Schools are complex environments, where transitions from one activity to another can be chaotic if not managed carefully. Shannen Doherty explains the importance of having clear and consistent routines for these transition points, to make the most of the time available with your students.

Not too long ago, someone tweeted that the difference between primary and secondary is that we can’t get through a five-hour day on systems and routines because relationships are everything in primary education. This just isn’t the case! The two ideas go hand in hand: they’re not mutually exclusive. You cannot have routines without relationships, and I’d argue you struggle to develop good relationships with all pupils in a classroom without systems, routines, and structure.

Teachers and students thrive together when there is structure and routines are in place. We don’t like the unknown. We must create a safe space for our pupils. Routines are a huge part of this! So many children don’t have routines or rules at home; they crave this at school. Of course, some pupils will test this and push the boundaries but that is exactly why it’s important to have those boundaries firmly in place.

In Running the Room (2020), Tom Bennett says we can answer the question ‘Why is behaviour so important?’ with the question ‘What do you think the aim of education is?’ Ultimately, if we don’t nail behaviour then less learning will happen. It’s that simple. If the culture and behaviour isn’t good enough then the environment isn’t right for every child to learn.

Nailing behaviour means teaching behaviour. How often have you heard someone in school say, ‘You need to behave!’? But do the children know what that means? Do they have the same expectations at home? Did their teacher last year have the same expectations? Has anyone ever bothered to explain and model what good behaviour is and why it’s important? We need to teach behaviour. We need to model it. We need to practise it.

I’m writing this when we’re half a term into the academic year. If you didn’t take the time to teach behaviour and create routines, then it is not too late! It takes time and energy and it’ll be draining but it’s worth the work.

In education, every moment is precious. This is even more true after our students missed months of education during two periods of lockdown. We can’t waste time with loose transitions and a lack of routines. Think of recurring events in your class such as handing out books, lining up for assembly or coming into school each morning. Iron out the kinks in these times by setting routines. Doug Lemov has said that routines and strong procedures are perhaps the single most powerful way to bring efficiency, focus and rigour to a classroom. How much time is wasted with woolly transitions? If I think back to my NQT self, I know we spent far too much time on the ‘in between’ moments. That time could have been spent on learning or getting to know my class better!

So now I have set routines for how I want things done. Sometimes these change from class to class, for example when I had a class of 17 Year 2 children last year! However, generally the premise is the same.

When the children come into school each day, their journey to their table is mapped out. They know exactly where they’re expected to go, where to put their water bottle, which way to walk around to put their packed lunch on the trolley (there’s not much space so a one-way system around the edge of the classroom works wonders here!) and then to go straight to their chair. Their early work is on the board. They know to start this and set the tone for the room for other children arriving later.

When it’s time to line up for assembly, each row goes one at a time from the back to the front. They follow their row leader and don’t jump ahead. They walk a specific route to the line so that they don’t have to squeeze past anyone else. This one took a lot of practising but now it’s smooth and easy! It means we don’t have to stop five whole minutes before the assembly starts. There’s no more faffing about.

To hand out the books, I have three rows so those books are always put away in three piles. I put the three piles at the end of each row and they pass them down quickly and quietly… but not so fast and frantic that they make a load of noise!

These simple routines mean that I’m not spending minutes and minutes each day giving instructions or organising them into order. They already know what the expectation is and because we practised it again and again… and again we aren’t wasting time. The minutes we spend each day on recurring events or tasks add up to hours and hours over the course of the year. What a waste of precious time.

Going back to the tweet that inspired this piece, we need routines and rules to get us through a five-hour teaching day with the same children. That’s what gets us through. Routines need not be seen as a secondary thing. I can’t imagine teaching full time without routines and systems in place. How on earth do I get through the day without these quick and easy practices? Creating habits for our children is so important to enable them to focus on the learning.

We have a duty to create a safe place that the children can trust in. Routines, clear expectations and consequences are all part of this. We cannot expect our students to flourish and learn in an environment where they don’t know what’s expected.

So if you think your class would benefit from more routine and structure, consider the points in the day that are repetitive. What do you do each lesson or each day that could be formalised? What signal can you give to begin the routine? How can you save yourself from repeating the same instructions every single day? Get planning those routines and then get your class practising them!


Shannen is a Senior Leader and classroom teacher at a primary school in London. She loves all things Maths and enjoys getting nerdy about teaching and learning. Shannen’s debut book, 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Maths, came out in May 2021.

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