I have a lot of sand timers in my classroom. I got them for free from the dentist and they sit on my technology table, beside my easel and on my desk. They also travel around the room as needed. This little piece of plastic with bits of sand is a remarkable training tool in my classroom for creating attentive listeners. Each one lasts two minutes, which I have discovered is the perfect amount of time to cause a kindergartener to reflect on impulsive talking without getting upset. I'll tell you all about these sand timers and how I use them as a management tool in my kindergarten classroom.
But first, let's back up a few steps.
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The Classroom Carpet
This is my classroom carpet. We meet here several times each day for a variety of activities. We listen to stories, discuss the calendar, practice our handwriting formation, learn new math skills, tell stories from our lives – this is such a significant space in our classroom.
The Classroom Rules
Beside the carpet, I intentionally display my classroom rules. During the first few weeks of school, my students learn all about the rules and procedures for our classroom. We discuss about how the rules tell us to act (and equally important – how they tell us not to act). The expectations are displayed down low, right at eye level and near the classroom carpet for a reason. My smooth-running classroom is completely dependent on how well the students know and follow these behavior expectations.
(Downloadable Classroom Rules Subway Art is available in my TpT store.)
Especially Rule #1.
Listen when someone is talking.
Listening is so important and often so difficult for my 5 and 6 year old friends to do. As teachers, we are charged with the task of developing students with strong communication skills – which means that they are able to speak and listen effectively. For some children, the speaking comes easily. We hear about those children's plans for after dismissal, their pets, what happened to their little brother on the way to school, what they ate for breakfast – everything.
Children that are so comfortable speaking often need to sharpen their listening skills.
And the students that will happily listen to every word their peers have to say so they don't have to worry about speaking aloud in class need quiet moments so they can summon the courage to talk.
Enter the sand timer …
Once it is a known fact that everyone in the class (including me) is to be a listener when someone else is talking, and the students have had many, many reminders and opportunities to practice listening without interruption – I bring out the sand timers. This usually happens around the third week of school.
When the manners start to wear down a little and a few interruptions become persistent, I gather the class for a very important meeting and let them know that we seem to have a problem in the classroom with Rule #1. (At this point every single child in the class can recite Rule #1 from memory.)
I introduce the sand timer as a tool that will help us solve the problem and explain that whenever someone forgets Rule #1 and interrupts the speaker, they will be handed a sand timer. At that time we go over the entire sand timer routine.
About how it's not a punishment.
And you don't have to be sad.
And you definitely don't have to pout or get mad.
But you do need to take the timer and have a calm seat at your desk.
And you need to let all of the sand run through the timer while you calm your body and become a better listener.
And when time is up, you are invited to rejoin the group.
And you can just set the timer in the same place it came from without saying anything.
And afterward, you will try just a little bit harder to raise your hand and wait for your turn to talk so you don't interrupt your friend or teacher when they are trying to talk because that is just the polite way to do it.
And if you forget again, it's ok. You can use the sand timer again to help you remember to calmly wait your turn to talk.
And most importantly – you absolutely must remember Rule #6.
It's ok to make mistakes.
We all make mistakes and sometimes we have to repeat the same mistake many times before we finally learn the right way to do something.
And you're not in trouble.
And the teacher isn't mad.
This is just how the sand timer works.
Practice the Sand Timer Routine With Your Students
It is also very important to have a few volunteer students practice and demonstrate the sand timer procedure before it is put into effect. I hand the timer to a child and we all watch him/her take the timer to their desk without talking, complaining or getting mad. They don't have to stay for the full two minutes. Just a few seconds is all it takes. Then someone else has a turn, and so on.
This type of practice feels very lighthearted and sort of fun for the children to practice the routine and I most definitely do not want this routine to become a source of drama in the classroom.
What To Say When You Give Someone the Sand Timer
It's easy to become the classroom authoritarian and delivering the sand timer with a firm hand with a student that's already a little worked up will most certainly not help the situation at all. There isn't any reason to get angry or act like you're delivering a punishment when you hand a child the sand timer.
I usually say something like this in my most sympathetic voice:
“Oh Johnny, I'm so sorry that you interrupted. I'm so sad to see you go, hurry back as soon as you can. I don't want you to miss this!”
Because the truth is, I don't want Johnny to miss the lesson. But I don't want Gracie to miss it either and poor Gracie can't concentrate on the lesson at hand when Johnny keeps chiming in and interjecting. And little Joey really needs to hear today's math lesson and we won't ever get to the math lesson if Johnny keeps shouting out to tell me about his birthday party, and his pet cat, and his grandma's new car, and his trip to see the latest superhero movie while I'm trying to update our calendar.
After a few rounds of handing out the timer, I don't usually need to say anything. I can pass the timer to the child without a word and they know to go right to their desk and return as soon as time is up.
Troubleshooting Any Problems
No classroom management tip is completely foolproof. Even the most perfectly executed plan can have it's setbacks. Like when a particularly sensitive or emotional child is handed the sand timer and just can't cope. Yes, this can happen (especially when this new procedure is first put into effect). Your best solution is to point to Rule #6 and remind the child that every single person makes mistakes – even the teacher! If that talk seems to be talking the child off the ledge, try and move with the child for two minutes (asking the rest of the class in your most polite voice to please whisper about a fun topic while you're 15 feet away).
If you can't get the child to calm down for the life of you, let it go and tell them you can have a chat about it later. Then, when the time is right and the child has regained the ability to reason, go sit by the Rule #6 sign and talk through the situation and how it should have gone. See if you can have the child practice what it would be like to take the timer and sit down with it for two minutes while the pressure is off so they can see that it really isn't the most awful thing in the universe.
Don't call it a time out! Seriously, seriously, seriously – I cannot stress this enough. I never make the timer sound like it is a punishment. I view it as a reset. An opportunity for a student to move away, compose themselves, then come right back. The fact that it the timer lasts two minutes makes it just annoying enough to bother the interrupter without it becoming actually painful for them to be away. My students often go home and tell their parents that they “had a time out” that day, but those words have never come from me. I literally call it the sand timer. Or I might say “I gave Sarah the sand timer.” It's not a big deal. Don't make it into one.
Keeping It Positive
My students actually kind of love my sand timers and do not have a negative view of them. They often ask to borrow my timers to help motivate themselves to complete their work faster or to time themselves during playtime. The fact that no-one in the class complains about the timers or views them as a punishment tool means that I am effectively doing my job.
And classroom interruptions are at a minimum these days. I expect that they will surge at some point before my students graduate (we get little surges a few times throughout the year). It usually takes about three days of using the sand timer more consistently to turn off the interruptions and bring the good manners back.
It's not that I don't want my students to talk. Rather, I think it's important for the conversationalists to learn the valuable skill of letting others talk. And I think it's equally important for my quiet students to have a chance to speak without being verbally steamrolled by a more confident speaker.