In this season of shifting COVID realities, many of us are stressed—not because the additional measures we need to take now are particularly burdensome but because they require us to shift our routines yet again. That happened at Partnership Schools this month: in order to help preserve the precious routine of in-person learning amid rising COVID rates, all of us—parents, students, teachers, leaders—altered our expected activities to ensure every student was vaccinated or had a negative COVID test before coming back to school.
The evidence of how crucial in-person learning is to children’s cognitive development and social-emotional growth is significant and worth our going the extra mile to protect. But why is coming to school so crucial? One precious benefit of most well-crafted school days may go underappreciated: routines. So today, we take a moment to explore the value of routines for children as shared with us by our local experts: Partnership teachers. And next week, we’ll look at some of the routines those teachers find crucial for themselves.
“When a child knows what is coming,” St. Athanasius first grade teacher Elizabeth Perez explains, “their level of anxiety is decreased. They feel an ‘I got this’ sensation.” Ms. Perez has routines for everything from forming a line to go to the bathroom—”safe, straight, silent”—to handwriting—”quick, neat, dark”—to kicking off the day—with eight refresher math problems, so that students begin the day with a sense of mastery.
Ms. Perez loves routines almost as much as she loves singing, and she often incorporates the two—but not just so that she gets to belt a tune every few minutes. Because part of her goal is to help students feel a sense of “I got this,” she creates songs that kids cannot help but remember. They remember not just that “We face forward nice and straight, nice and straight, nice and straight, when we form a line” but that “soon and very soon, we are going to see the Lord”; the habits she cultivates are ones of the spirit as well.
Stephanie Burgos likewise emphasizes routines that are as much about students’ souls as they are about their work habits. “God’s dream,” her Pre-K students at Our Lady Queen of Angels know, “is the love we have for each other.” So they start each day with prayer and with a ritual resolution to show an act of kindness that day. Ms. Burgos and the four-year-olds then work out a new act of kindness each day—age-appropriate tasks like helping someone open a carton of milk. “Ten minutes in the carpet area in the morning,” Ms. Burgos explains—”that’s how we get through the day, and how we get through COVID.”
Like Elizabeth Perez, Stephanie knows routines are working when she sees her students owning the expectations themselves. She shares the story of a parent who came up to her said, “I don’t know what’s going on in your classroom, but when my husband and I were having a disagreement, my child came up to me and said, ‘you and Dad need to show each other an act of kindness, and you need to pray, because Jesus loves you both.’”
“If they know what comes next,” Ms. Perez explains, “they meet me there.” Yet knowing what comes next, particularly within lessons, is trickier for some students this year. Ms. Perez’s first grade class includes some students who have not been in a school building since they were four, next to others who have been in-person at STA consistently. Elizabeth knows that without carefully thought-out routines both for her and for the students, she could exacerbate challenges for students who are already behind.
“Some kids get the material quickly–and you could call on those seven kids all day long, because they were here and they are ready. But you have to make sure no kid feels like they don’t get it, they don’t know.” So this year, she finds herself thinking more intentionally about her routines for calling on students—giving more students a chance to explain one step of a problem, even if they aren’t all the way to a solution—or even just having them repeat something she’s said.
“They spend eight hours a day here; what do they leave feeling?” is the question most present in her mind as she thinks through routines that are strategically designed so that her students “can thrive, sometimes in a way that’s not even instructional–saying thank you, being happy to come to school and feeling successful, being nice to others. When you build in routines, they can meet you in other ways.”
OLQA sixth grade teacher Kelly Simpson is likewise focused on empowering her students—not just with the routines themselves, but with the why behind each one. “I try very hard not to give them work that doesn’t have a purpose, and I tell them they should ask if they don’t see one. I know I don’t like doing things without a purpose.
“Even simpler routines, like getting to zero volume before we go into the hallway, need a why. We are respectful of the learning that is happening,” she explains.
Like Elizabeth and Stephanie, Kelly has taught younger students—she had her current sixth graders in second grade—and she finds that while some of the routines are very similar, working with older students alters how she teaches and maintains routines. “Second grade was a lot of me thinking out loud for them, and then they would do it. Sixth grade is more of a gradual release.”
Yet again, with students new to OLQA this year or returning after a year of remote learning, she had to adjust in the face of some students “looking around the room, not certain what to do next.” So she went back to more thinking out loud. “I didn’t want to call them out and embarrass them.” The return from Christmas break has prompted her to narrate routines more explicitly as well. But she says with a proud smile, “my 6th graders are doing a great job of adjusting to the norms and routines.”
Like Kelly, Coral Elias and Brian Armstrong are part of a middle school teaching team. So they find it crucial not just to have routines, but to try as much as possible to have routines that are shared across the middle school team. That way, students who are new to the school as well as others have more of a chance of developing routines that take a lot of practice. That was particularly true this year. “There was a lot to mix into the bowl,” Brian admits. But he says that he, Coral, and the rest of the team “talk all the time,” and just before Christmas, many students began to hit their stride.
Kelly and the middle school team at OLQA have worked hard to use the same language. That’s not just about easy comprehension; it’s about anchoring the school culture in core values. So, for instance, they don’t just tell students to be quiet in the hall; “let’s act with integrity in the hallways and be respectful of learning” gives students both a why and the touchstone of shared values.
That same use of a shared language, anchored in values and incorporated in daily routines, shapes Kelly’s kick-off to the day. “We have a class mission statement, I’ll have them pick out a different piece of that mission statement every day to center ourselves on–what are we striving to do personally that day. It’s a conversation starter–if there was an incident where the mission didn’t happen, we have something to lean on to discuss that.”
“If I forget to do that mission statement exercise, someone’s going to remind me. It says a lot that it means something to them too.”
Kelly cites psychologist Ross Greene, who says that “kids do well if they can.” Kelly adds, “If we take that to heart and try to scaffold opportunities within our routines and procedures to give students every opportunity to do well, then they will exceed our expectations. We need to put the time and effort into planning routines the way we do lessons, trying to see the potential roadblocks that students may face and where they will need extra support and being ready to give them an extra ‘at bat’ when necessary.”
Some of us may look back on routines we had in school that seemed mindless or unnecessarily harsh—the opposite of what our partner Teach Like a Champion calls “purpose over power.” Yet as the thoughtfulness that Elizabeth, Stephanie, Kelly, Brian and Coral put into their routines demonstrate, thoughtful routines with clear reasons do just the opposite of constraining children; they can help our students thrive, even amid the uncertainty of these days.