even daydreaming. Calling it “movement time” instead of “yoga time” allows for different types of physical activity – dance one day, yoga another, and so on.

5. Involve your students in creating things to do during structured times so they have real buy-in.

What are some of your favorite strategies for creating structure and establishing routine in the classroom? Let us know in the comments!

Images: classroom by Liz, via Wikimedia Commons;
schedule display via Adaptation Station; teacher by USAF

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