The Power of Routine: start your class the right way!

It’s more than teaching- it’s a strategy to building habits that help us learn and teach better.

Good morning class!” a face says from the front of the classroom. The class simultaneously jump to their feet behind their desks and sing back, “Good Morning, Mrs Lee”. On the days she received a poor response, Mrs Lee would repeat her greeting, sweeping up the lost and unfocused individuals who missed her initial greeting, she needed not call us out by name, we knew who we were. When repeating the greeting we made damn sure that we got it right second-time round.

Once the class greeted Mrs Lee appropriately, she would allowed us a moment to settle into our seats before giving a clear instruction as to what and how we would start the class and explicitly state what the goal for the class was. Back in 7th grade I use to think Mrs Lee had no imagination with her boring greeting, however, I would always part-take in the greeting and most of all with time I wanted too, and I wanted to do it properly as did my peers. Mrs Lee’s classes were never chaotic nor were they ever boring.

When I start with a class or rehearsal, I always make sure to start my classes in the same manner, by making a circle. I have a warm up-routine that I do with my class (I like to mix it up depending on the group’s age, ability, focus — but that is a blog post of its own). However, before even starting with physical and vocal warm ups I ask the group to make a circle. That is in fact how we start, always!

The instruction is simple and I state the objective clearly. I say, “Ladies and Gentleman, I would like for us to make a circle and sit quietly. Let’s find our stillness and show each other that we are ready to start the class by doing so. We will not start the class unless everybody is doing this. I would like that we start every class in the same way and that it takes us no longer than 5 minutes to get everyone here and get started.”

By clearly stating the objective there is no confusion about what is expected from the group and the parameters are defined from the get-go. The instruction is also simple and the task is non-negotiable. I never deviate from this, as it is a habit that I want the group to form so that they eventually start doing it automatically, without thinking. It must become second-nature.

Habit loops are incredibly useful in building/changing bad habits to good habits but more so they can be an incredible tool to use in the classroom. Charles Duhigg (in The Power of Habit, a book worth having a look at) explains that habit formation is a process that occurs in our brains as a three-step loop: “First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering.”

Habit Loops consist of 3 elements: Cues, Routines and Rewards.

So how does this apply to the way I start my class, and how can it help you?

The cue, I have incorporated 2 into my instruction: 1) I serve as a cue ( meaning that my presence serves as a signifier for the start of the class/rehearsal) and 2) time (if class/rehearsal starts at 2:30pm and I give the group until 2:35pm to settle down, the cue to start will be the approaching of 2:35pm).

The routine can be what ever you make it to be, but make sure you repeat it and that it is simple, in my class the routine involves sitting in a circle and taking a deep breath in and out and finding stillness.

The reward is the fact that the class can begin without the need for reprimanding, chaos or coercion. There is something rewarding in wilful co-operations or better participation and a sense of team effort.

Protip: It is useful using words such as “us”, “we” and “our” when giving your instructions, it sets the tone for a more collaborative response and you are likely to better participation, especially from those kids who…well lets just call them “stubborn”.

“Studies have documented that schedules and routines influence children’s emotional, cognitive, and social development. For example, predictable and consistent schedules in preschool classrooms help children feel secure and comfortable. Also, schedules and routines help children understand the expectations of the environment and reduce the frequency of behavior problems, such as tantrums and acts of aggression. Activity schedules that give children choices, balanced and planned activities (small vs. large groups, quiet times vs. active times, teacher directed vs. child directed, indoor vs. outdoor), and individualized activities result in a high rate of child engagement.” (Ostrosky, Jung, Hemmeter, & Thomas, 2008, p. 2).

So remind yourself when writing your lesson plans, or when preparing to teach new theater games or exercises or even when pre-empting how to start a rehearsal you can improve efficiency by incorporating habit loops. Remind yourself to build these elements into your exercise/game/class design:

Cue: “When I…see my teacher/see the time… “

Routine: “I will…sit in a circle and find stillness…”

Reward: “In order to…start the class..”

Positive classroom management strategies such as building habit loops into the way you start classes or rehearsals serve as discipline procedures but also will serve you in encouraging better participation. This ultimately empowers you (the instructor, teacher or director) to teach the class you prepared to teach or achieve the goals you set out for that specific rehearsal.

When I look back on her seemingly mundane greeting, I now recognise that it was in fact a necessary routine. It is now through my own work that I am truly able to appreciate the value of her routine and the mastery of its simplicity. When Mrs Lee walked into the class room, we were already being cued to for the beginning of the routine, the reward, was getting it right and seeing Mrs Lee smile (she wasn’t one for smiling, but willing participation and “proper good mornings” sure did the trick).

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