How to teach new classroom routines during COVID-19

By Amanda Morin

Expert reviewed by Trynia Kaufman, MS

Teaching classroom routines is always important at the start of the school year. If you’re returning to in-person instruction this year, you may be teaching classroom routines in a different way than you did before the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re teaching online, almost all routines may be new for your students.

No matter the context, some routines may stir up anxiety or other emotions that can make it hard to teach and follow the routines. Supporting your students socially and emotionally during distance learning can make routines less stressful. And adding an element of fun, like using rhymes or mnemonics, can make them easier to remember.

Even under the best of circumstances, following a routine requires strong executive functioning. Many students who learn and think differently may find these skills challenging, including organization and planning, remembering multi-step directions, and staying on task without getting distracted.

So, how can you make sure you’re teaching these important routines so all students can learn and use them? The steps below can serve as a guide.

1. Communicate with families about new classroom routines.

Communicate with families ahead of time to tell them what routines you’ll teach students. Not only will this keep the lines of communication open, but it will also give families the chance to practice those routines ahead of time. 

Being able to preview these new expectations is especially helpful for students who struggle with changes in routine. If possible, consider sending detailed instructions or videos to families so they can see what those routines will look like. 

Example: “Dear families, here is a list of the safety routines our class will be following and why.”

2. Explain the reason for the routine.

It’s important to let students know the “why” behind the routine. Is it for safety purposes? Is it a way to keep everybody organized? When students know why they’re doing a routine, it can help them feel like they have some control over keeping themselves and their classmates safe and supported. 

Example: “Class, here’s why we all need to wear masks in the classroom. Masks help stop germs from spreading when people talk, cough, or sneeze. When we all wear our masks, we protect each other from getting sick.” 

3. Model the routine step-by-step.

Explain or demonstrate the routine in the way students are expected to follow it. Show what you expect them to do. Use clear, concise language to think-aloud what you’re showing them. 

Students who learn and think differently often don’t know how to begin a task or what to do when they get stuck. Breaking down the routine into small chunks can help. You can even use fun names for each step.

Example: If the new routine is lining up after lunch, with masks on, 6 feet apart, you might break that down into steps that look like this: 

Chunk 1 (“Ready”):

Chunk 2 (“Set”): 

  • Wait for your name to be called. 
  • Look around you to make sure you have a clear path.

Chunk 3 (“Go”):

  • Go to the lineup area.
  • Wait on the next available spot marked on the floor. 

4. Pause for reactions or discussion.

Students may have questions about a new routine. They may want to understand what happens if they forget to follow the routine. Or they may want to know if they can do things a different way. And some students, especially those who experience anxiety or who have a history of trauma, may have strong emotional reactions. Respond with empathy and acknowledge that everyone’s feelings are valid. Consider how the routine can be flexible to address students’ concerns. 

Example: “Your feelings aren’t right or wrong here. Let’s talk about how we can work together as a community to respond to everyone’s concerns.“

5. Provide multiple ways to learn and remember routines.

Give students more than one way to remember the routine after you teach it. Post a video of the routine on the digital learning platform you’re using. Or hang up step-by-step directions with pictures or other visuals. You can give the directions to families to make sure the routine is used at home, too.

Example: If you teach a routine for handwashing, you can write out step-by-step directions (or print out the picture chart below) to post near the sink. An acronym or a short song (for younger kids) might also help jog students’ memories.

Washing handsPDF - 38.7 KB

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6. Give opportunities to practice.

Allow students to practice the new routine in low-stakes situations. You can practice as a class or individually. These practice sessions give you a chance to make sure all students understand every step. You can provide corrections in the moment before students have to complete the routine independently.

Example: If you’re teaching students how to show they want to say something during a live video lesson, model the behavior and then practice it during a morning meeting.

7. Allow for a learning curve.

Let your students know that this routine is new for everybody, so it’s important to give each other a little leeway. Talk through what students can say to hold their classmates accountable for following safety routines without shaming them. 

It’s OK for you to be nervous about these new routines too. But try to be conscious of your own reactions if a student makes a mistake. Your class will be following your lead. Try to remain calm and model the correction. Overreacting can heighten emotions and make a small correction escalate to a bigger behavior challenge. 

Example: As a class, you can come up with a few reminder sentences that are easy to remember and that won’t hurt someone else’s feelings. Here are a couple rhymes you can use: “Let’s meet at 6 feet” and “If we want to share this space, let’s keep our masks on our face.”

The key to teaching new routines is using the same evidence-based practices you would use in teaching other skills. Learn more by: