Ringing without Bells: The Structures of Schooling

by Diane Lilleberg, Educational Consultant

This year you probably planned to dedicate the time you needed to be really ready for the new school year. Perhaps your plans included arranging a space, hanging up some “school” things, organizing school supplies, and making first entries into your planning guide.

In addition to the practical preparations, you probably dusted off your ideals and best intentions related to schedules and routines. Whether you got more or less than you expected in the curriculum you chose, whether you added another student to teach, or whether a new baby is competing for your time—reality does have a way of intersecting with ideals.

Children need boundaries, structures, and consistent relationships that they can predictably count on to help them feel secure. In a lifestyle characterized by transitions, children may not find the predictable expectations tied to a location or to activities or even to people they can depend on outside of your immediate family. Although children tend to be enthusiastic about surprises, even surprises assume there are predictable expectations and routines to depart from.

While adding anything to the demands on your time won’t seem helpful, the expectations of formal schooling can actually help build the structure and consistency children thrive on into their daily life, whether they recognize and appreciate it or not. Adding consistency can sound perfectly reasonable until ministry demands, travel delays, illnesses, younger children, endless interruptions, and even the productive time children need to absorb new and exciting things all clamor for flexibility from the routines you may manage to establish.

How do you add or even stick to a structure when life is so unpredictable? Creatively. Because being creative can be difficult in isolation, ideas and comments from other parents raising children in settings with frequent transitions and similar demands may help spark your own creative solutions. Most of the solutions involve planning structure into those things that demand flexibility. Although solutions of this nature sound like an oxymoron, they seem to work when real life and predictability are often at odds.

Transition to Formality

As a first step in establishing routines, many families find it helpful to take school seriously enough to have children perform the “morning family drill” as they would if they went elsewhere to school: getting washed, dressed, teeth brushed, morning chores finished, and school supplies they are responsible for located where they should be in order to begin. It lends a reality and respect for “doing school” for everyone involved.

Be sure to have a school opening routine even though saluting a flag may not seem appropriate. You can “ring a bell” even without one by beginning with a routine of opening exercises that signals a clear transition from what was happening before to what will happen after. The signal marks a difference in freedom and structure for students, it helps you as a teacher transition in relationship and focus, and it can even help younger children transition to a different level of available attention.

What you choose to do in an opening routine is up to you, but it should be short and similar from one day to the next for a given period of time. For instance, a third grade opening might include reciting a verse or a poem, skip counting (by threes, sevens, etc.), appropriately greeting you as a respected adult in an alternate language, and finding “mystery” spelling or punctuation errors in a sentence. Because you want a sense of routine that moves along, specific memory-recall activities work best. Your opening then serves as a regularly scheduled opportunity to memorize, practice, and review, with the activities manageable enough to provide students with a confident start to their school day.


Although the time you dedicate to school should be predictable, consistency does not need to depend on the clock alone. Morning is often considered to be the best time for children to work on difficult skills, but this can vary considerably with personality. Starting immediately after breakfast is one choice, but school playgrounds testify to the energy, exercise, and volume children squeeze in (or out) before the bell calls them indoors. Many children (especially wrigglers) concentrate better after a period of free play and exercise that wakes them up and refreshes them before they face concentration demands.

Some parents are surprised to discover a “nontraditional” time of day can work for school or for one or more subjects. For instance, there might be a time of day where interruptions aren’t as likely to occur, a time when local children are not as distracting, or a time when younger siblings nap. Whether you begin by the clock or when other activities begin or end, it will benefit children more if you choose a time that will work consistently.

If you can’t begin at a target time, you can still provide a backup structure through the order of activities, (i.e., English or phonics first, singing next, mathematics after singing, etc.) The order can remain consistent even if your starting time cannot. If some subjects do not occur every day of the week, try to post a schedule of the revised order on each weekday and stick to it.

When sequencing what you do each day, try to vary between highly structured and active activities, verbal and quiet activities, and difficult and easy activities. This will keep the day moving and build in “productive breaks.” Difference in the amount of attention required by subjects is also important to consider when creating structure for more than one student. The level of independence from one subject to another can give you the time you need for individual attention. This variety within a structure can help motivate students of any age but is also important to keep younger students from tiring. Keep in mind that children may need activity to rest much more than they need rest from activity.


Interruptions can wreak havoc on routines and stability, but avoiding them is not the only solution. Most teachers in disciplined classrooms develop a routine children understand and automatically follow when interruptions occur. Teaching children to persist in something or to move on to something else when you are unavailable is teaching a valuable skill that is just as important to your children as it is to those who attend school.

Even very young students can keep an “interruptions folder” or have school activities they know you expect them to turn to if your attention is diverted. Having productive independent tasks (i.e., working with flashcards, or making a journal entry) will also help when children finish early and need to wait for you to provide directions for the next activity.

It is usually beneficial to hold to a certain length of time for a subject, especially when you are teaching more than one child. If children finish mathematics early, they can do something additional related to mathematics or complete an assignment not finished earlier in the day. When teaching more than one child, avoid varying the length of the school day according to when children finish unless it is because of age, giving older children a longer school day than younger.

If you release one child from school early to play and keep another working in order to finish, it usually is considered punitive no matter what you say. Avoid it unless it is clearly a discipline issue during your school time, not something that may be internal and unintentional. Internal behaviors such as what adults refer to as “daydreaming” are often tied to learning or thinking styles. Although you do need to train students who seem to daydream to accomplish things in a given time period when someone else is impacted by the time and agenda, you want to be careful you aren’t consistently punishing children for internal behavior for which they do not yet have the developmental maturity to be able to control.

Travel Routines

Because it is often impossible to get a full school year in without transitions, it is a good idea to intentionally plan routine school expectations that your students understand and are responsible for when your family moves from one location to another. New things to observe and talk about are often part of transitions. Anything unusual or special can become school by simply adding formality to it in observation and reporting.

Rather than giving up school altogether, expect something from your students on a regular basis either during or following any transition. You can ask them to record new vocabulary words to be defined later, report on a book they are reading on their own, record mileage and expenses, adjust family budgets, or make “journey journal” entries that both record and reflect on what is happening.

When children know ahead of time they must report on something, they often become more observant and look for things as they journey. It might not be practical to actually write when traveling or other events occur, but you can record journal ideas at the end of a day as a reminder once school materials are easier to get at and handle.

If you spend significant periods of time in more than one location, think about school schedules as you would university courses. Instead of having hands-on science things available on a regular schedule in several locations, for instance, you can do a concentrated class using special materials when they are available and use that time in another location to concentrate on other subjects.

Consider celebrations as a way to add structure to your transitions. That might seem difficult to think about, adding to an already high level of stress, but it is amazing what it can do for everyone involved. Try building in something special to indicate packing is completed and you are on your way. It need not take more than a few moments to do, perhaps singing a goofy song or saying good-bye to rooms in the house or to the location in some way. Save something special you do not use except when you are in transit, such as a series of books to read aloud and writing a family journal as you travel. Because children need things to look forward to in times of stress, design a special celebration for when you arrive. Even a picnic on the floor can reduce everyone’s stress and fatigue with a fun twist on what you need to do anyway. Small positives can help your family to relax and let go of the urgency transition always brings.

Whatever you accomplish or don’t accomplish in moving between locations, reflect on the positive. Your children’s lifestyle is not as unusual in terms of transition as it might have been a generation ago. Children today undergo many transitions wherever they might live. Knowing how to handle change and remain productive through it is considered to be an important life skill that children need to acquire to do well in their future.

Structure for Teachers

As a teacher, you need structure to encourage accountability as much as children need structure and consistent expectations for stability and developing a work ethic. Beware of the “guilt trap” of the ideal, which is something like focusing so much on the guilt of eating junk food that you gradually give up paying attention to eating healthy food altogether.

When so many things compete with a commitment to teach, parents have sometimes described drifting away from the time needed, especially if they feel they can’t measure up to an ideal they expect of themselves. Guilt becomes an uncomfortable trap that can even lead to avoiding the time a spouse or children need outside of school. Rather than determining accountability according to an ideal, consider reality carefully in your commitment.

As you build structure into your lives, remember that children’s security depends largely on being able to predict their relationship with both mother and father. Make decisions regarding flexibility and predictability with that in mind. If your relationship with your children becomes unpleasantly predictable, it is worth spending precious time to think carefully about what you need and what you can let go of to restore yourself to your children.

Remember, too, that your demanding lifestyle also makes demands on your children. Although they respond to those demands quite differently, their needs and their frustrations are just as real as those of adults.

Fortunately, you are not likely to need a manual or class to discover how to add predictability and security to your family life. Children are often verbal about what helps them feel more secure. You can often “discover” the traditions that can add security to family life simply by listening to what children remember and want to do again. If you involve children in your problem solving, you may find their contributions to be eloquently simple, their hidden agendas to be evident and quotable, and some of their solutions to actually work.

As you read this article, things you are already doing that provide structure and stability have probably come to mind. As you gain insight or as you test ideas or even as you recover from mistakes or disasters, please share your comments and discoveries, as well as your questions with us. The best answers to questions families have in our complex overseas settings come from other families who are in similar circumstances at a similar time. We look forward to hearing from you, along with sharing what you are learning with other families who will learn with you and from you.

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