Teaching Students the Skills of Waiting

by Terrance Kwame-Ross

Responsive Classroom Newsletter: 
February 2003

The classroom day is filled with times when children need to wait. They wait in line until everyone cleans up. They wait their turn at the drinking fountain. They wait in the hallway while the teacher talks briefly to the principal. They wait in the lunchroom while everyone finishes eating.

While teachers can minimize the amount of time that students need to spend waiting, they can’t eliminate it. In fact, waiting is part of the human condition. We wait for nine months for babies to be born. We wait for a webpage to load, for water to boil, for our plane to take off. And while most adults know how to pass the time while they wait, children often do not.

Recently I watched a group of kindergartners wait in line to get a drink of water. Eighteen little people struggled to keep their bodies in check while wiggles and squirms popped out all over the place. The children who had gotten their drink needed to step aside and wait while the rest of the children approached the fountain. And so a second line of wiggly, squirmy bodies formed. It only took a few minutes for all the children to get their drink, but for some, those few minutes must have seemed like an eternity.

It’s not hard to imagine how innocent wiggles and squirms can turn into hurtful pokes and shoves. Some children can amuse themselves by daydreaming, humming, or quietly chatting with a neighbor, but for most children, waiting equals bored frustration and bored frustration often leads to problems. Fortunately, it is possible to help children develop waiting skills.

Are we there yet?

One important thing to keep in mind is that children, particularly young children, have a different sense of time than adults. Everything is new; everything is in the present. A young child may not understand what "math groups will begin in a few minutes" really means. They might wonder, what does a minute feel like? Or, how is "in a minute" different from "in an hour" or "in the afternoon?"

In addition, it’s important to remember that children of all ages have an abundance of physical and mental energy. To put that energy on hold, even briefly, can be extremely challenging. While children learn how to control this energy as they get older, they crave a certain amount of movement and activity. Behind the classic car-ride question of "Are we there yet?" is usually the question, "When will I get to be active again?"

The kindergartners I observed waiting for a drink had probably discussed and practiced how to line up and get a drink from the fountain. They probably had been reminded about keeping their hands to themselves and using quiet voices while waiting in line. But they probably hadn’t been taught how to wait. What could they do while waiting in line that would let their minds and bodies stay active?

Introducing the concept of wait time

One of the keys to successful use of wait time is preparation. Early in the school year, I talk with students about the fact that there will be many times during the day when they have to wait for others to finish an assignment, get in line, get a drink of water, etc. I might say, "I know I get fidgety when I have to wait for something. I’m eager to do whatever it is I’m waiting for and it’s hard to be patient." I then invite a few students to share their ideas about why waiting can be hard. I follow this with brainstorming for what they can do during waiting time. "I know that it’s a lot easier to wait when I have something to do while I wait," I might say, "What could you do during waiting times in the school day?" Have a chart ready with headings of the most common times students have to wait and keep this chart posted in the classroom for ideas to be added throughout the year.

Below is a sample list of ideas generated by students for waiting in line and waiting during a quiet work period.

Waiting in line
  • Play a hand game with the person next to you
  • Look out the window
  • Bring a book and read it
  • Talk quietly
  • Practice tongue twisters (an activity from Morning Meeting)
Waiting during a quiet work time
  • Draw a picture
  • Read a book
  • Work on another assignment
  • Practice the spelling word of the day
  • Practice multiplication tables
  • Play solitaire
Anticipating and practicing waiting

Over the course of the next few weeks, I begin to teach the "waiting time" activities generated by the students. For example, I might teach students how to play a few hand games (a good resource for hand games is Hand Clap! ‘Miss Mary Mack’ and 42 Other Hand Clapping Games for Kids by Sara Bernstein). I model how this would look and then ask students to practice. This advance preparation is key to making waiting time go smoothly.

I also help students to anticipate and plan for waiting time. For example, before lining up for lunch I might say, "Remember to look at all the things on our list that you could do while waiting to go to lunch." Or, before beginning a writing assignment, I might ask students, "If you finish early, what can you do quietly while you wait?"

Increasing students' repertoire of waiting activities

Once we’ve practiced and used many of the waiting activities generated by students, I begin to introduce new activities. I find that it’s a good idea to always be prepared with an activity or two that I can use when we suddenly find ourselves waiting for a guest speaker or a school bus or a special area teacher. These can be great times to sing a quick song or chant, do a clapping game, or recite a poem together. In addition to building my own repertoire of waiting activities, here are some I teach the students. One of my favorite waiting-in-line teacher-led activities for primary grades is a silent variation of Cooper Says that I call Do What Mr. Ross Does. Children focus their attention on me, I do a simple and silent hand gesture, such as putting my hand on my head or pulling my ear, and they do the same gesture. The children enjoy mimicking me and they also get an opportunity to practice motor skills.

All ages enjoy Rock, Paper, Scissors. In pairs, children begin with an agreed on count-in (emphasize use of quiet voices) such as 1-2-3-Go! On the word "Go," the two children each show a hand symbol. Children choose from the symbol for rock (a fist), paper (an open hand), or scissors (index and middle finger extended). Each symbol can beat and be beaten by another symbol: rock crushes scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock.

With older students (grades 4–6), I sometimes teach simple string games, such as Mosquito, and keep a supply of string hanging on a hook by the door. Ann Akets Johnson’s book String Games Around the World is an excellent resource for teaching these games to the beginner.

Here are two additional partner activities that I teach students for use during wait time:

Guess the Letter/Number (primary grades): One member of a pair of students closes his/her eyes and puts a hand out, palm up; the other member puts a cutout number or letter in the first student’s hand. This student then guesses the number or letter. Teachers can keep a basket of these numbers and letters by the door and near the meeting area for easy access.

Form the Number (grades 2–4): The teacher says a number between one and ten and students in pairs simultaneously extend from 0 to 10 fingers. The goal is to see if the total number of fingers extended in the pair can equal the chosen number.

Finally, waiting in line is a great time for students to work on basic skills (e.g., studying the multiplication tables or lists of sight words). I had great success one year with a group of fifth graders who used waiting time to memorize a poem which they later recited during Morning Meeting. Students can also work with partners on academic skills that require drill or memorization. For example, paired students can use flash cards to review vocabulary words, spelling words, or multiplication tables.

Learning to wait is an important skill

Children will be asked to wait throughout their entire school career. For this reason, it’s important that teachers proactively address waiting time and teach students what they can do while they’re waiting. Discussing waiting time, helping students to anticipate waiting time, and offering ideas for what students can do during waiting time will all help students to better manage this time and maintain their self-control while waiting.


Terrance Kwame-Ross was enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work, Youth Studies Department, when he wrote this article. He later co-founded and served as principal of the New City Charter School in Minneapolis and became executive director of Origins in 2011.