Transitions: From Calamity to Cooperation
“The teacher’s first duty is to watch over the environment,
and this takes precedence over all the rest.”
~ Maria Montessori
Mia, a 4-year-old, was dismissed from circle. She traversed the classroom and went to her cubby to get her snow gear on to go outside. She slowly took off her slippers, and then sat down at her cubby and didn’t move. The rest of the children got their things on. Mia sat motionless. Her teacher, Aki, asked Mia to get her things on, and then Aki went to fill up her coffee cup while the rest of the children lined up. Mia didn’t move. Aki helped a couple of stragglers, and asked her teaching partner, James, to help Mia get outside. While Aki was helping the stragglers, two of the children near the front of the line started pushing one another. Aki then asked James to go handle it. He left Mia at her cubby and went and talked to the two children who were pushing. He waited there until Aki was finished, and then Aki took the class outside. James stayed inside to help Mia get ready to go outside. Outside, Aki didn’t see James for about 15 minutes. He eventually came out, with Mia holding her outdoor gear in her arms, refusing to put it on. It was -3 degrees outside. Mia still refused to get her things on. After a few minutes, Aki asked James to bring Mia to the office because she needed help supervising the class outside. James brought Mia inside. While he was inside, one of the children fell on some ice and had a gash over his eye.
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes.”
Have you ever been Aki? I have. Aki’s story is a real one.
Transitions are one of the times in the day where misbehaviour is frequent. Whenever I ask teachers to list common misbehaviours “Transitions” is always on the list. Always. Without being there to observe a classroom, it’s impossible to identify why a given transition is not going well, but there are some factors to consider that apply to all transitions. Here are a few:
- Transitions are difficult for everyone, even for adults. Transitioners are asked to stop what they are doing, collect their things and themselves, and move from one activity (often self-chosen) to another activity (often chosen by someone else – circle, lesson, etc.).
- Successful transitions depend on everyone in the class. For instance, if some children transition quickly, they’ll need to wait for other people, who are moving more slowly (often sitting in circle or waiting in line).
- Transitions often happen when students are fatigued, or right before a high interest activity, like going outside. It takes a lot of self-regulation.
- Transitions involve multiple mini transitions. Consider the common transition (and mini transitions) of ending the morning work-cycle and going outside.
- Stopping work
- Cleaning up work
- Moving to circle
- Waiting for circle to start (or being waited for)
- Participating in circle
- Being dismissed
- Getting outdoor gear on
- Lining up
- Waiting again
- Moving as a group outside
- Much of this routine will be reversed when the children re-enter the classroom, followed by multiple mini transitions as the children move to their lunch routine.
In considering the nature of transitions, anyone, like Mia, who might be having a bad day, is likely to cause a stir that would make even the most veteran teacher wish they had become an accountant! Transitions are a necessary part of the day and an important opportunity to build real life skills. The class, as a group, does need to move from one activity (work cycle, lunch, outside time, etc.) to another. There will always be transitions, but they don’t all have to go the way they did for Aki’s class.
Here’s the good news, not all factors that affect children’s behaviour during transitions is beyond our control. The next time you observe someone else’s classroom, don’t limit your observation to the morning work-cycle. Some of the most valuable learning experiences come from observing transitions. Here are some of the roadblocks that I either experienced as a teacher, or observed from watching other teachers; and some suggestions for successful transitions.
- Challenge: Adults are not fully present for transitions. In Aki’s classroom, she made a mistake that we’ve all made before. During the transition, when the children needed adults to be the most present, she left the area to get herself a cup of coffee. There is no problem getting a cup of coffee, using the bathroom, or putting away something that was left out. The problem is when. During the transition, the children need adult presence. It is very common for adults, unconsciously, to leave the area during a transition to find a moment of solace.
Solution: Prepare for transitions ahead of time. In Aki’s case, a hot cup of coffee is a great comfort on a cold day when you’re outside supervising the children. She should have a cup of coffee! She just needed to get the coffee (clean up the lesson, go to the restroom, etc.) before calling the transition to be fully present. When adults are fully present, children feel safe. When they feel safe, they do better. Aki and James began to prepare to transition themselves 5 minutes before calling transitions so that they could prepare. Aki was able to get her coffee, and be present for the transition.
- Challenge: Adult roles, procedures, and expectations during transitions are unclear. Transitions are one part of the environment that requires the most choreography, but often gets the least attention. In Aki’s classroom, neither adult had a clear role. There was a rough procedure, but not much communication about who was responsible for what, or how to navigate difficulties that arose. It was handled in the moment, in front of the children. This made it difficult for them to be truly present, and it drove up their stress level. The children picked up on the rising anxiety, which invited misbehaviour in the form of pushing and shoving, which then needed to be handled by two adults who were already under duress.
Solution: Take time at the beginning of the year to walk through each planned transition, and review your transition plans throughout the year. Also, have transition plans in written form for substitute teachers, specialists, and administrators (anyone who might be part of a transition). There is a list of questions for consideration at the end of this article to consider as you plan your transitions. This planning helps eliminate the need for “in the moment” communication, maintains consistency in routines, which helps children develop self-regulation. The ability to self-regulate is dependent upon the ability to predict, with some certainty, what will happen next. Planning and communication, also helps teachers self-regulate for the same reason!
- Challenge: Too many transitions, and mini transitions. Without realising it, we often plan too many transitions into the day, or our transitions include too many mini transitions. In Aki’s case, the children followed the routine that is laid out above (#4 in our discussion of mini transitions). When she timed her afternoon transitions, she found that the class actually spent almost a full hour transitioning, in a 3-hour block of time.
Solution: Look over all your transitions. Are they all necessary? Can you simplify them by eliminating mini transitions? Can you combine activities, or eliminate the transitions? Aki and James decided to simplify their transition from the work-cycle to outside time. Instead of having circle, they quietly spoke to one child at a time. They asked each child to put away their work, get their things on, and transition outside. After speaking to each of the children, James would go to the cubby area to help children get dressed for the outdoors, and when the first few children were ready, he went outside with them. Aki helped the remaining children, and each of them simply went outside by themselves to an awaiting James as soon as they were ready. Mia rarely resisted after this change. When she did, the rest of the children were outside, and Aki was able to be present to help her get her things on.
- Challenge: Asking students to line up for transitions, unnecessarily. Lines are a lightning rod for misbehaviour. Adults themselves misbehave in lines (often)! In my second year as a head teacher, a colleague asked me an interesting question. What is the purpose of having students line up? The question caught me by surprise. I never considered it before. When I did, I realised that I didn’t have a good answer. In many cases, children were lining up because, “that’s what we do in school.” Without realising it, I was inviting misbehaviour, and missing an opportunity to build independence. Obviously, not all lines are unnecessary. Lines can be helpful when moving as a group in a crowded area, like boarding a bus or traveling down a crowded hallway; or for safety, like moving the class outside for a fire drill. But, how many of our transitions could be accomplished safely without lining up?
Solution: Take time for training children how to move safely as a group (walking on the side of a crowded hallway, how to move outside, etc.) without forming a line. Allow the children to move independently (go outside themselves as soon as they’re ready), rather than in a group. Have children wait quietly in a spot of their choosing, if you must move together as a whole group. Move in small groups and empower older children in the classroom to help a couple of children in the transition.
- Other Considerations
- Involve children in designing transitions and routines in the Class Meeting. Review transitions with children. How are they working? What adjustments can we make to help transitions go more smoothly and safely? When children are involved in developing classroom routines and structures (and evaluating them), they are more willing to cooperate, and to follow through in mainlining agreements and decisions.
- Practice transitions with children at the beginning of the year. After you practice them, check in with the children and ask them how they think it went, and what suggestions they have for making the transition go more smoothly.
- Consider eliminating beginning of the day circles, and have children start the day by choosing work and immediately starting the morning work-cycle upon arrival. Circles or meetings that begin the day are a nice way to connect before the work cycle begins, but the number of mini transitions involved in that one transition can interrupt concentration and invite misbehaviour. Children enter the classroom (mini transition), put away their outdoor gear and school bag (mini transition), enter the classroom (mini transition), choose some work or wait for other students to arrive (mini transition), stop what they are involved with when called to circle (mini transition), go to circle (transition), focus their attention on the circle (mini transition), get dismissed from circle (mini transition), and then go back to their work or choose a new work (mini transition). I have seen this process take up to 40 minutes. In contrast, when teachers greet children upon their arrival, and then direct them to work, there are only three mini transitions involved, and because children are transitioning independently, it’s also building their independence and ability to self-regulate.
- Whenever possible, plan a high interest activity to follow a transition. When the transition is done, there is something to look forward to, and motivation for a smooth and timely transition. For instance, if you are holding Class Meetings, plan lunch or outdoor time for after the meeting.
- Give students, who have difficulty with transitions, extra time and support before calling a transition. Allow them to help whenever possible to give them agency and make them part of the transition.
Planning Transitions with Your Teaching Team
Consider the following questions:
- Is the transition necessary?
- What roles will each of the adults have (dismissing, monitoring, going outside to receive the children, etc.)?
- Where are the adults to be positioned, and when?
- What time will the transition be?
- How will the children be dismissed?
- Which children need extra support? What support do they need? Who will provide it (teacher, another student, etc.)?
- What is expected of the children (Grace and courtesy, logistics, etc.)?
- What adults need to be communicated with when a transition needs to change?
The goal in creating successful transitions, like every area of the classroom, is to develop autonomy, self-regulation, and independence within the children. Transitions are difficult for everyone, adults, and students. Preparation and focus, though, can help solve many challenges that arise in every classroom. And don’t forget, wherever possible, bring children into the planning and problem-solving process. Not only can they bring terrific insights, but they are very capable problem-solvers, and have an innate desire to help!
 Nelsen, Jane, and Chip DeLorenzo. Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom: Preparing an Environment That Fosters Respect, Kindness and Responsibility. USA, Parent Child Press, 2021, page 70.
Chip DeLorenzo has been a Montessori educator since 1995. He is the former Head of School of the Damariscotta Montessori School, where he spent 20 years as a teacher and administrator. Chip is the co-author, with Jane Nelsen, of Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom, and is a Positive Discipline trainer and school consultant. As a trainer and presenter, Chip has worked with thousands of Montessori teachers and parents in teaching the principles and practices of Positive Discipline through various workshops and lectures. He holds Early Childhood, Lower and Upper Elementary AMS certifications, and has worked extensively with Montessori Adolescent students. Chip is the father of four Montessori children, and he and his wife, Kathy, live in Jefferson, Maine.
Positive Discipline is used as a foundational approach to classroom and school discipline in many Montessori schools throughout the United States because of its continuity with the Montessori principles of respect and independence.
Positive Discipline is based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikurs, contemporaries of Maria Montessori. The primary goal of the approach is to help create a social/emotional environment where children are given the tools to to succeed in becoming responsible, respectful and capable members of their communities and families. Based on the best-selling books of Jane Nelsen, PhD, Positive Discipline teaches important life and social skills in a manner that is deeply respectful of both children and adults.
If you would like to learn more about the Positive Discipline approach, you might be interested in this 8 week online course starting on 16 February.