10 Ways to Let Students Take Control of Their Instructional Time

  1. The Duck
  2. Chimes
  3. Breathwork
  4. Mindful Meditation
  5. Guided Visualization
  6. Tapping
  7. Purposeful Pauses
  8. Dance Party
  9. Manipulatives
  10. Trust

There they are, ten ways to let students take control of their instructional time, right at the top for those of you who just want to know and can’t be bothered reading further.  I get it, I’m often that person, too!

Do you really want to make a difference?

However, if you have the time, and if you really want to make a difference in the lives of those you teach and show them how much you care and how must you respect and honor their learning process, if you really want them to know that without a doubt they are calm & cool, smart & loved, seen & heard, and what they have to say matters, read on.

Teachers have way too many things to balance and manage during the course of any single moment in the classroom.  Regardless of the grade level and subject area you teach, demands continue to be placed on classroom teachers and it’s gotten out of control. We need to relinquish some of those demands over to the students.

How much does your content really matter?

The game-changer for me was when I came to the realization that the content I taught was not the be all and end all.  It’s not what REALLY matters at all. I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t really the takeaway at the end of the day.

What matters in the classroom is the rapport you build with your students. As a teacher, this is not the first time you’ve heard this, though it may just be the first time that it lands. What matters is how you make students feel.  Take a moment here and think back to your 7th grade Science class.  Do you remember all the lessons you were taught? Every single one? Of course not. For many teachers this is a crushing blow when you think about all the time and effort you put into the designing and the execution of our plans.

If you were lucky enough to have an engaging 7th grade Science teacher, maybe you remember some things here and there, but I’ll put money on the fact that what you remember about 7th grade Science is how the teacher made you feel.  

I can name every teacher I had K – 12, and maybe a handful of my college professors, but what I can’t tell you is what I learned.  I know THAT I learned, I’m just not certain about who taught me what.  What I CAN tell you is who made me feel like I mattered. I can tell you who paid attention to me, who listened to me, who took their time with me and showed me they cared.  I can tell you who acknowledged my needs, all of my needs: social, emotional, mental, and physical. I can also tell you who wrote me off. 

If you can make your students feel like they matter, you’re going to make a huge impact on them and make a major shift in their learning process.  It’s not about the content, folks. Are you okay with that? I know that’s hard to hear, our state standards and college admissions require it to be taught.  Society expects competent, literate contributors, and they will be.  But put the content on the back burner and make the emotional piece the priority.  

Now, because I can already feel some of the blood boiling in you, I get it! Every living and breathing adult should know that you don’t end a sentence with a preposition and that commas need to come before coordinating conjunctions! (FANBOYS for those of you who don’t remember) But do they? They really don’t, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be taught. You can’t break the rules until you know the rules, right? There is an important place for our content, but I encourage you to lead with your heart first.

Relinquish Control of Instructional Time

What???!!! Why?! Consider what I’ve already shared with you.  Our emotions are what drive our learning process. If the learner is not prepared to learn, learning will not happen.  Nothing is going into the working memory of a student if they do not feel safe, cared for, or connected. FACT: If students do not feel calm & cool, whatever you have to teach them during that lesson is a big waste of YOUR time. Why not honor your time and connect with the kids first.  It’s a win-win for all.

How do you make this happen?

Like all communication, it begins with a conversation. A conversation between you and your students is what will set the foundation for successful learning to take place in your classroom. You teach them how to pay attention to their needs while learning and give them permission to take care of their needs.

How to be mindful is your lesson during this conversation.  The steps to take are below.  To go deeper with a lesson on mindfulness for another day, you can get help for that lesson here

Starting the conversation:

  • Ask the class: 
    • How many of you get sick days? You know, you wake up and you’re not feeling so great, so your parents give you permission to stay home from school to rest up and take it easy.  (Eyes will get wide and the kids will adamantly state that there is NO WAY their parents are allowing them to stay home.)
  • Ask the class: 
    • How many of you get personal days? You know, like when you have some personal things to take care of like organizing your closets, take care of a sick friend or family member, need some extra time to complete some school work, or maybe you have errands you need to run that just can’t happen while you’re learning in school and taking a personal day will really put things right in your world. (Expect the kids to be looking around the room at each other as this notion is entirely new to them.)
  • Share with the class: 
    • As a teacher, I get x# of sick days! When I’m not feeling well, I get to call a service and have someone teach my classes for the day so that I can rest and recover.  You don’t get that? No ten days for you to use this school year?
    • As I teacher, I also get x# of personal days to be used any way I see fit.  They’re personal.  Again, I get to call a service and have someone teach my classes for the day so that I can take care of personal business.
    • Of course, share only what you feel comfortable sharing, you know your population and what you can and cannot say.  I’m sharing what I say because I have found that it engages all students and I have their full attention during this entire conversation.  Because it’s all about them, they are captivated.
  • Tell the class:
    • I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with you before you walk in this door.  I have basically no idea what’s going on with you while you’re sitting in front of me. All I know is that the state of New Jersey has given me learning standards that I’m required to teach you and I’m contracted by the Board of Education to teach them to you.  That’s my job. That’s why I’m here.  That’s what I get paid to do, but you know what? Those standards mean nothing if you are not in the right frame of mind to learn them.
    • I don’t know if you’ve gotten into an argument with your folks over what you were wearing before you walked out the door.  I don’t know if you had a difficult ride to school on the bus.  I don’t if you’re having a tough time in Math and you have a test next period that’s occupying your thoughts.  All I know is that I have these standards that I’m required to teach you and I’m wise enough to know they won’t matter one bit to you if you have unresolved issues swirling around in your head.
    • So, if you are not getting a break anywhere else in your day, I want our classroom to be the place where you can take a breath, stop, and know you are totally supported outside of anything that we’re learning for the day.  YOU, my sweets, are in control of your instructional time and this is what being in control of your instructional time can look like:

1. The Duck 

(This is my true story and the impetus for the duck. You’ll share what is true for you.) This stuffed duck was given to me during my first year of teaching, which was a very difficult time in my personal life.  I was very sad and was managing some very difficult things.  My children also started kindergarten and pre-school that year.  Fortunately for me, a co-worker noticed I was going through a rough patch and one day in my school mail box, I found a beautifully wrapped box with a lovely bright bow! Who doesn’t love a gift…and wrapped so beautifully! Keep in mind, I was 30, and when I opened that box I found the cuddliest, yellow, stuffed duck.  I loved him at first sight! I don’t care how old or young you are, everyone loves a stuffed animal, right? 

When I returned to the classroom and students started filling the room, I noticed one girl crying.  Hysterically crying.  There was nothing I could do to soothe her, so I put the duck on her desk and told her she had this class period off.  I assured her I wasn’t going to bother her, and neither would her classmates.  I drew an imaginary box around her and repeated, we’re going to pretend you’re not here so you can have the time and the space you need to feel your feelings and do what you need to do for you at this time. (I also assured her I was available to support her in any way I could.)

I explain to the students that when they have The Duck, this isn’t a time to go and wander, and totally check out, but to be respectful of the class, while we’re being respectful of their needs.  Most times students continue to follow along with the class, though they won’t participate and I won’t call on them or I’ve broken my promise to them.  Only one time did a student pull out a book and read for the entire period. THAT HAD NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE and had one of those moments where you have an entirely separate conversation with yourself while your teaching.  Ever had that happen? Facts and stories about World War II are coming out of my mouth, while my brain is firing question after question: What’s he doing? This has never happened before. Do I say something? How will that affect what I’ve put in place for them? Will that be a breach of trust? What if there are copycats tomorrow? What should I do? WHAT SHOULD I DO?!

I chose to do nothing.  I figured if there were copycats the next day, I’d handle it then.  And what do you know, the next day came and went without one copycat.

It’s important to note that this institution of the Duck has never been taken advantage of. NEVER in 23 years! After I share the intention of the Duck, I proceed to do everything with the duck that I believe students may consider doing like:

  • Toss it in the air
  • Try to hit the lights with it
  • Shove it up my shirt
  • Put it in my neighbor’s hair
  • Throw it across the room
  • Try to aim it into the trash can

Again, engagement. They think it’s funny and the point is made clear that The Duck privilege can be very quickly taken away, though it never has been.

There’s only ever been one question asked about the Duck: What happens if more than one of us needs the duck? Again, has never happened in 23 years, but I tell them I’ll put the stapler on your desk because there’s no need for anyone to have a stapler on your desk and that will be a reminder to us all.

The Duck is also something I share at Back to School Night, and the parents are always very happy to know something like this is in place for their kids. Something else I share with the parents is how the class uses chimes to pause purposefully during their day of learning.

The Duck

COVID FIX: Copy and paste several images of a stuffed duck onto a Google or Word Doc.  Laminate the paper and hand them out to the students so they each have their own to use.  Designate a spot on their desk (or within their area that can be viewed on camera) and honor it the same way.   

2. Chimes 

Another way I turn the control of instructional time over to the class is with the use of chimes. Tingsha Tibetan Bells to be exact. We refer to them as chimes. Purchase them here.


Each day when students enter the room, one of them takes the chimes, and another takes the singing bowl. Purchase one here.

Singing Bowl

The children know that I can be in the middle of a word and when those chimes ring, everything stops. Lights go out. Blinds close. Projector goes to mute. There is darkness…or not.  Sometimes, we’re just still with everything on.

While the class is “shutting down”,  the amount of visual stimulus in the room is reduced when things get shut down and eyes close. Children position themselves into their mindful bodies: both feet are planted on the floor, spines are nice and tall to create lots of space for the breath to flow in and out, shoulders are rolled back and down and positioned over their hips, ears are in line with their shoulders, the chin is parallel to the floor, and they continue to grow their spine tall as they imagine a string attached to the crown of their head being pulled up to lengthen their spine to create more space for the breath. This is a time for stillness, a time to notice what we notice about ourselves and about what’s happening in our bodies, in our brains, and with our breath.

The student with the singing bowl is responsible for ringing us out of this stillness. The time can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. To allow the student with the singing bowl the opportunity to enjoy the practice, I will gently lay my hand on their shoulder to act as a reminder to ring us out if it’s been 3 minutes.

Chimes Do’s and Don’ts 

The only rules are the ones set by the class. For example, the students don’t appreciate the chimes being rung during sustained silent reading time. They feel this is already a mindful practice, and they do not want it to be interrupted. Additionally, they avoid the use of chimes during a test that is timed. Otherwise, the middle of testing is a very popular time for chimes to be rung. Here  is a picture of my students in the middle of a test with their heads down on yoga blocks. In this instance, they had a choice to continue to test or take a break. 

As the year goes on, students will have practiced with many different approaches and they begin to choose what will be best for them in a particular situation on a particular day.

TIP TIME: As a mindful instructional practice, I stop class two minutes before the end of the period to encourage children to stop, put their things where they belong, think about where they are heading and gather the materials for their next class. During this time, they prefer the chimes not to be rung.

3. Breathwork 

The breath is a very powerful tool. Do not dismiss how it affects the body and the mind. Respect it. The breath is a very strong and reliable support all throughout our lives and especially during the school year. To learn more about the breath, how to build your own practice, and share the techniques with your students, click here. These breathing exercises will help to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, enhance clarity, focus and concentration, boost energy levels, and help with falling asleep.

I like to begin class with a breathing exercise and stick with that one for the entire week.  This allows students to become familiar with the practice, make necessary adjustments, and really integrate it into their nervous systems. I have several techniques that I’ve always found very beneficial.  They take us deep into the school year, and ultimately, the kids have a nice selection to choose from when they need to break away from the whole class and step away from learning for a bit. 

When following along to guided breathing, don’t go rogue and create your own version of the technique.  Move through them as directed and have fun with what you experience.

Slowly build to a higher number of rounds as suggested in some of the techniques.  Be aware of how your body is responding.  Don’t push. Move forward in your practice gently. There is no prize for more rounds.  If anything, more rounds can result in negative effects. Be mindful. Breathwork is not an area in your life you want to rush. 

4. Mindful Meditation 

First, let’s be clear on the fact that mindful meditation is secular.  THERE IS NOTHING RELIGIOUS about mindful meditation. To prove this let’s get clear about the definitions of these three terms: meditation, mindfulness, and mindful meditation. What’s the difference? Aren’t they the same? They are not.  

There is a difference between these three and it’s important for you to know the difference so you can explain to others as you share the practice.

Meditation – was created 5,000 years ago. It was created as part of religion and spirituality.It is rooted in religion, rooted in spirituality, and it was created for a particular purpose for spiritual development and enlightenment. 

Mindfulness – Mindfulness is quite different because it was created about 50 years ago. It is the Western version of meditation, that was created for the purpose of living life in the chaotic Western world today.  Mindfulness is a response to living in this fast paced culture, so that we can experience less stress and less anxiety; feel more peaceful; and deal with the pain and illnesses, both physically and psychologically, that we go through as part of that living experience. 

Mindful Meditation – Mindful Meditation creates healthy, lasting effects on the brain, breath, and body, as it creates space for healing. The steady work of mindfulness results in insights, so using different meditations for the purpose of finding the right balance is helpful.  Mindful Meditations that focus on concentration work to develop sharp focus, while guided techniques are effective at opening the heart.  Steady awareness is the practice of mindfulness. To learn more about Mindful Meditations and how to build your own practice, and share the techniques with your students, click here.

5. Guided Visualization 

Gentle, but powerful, guided visualizations have been shown to elevate moods, reduce stress, pain, and depression, and improve self esteem and energy. Research shows it can help increase the number of fighter cells in the body, and when practiced over time, it has a stronger and stronger effect. 

As you begin the process for your class, let students know that if something does not resonate with them, they can change it in their imaginations.  Their unconscious mind will do that for them anyway. Falling asleep can happen and you have to decide if that’s ok.  Regardless of whether students remain awake or not, the imagery will still have an effect on their nervous system. Encourage students to guide their minds back to the sound of your voice if it wanders. 

Feel free to create your own visualizations, but several books and videos have been created already and I always resort to some tried and true ones that have been very popular with students in the past.  Here are some fav resources:   

6. Tapping

An emotional form of acupuncture, the practice of tapping or more formally, The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT),  stimulates various meridian points in the body by tapping on them with the fingertips. This practice can reduce the conventional therapy process from weeks, months, or years to a fraction of that time. 

The Emotional Freedom Technique, was founded by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer. So for the cynics out there, knowing an engineer is the founder behind this form of alternative healing method might be of interest to you.

Meridians, or energy channels, run up and down each side of the body. At specific locations on the surface of the body are endpoints that are each associated with a different bodily organ or system. 

These endpoints can be manipulated by using the pressure of the fingertips and they all work to release energies that are stuck in that particular meridian. 

I have a private practice facilitating healing with clients through the use of Breathwork, EFT, and NLP. The folks at The Tapping Solution have capitalized on this practice and have created accessible videos for teachers to use in the classroom. Give them a try and share them with your students. They have also been educated by Gary Craig!

I like to elicit issues from my students and we go deep in class depending on what their collective needs are.  I also give them permission to leave and visit the nurse, guidance, or the bathroom to tap on personal issues if they need to. To learn more about tapping and how to build your own practice, and share the techniques with your students, click here. This link will bring you to the Services page on my Shift for Wellness website where you can watch a video tutorial of tapping and all it can do for you!

7. Purposeful Pauses

Pay attention to your surroundings and notice what peaceful places you visit that can be captured on video and shared as a purposeful pause with the class. I love to use the videos for my own PP during lunch time and when the kids are at their Special classes.  Another great time to watch these videos is returning from lunch, recess,  Phys. Ed, and waiting for the bus.  Also, I love to watch them before I head to my car at the end of the day.

Consider uploading them to your website so students can access them whenever they need to pause. (Scroll to the videos.) Create a playlist on YouTube.

8. Dance Party

This is as easy as it gets! Before the day begins, actually let’s take it back a bit. Before the WEEK begins, create a list of 5 great dance songs. These can be your favorites! The kids don’t seem to care what the song is, or what decade it’s from, as long as it allows them to get down, let go, and lose themselves for a bit. I prefer songs I know, so that I don’t have to worry about inappropriate lyrics.

Each morning, have a tab open and ready to go with a song from your weekly list. Here’s the link to my YouTube playlist.

Give the class permission to yell, “DANCE PARTY” at any time during class. This will shut things down and get the dancing started immediately.

When the party’s over, the class knows that the quicker they are able to transition back to the lesson, the more often these parties can happen. These are my favorite of all because I really love to dance and my body love to feel the music! 

9. Manipulatives

Have a supply of manipulatives around the room, or in one designated place, for students to go when they feel they need a brain break or purposeful pause. Here is a list of things that can be found around the room and in a basket on the counter in Room 37:

  • stress balls
  • bubbles
  • noise canceling headphones
  • coloring pages and crayons
  • glitter jars
  • Rubik’s cubes
  • The Duck
  • yoga card deck
  • bean bags 
  • mindful books by Susan Verde

10. Trust

Teach students to listen, pay attention to, and honor the needs of their brain, body, and breath and to trust what they feel.

Give them permission to act accordingly by soothing their needs with any of the following tools listed above. Autonomy is the single most important piece to the wellness puzzle in the classroom and teaching students to build trust within themselves takes almost the entire year.  This is something that I have found none of them have ever been taught to do. 

The belly is known as the second brain.  Teaching kids how to tune into the feels there, how to pay attention to them, and how to trust those feelings and knowing what to do with them takes time.  It also is only possible for you to do if you trust your own inner wisdom.   To learn more about tuning into your inner wisdom and how to build your own practice, and share the technique with your students, click here.