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How to Get Your Students in Their Seats and On Task--On Time

Okay. Tardy students. At some point, nearly every single school I work with asks: "What do we do about tardy students?" My answer: start with a solid Entry Routine.

Well, that's part of it anyway. The long answer to that question is so multi-layered and much more complex than the listicle I am going to give you below. It involves taking a long hard look at your schools’ culture, investigating data and trying to identify any inequities or disproportionalities that might exist and getting to the root of those. I have seen a variety of proactive and punitive responses that work with varying success to this problem. But that is about systemic issues. And I am guessing you are here with the question: “What can I do in my classroom?”

So, the short answer to this question is: you need to have systems in place, you need to have relationships with your students, and you need to have engaging instruction--a reason your students want to go to class.

And so back to my first point: that starts with a solid entry routine.

Now I know you want something concrete. And I have that. But please let me share this story first.

I was working with one particular middle school that was really struggling with tardies. Struggling as in--the hallway looked like Grand Central Station up to almost ten minutes after the bell rang. Students straggled after the bell and the administration, deans, school security officers, any extra paras, even volunteers from the community, would sweep the halls and usher students to class. Every. Single. Day. There were detentions and calls home and contracts and every other systemic response you can think of. But the hallways were a mess. Teachers were exhausted by this. I routinely heard the complaint, “I can’t even start my class on time. Students straggle in late every day and I have to reteach everything numerous times. I am so tired of the tardies.”

Of course, this seemed to be a problem for the whole building. But then I looked closer and realized there were a handful of teachers who didn’t actually struggle with tardies. And if they did, it was not nearly on the same level as the rest of the building. In fact, I started observing that the same students I watched saunter in 4 minutes after the bell in one class would be 1 minute early for Mr. Thompson and Ms. Jackson’s class (names changed to protect the innocent of course). So I started observing those particular teachers and I saw a few things that stood out. And then, I decided to just go to the source and ask the students, “Why do you get to Mr. Thompson and Ms. Jackson’s class on time?”

This is what they told me:

  • Mr. Thompson doesn’t mess around. You can’t be late in there. (systems)

  • My other teachers don’t care if I’m late. Ms. Jackson does. (relationships)

  • I don’t want to miss anything in Mr. Thompson’s class. He starts the minute the bell rings. And he won’t wait for you. If I am late, I fall behind. (systems, engagement)

  • Some of my teachers aren’t even doing anything when I show up so what’s the rush? (systems, engagement--or lack thereof)

  • Ms. Jackson is cool. She’s my favorite teacher. But she doesn’t mess around. She always has something to do right away. (systems, engagement, and relationships)

In short, the students affirmed for me exactly what I had already been observing: Mr. Thompson and Ms. Jackson had put systems in place that held the students to high expectations for behavior and learning. The students knew what those expectations were because they were consistent and predictable. And the students knew those teachers cared for them.

Does that mean the other teachers didn’t do this? No. It’s absolutely not true that the other teachers “didn’t care.” They cared very much. They were just frustrated and defeated. And it absolutely wasn’t true that the other teachers didn’t have anything for the students to do. They just started pushing the start time of the academic work back because they were tired of repeating themselves. And so they started class late. So the students came late. And so they started class late. And so students came late. And so… you get the picture.

Now, this is an extreme example. This school was in crisis in much larger systemic ways beyond tardies. But this still holds true even if you are struggling with only a few students who have a hard time getting to class. And if you are in a school that is struggling systemically, getting a solid entry routine in place is the best place to start counteracting those systems.

Below is a solid, step-by-step entry routine that will get your kids in their seats. This entry routine is based on loads of experience, research, observation, and more experience. Mr. Thompson, Ms. Jackson and loads of other teachers I have observed had these things in place in some iteration in their entry routine and their students were in their seats, on task, on time. (Okay-finally! The list!)

Greet students at the door. It is crucial for so many reasons for you to be at your door greeting your students when they come in: to build relationships, to help transition them from social time to learning time, and to help set a positive tone. Also, your presence at your door will help cut down on hallway behavior issues.

Start right exactly on time with some sort of 5-minute bell ringer or do now or warm-up or whatever sweet term you want to call it. But it needs to be something real--not busywork. Kids can sniff out busywork a million miles away. Tie it to their learning or to their lives or better yet, both! This can be an open-ended question, a problem they have to solve, a journal topic or a million other things, but it should be something of substance.

(Okay, before one of my former students’ finds this blog post and calls me out, I should confess--on Fridays I did do what some might classify as “busywork.” We always did a word puzzle--like an anagram, a riddle, etc. But I made it a competition which was a huge hook and so it was fun. And it was only one day a week. I almost never had tardies on Fridays btw, so you know--I amend that statement to be “use busywork mighty scarcely and make it fun.”)

Use a timer for the warm-up. I started the timer the minute the bell rang. (“You have 5 minutes on the clock-and GO!”) Put a timer up where students can see it. Find an online stopwatch you can project or a big huge Flava Flav type clock so all the students can see the countdown. This sets the expectation that you will be starting class right exactly on time. And students really love timers. They are tangible. Tangible is good.

Post or print the Bellwork with explicit instructions (i.e., a half sheet of paper, instructions online if they are using tech or a slide that is projected up front). This helps you get in the hallway in between classes but it also helps students get started right when they come in--early or late-- without having to ask you what you what they are supposed to be doing.

Make contact with your students during the first few minutes of class. While students are working, do a Walking Check-in. This is the fancy name I made up for what was essentially my “rounds.” As the timer counted down, I would walk around to every student and look at what they were writing. I would say, “Hi,” have a few seconds of small talk, scan their work, and then stamp their paper. With a goofy rubber stamp. This is one of my favorite strategies and it is loaded with relationship building and engagement benefits but specifically for habitually tardy students, it signals that you care that they are in their seats and on-task right away.

If students come in late, tell them they need to check the board (or wherever they are posted) for instructions and if they still have questions, “Ask 3 Before Me”--which means they have to ask three students to give them instructions or get them caught up before they can ask you for instructions. Make this a routine-talk about it in advance, teach it, make a poster of it and hang it somewhere conspicuous. This will cut down on the amount of time you have to reteach something you just taught--which is rightfully very annoying.

Yes, there may be timid or shy students who may not want to ask their peers. That is why you should have your agenda and all the instructions for work in writing somewhere. Teach your students to "ask themselves" first by looking for visual cues, checking the board, etc. The point is, you want to put the onus back on them to find out what is happening to cut down on having to re-explain anything. Of course, when students actually need help with their work-that is a different story. But this strategy should help cut down on that whole, “What are we supposed to be doing right now?” thing from tardy students.

And of course when they do it right-praise and acknowledge with specific feedback. "Great job getting to work right away today!" I know, this feels silly to give positive verbal feedback to students for doing something they should be doing. But this works! It has been proven time and again that positive acknowledgment can teach students your expectations and when students are acknowledged for a behavior, they are more likely to repeat that behavior.

This doesn’t have to be publicly pointed at one student, i.e., “Hey Tyler-way to go getting here on time.” In fact, it shouldn’t. And it shouldn’t be used sarcastically, “Hey Tyler, way to go getting here on time, for once.” You can let Tyler know in private that you are happy to see him there on time when you greet him at the door. But you can definitely give blanket statements to the whole class: ”I am super excited that everyone is on-task right away so we can jump right into our exciting material!” The more positives you can put out there into your space, the more positive your space will be.

That’s it! Simple system! It may take some adjustments and of course, you need to tweak to fit your personality (stickers instead of stamps!) The point is to get an entry routine in place and keep it consistent! If you try these strategies, let me know! I would love to hear how it goes. If you have other awesome strategies for getting students into your class and on-task right away, I would love to hear those too!


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