When students know they only have a limited amount of time, they are more likely to work flat-out during that period.
Used extensively when working with students with disabilities and disorders, countdowns help students to mentally prepare for the tasks and challenges that lay ahead. Students are provided with a specific time to complete a task (such as 3 minutes, 6 minutes, 15 minutes and so forth). There are 2 types of countdowns. The first type is also known as a ‘future signal’ and it is used to give students advance notice of upcoming activity changes. The reason for future signals is to prevent meltdowns and resistance to changing from one activity (say, a video game) to another less-preferred activity (say, a maths lesson). The teacher provides regular updates so students know how long they have remaining. For example, ‘12 minutes to go and not a second more – better get moving’.
This type of countdown is used in conjunction with motivational strategies such as ‘only 4 minutes to go, let’s try and get 3 problems done in that time’. When students know they only have a limited amount of time, they are more likely to work flat-out during that period. As the end time gets closer, more and more future signals are provided (such as when 5 minutes are remaining, then 2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds and a final 10-second countdown). At this point the teacher is very firm in ending the activity. No leeway or negotiations are permitted because allowing them means a high chance of resistance to all future countdowns. Some teachers may give students a reward such as a 2-minute chat with a friend before moving to the next activity. Other teachers may lead a stretching session (movement integration).
The second type of countdown is known as an instructional countdown. This is used when the teacher wants all students to do something quickly (such as to pack up their desk or to put away equipment). It is very common to see instructional countdowns during transitions. The teacher first gives clear instructions and then starts the countdown. Students must complete the teacher’s instructions in the set time: ‘30 seconds and GO, let’s get moving, *clap clap*, thank-you Araz, well done Hayley, you can go faster Steve, 20 seconds, 15, 10, 9, 8 (waits a few seconds), 7, 6, 3-2-1 done, good job everyone, facing me, eyes on me please in 3, 2, 1’. This type of countdown is more common in early childhood but can be adapted for use even with adults (e.g. when finishing off a brainstorming activity or advising university students when a lecture will begin).
Hint: When using countdowns, ensure that you always follow-through otherwise students quickly learn that your time limits are no more than suggestions. For this reason, many teachers give students an exact time (such as 4 minutes) and enforce that time to the precise second – allowing an extra 15 seconds might seem innocent enough, but students will then demand 15 seconds or more next time. In other words, if you say 3 minutes for an activity, you must only allow 3 minutes: not 2, not 4, not 3.3, and certainly not 25!
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.
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