Setting a Positive Tone in Special Area Classrooms

Setting a Positive Tone in Special Area Classrooms

An adapted excerpt from Responsive Classroom for Music, Art, PE, and Other Special Areas. Published in July 2016 by Center for Responsive Schools, the book is packed with easy-to-implement ideas for adapting core Responsive Classroom practices to specialists’ unique teaching situations. Learn more about the book.


What happens in the first few minutes of each class period can have a huge impact on students’ focus and productivity throughout the rest of the period. A calm and orderly opening routine—a set of actions that students do in a certain way each time they enter the special area room—helps ensure that students ready themselves quickly for the day’s learning and work productively throughout the period.

Three key elements of any successful opening routine are students’ entry into the room, your greeting to them, and a message that orients them to the day’s learning.

Entering the Room and Settling In

An opening routine that supports productive learning actually begins before students enter the room and continues until you begin teaching the day’s lesson. As you think about how you want this key part of the period to look, try to visualize each of the following elements.

Where you’ll be. As you prepare for each class to enter the room, you may want to stand in the hallway, just inside the door, or at a gathering place students go to as soon as they walk in. Or time constraints may mean you need to set up or stow equipment or supplies from the last class as the next one enters. Any location can work as long as students know what to expect.

How students will enter. Will they line up in the hall and wait until you release them into the room? Or will they enter the room when their classroom teacher releases them? If your school has no set protocol for how students enter specials or other school areas, you can try both ways and see which works best for your special area and your teaching style.

What students will do right away. Once inside the room, will students immediately begin a warm-up activity, read a message from you, or move to a gathering area where you’ll work with the message as a class and then begin the day’s lesson?

Noise level. As students enter the room and begin getting settled, can they chat briefly and quietly with classmates? Or do you expect them to be silent? Whichever you choose, you can still make exceptions as needed. For example, if you typically teach students to enter and begin the period silently but their energy level seems low on a particular day, you might play some upbeat music or invite them to sing a favorite song as they go about their warm-up task.

Key Ideas

  • Be consistent. Once you’ve decided on an opening routine, try to follow it with minimal variation every day, with every class. That consistency will save work for you, help students feel secure, and preserve precious minutes you might otherwise spend giving new directions and answering students’ questions about what to do and where to go.
  • Support students with photos. For very young students, or those learning English, try posting photos of children successfully doing each key part of your opening routine. You might also include vocabulary words with the photos to reduce questions and confusion, develop students’ confidence and independence, and boost their literacy skills.

_DSC4259Greeting Students

A simple, friendly greeting offered to students as they enter the special area room helps them feel welcome and tells them they can look forward to an engaging and productive time with you. Greeting is a way to build and maintain positive, trusting relationships with students you see for just a short time once or twice a week, and it encourages students to think of themselves as a special-area community.

Key Ideas

  • Keep it simple. Your greeting needn’t be elaborate; simply standing in the hall or at the door as students enter and saying a warm, “Hello, fifth graders—welcome to the library!” is all it takes.
  • Reinforce expectations. If you’ll greet students in the hallway or at the door, you may want to combine your greeting with a brief reminder of how to enter the room: “Good morning, third graders! Think about how we want to look and sound as we enter the room and choose a good learning spot. Give me a thumbs up when you’re ready … I see all artists are ready. Come on in!”
  • Greet from wherever you are. If you’ve taught students that you need to be elsewhere in the room as they arrive (setting up equipment, for example), turn and offer them a smile, wave, and friendly “Hello!” as they go to their learning spots or begin a warm-up task.

Quickly Connecting With a Brief Message

Gathering the class for one or two minutes to work with a message you’ve posted is the glue that holds together the entire period. Through the message, you can quickly build a sense of special-area community while piquing students’ interest in the day’s learning. And because reading and interacting with the message helps students develop their vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency skills, it also promotes literacy.

Here’s how to weave a message into your special area teaching.

You write the message in advance. For a simple, quick-to-prepare message, simply state the period’s agenda or the learning goal:

Dear students,

Today, we’ll find, download, and listen to a podcast.

You might decide to mention the learning students have already done or will do in the future:

Greetings, Researchers!

Last week, you explored “how-to” books and articles. Today, you’ll be writing your own “how-to” instructions.

And many teachers also add a question that invites students to stretch their thinking about content or skills:

Hi, soccer stars!

Today we will learn about dribbling a ball “soccer style.”

What do you already know about controlling a ball with your feet?

Students read the message. Students can go right to the message when they first enter the room, read it, and then do a warm-up task before the lesson begins. When they’ve finished their warm-up, you can gather them around the message to work with it as a group.

Or you can have students go straight to their warm-up task. When they’ve finished, you can gather them to read the message as a class.

The class works with the message together. A brief interaction with the message emphasizes its importance and strengthens students’ connection to the day’s learning. This task needn’t be time-consuming; it can consist of just two steps:

  • Read the message as a group silently, chorally, or with the class following along as you or a student volunteer read aloud. (Do this even if students read the message independently when they first enter the room.)
  • If the message includes a prompt (such as asking students to think about a question, add a sticky-note response, or make a tally mark to show an opinion or preference), review a few responses aloud or sum them up: “I see that half of you prefer acrylic paints and half prefer watercolors. Who’d like to share one sentence about why you prefer watercolors? Acrylics?” Even this quick interaction validates students’ ideas and motivates them for the lesson ahead.

Key Ideas

  • Connect to the day’s learning. Because the message brings the class together around the day’s learning, keep that learning at the heart of the message. If you need to share general school news or announcements, do so before students begin the day’s work or just before they leave your class.
  • Be flexible. If you can’t easily gather children around a message, gather them around you. Then verbally give them the information you would have written in a message and take a moment for a couple of questions or comments.
  • Consider using just one message for all your classes. One message written at a middle level of complexity usually works just fine. You can then adapt the way you work with the message to fit each grade level. For example, with younger students, you could point out and explain any vocabulary that might be new to them.

Starting Smoothly, Learning More

The brief time you set aside for an orderly beginning to each period will pay off in many ways. When students start each period in a calm and predictable way, they’re better able to get down to work quickly, interact more productively with classmates, and engage more deeply with their learning. And that leaves more time for the special area learning you all love!

Responsive Classroom for Music, Art, PE and Other Special Areas

The go-to guide for busy special area teachers!
Discover how to seamlessly blend the powerful practices of Responsive Classroom into your daily teaching.


Related articles:

  • Special Area Rules – “Taking time to have purposeful discussions about rule following is an essential step in keeping students on track and honoring their best efforts. This is particularly important in a special area because most teachers only see students once or twice a week.”
  • The First 12 Weeks of PE – “During the first twelve weeks of PE, at the same time that I’m having them run, jump, and use equipment, I have to deliberately teach them how—how to move safely, how to play by the rules, how to be respectful and inclusive of all.”
  • Music Class Rules – “Because I know that creating rules with multiple classes can be a bit tricky, I thought I’d share how I make the process work in my music room.”


Tags: Special Areas, Transitions