How To Keep Your Students Focused The Last Hour Of The School Day

So much good, quality instruction is lost in the hour before dismissal.

Energy supplies run low. Minds begin to wander. Misbehavior tempts. Despite your enthusiasm, rallying your students and pressing for new learning is a high-altitude climb compared to the sea cruise it was just hours before.

Indeed, for the better part of the teaching force, the final period is approached with cautious dread. Who’s going to disrupt the class this time? How often will I have to stop and wait? How many times will I need to remind and lecture and repeat myself?

No matter how calm you begin the afternoon, no matter how energetic or determined, it rarely seems to go as well as you’d like. It rarely seems to match the clarity of thought and focus of the new morning. The truth is, the last hour of the day takes more out of you than the preceding hours put together.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. For there are a few simple steps you can take to ensure that the end of the day finishes as sharp and bright-eyed as it began.

Here’s how:

Take a break.

A short break an hour or so before the end of the day is a welcome and refreshing balm for school-weary students. It shakes out restlessness, clears away cobwebs, and refocuses distracted minds for the final leg. It’s a simple way to solve a big problem.

What your break looks like, however, depends on what preceded it.

If your students have been sitting, particularly if they’ve been concentrating or engaged in independent work, then you must get them up and moving. Lead them in light exercise, stretching, or standing strength (yoga) poses. Anything that increases heart and respiratory rates will do.

Your class may also need to get some socializing out of their system. Give them a minute or so to walk over and say hello to a friend or make plans for after school. You’re clearing the boards, so to speak, eliminating a major reason students lose attention during the final hour.

If, however, your students are wound up and full of excitable energy, perhaps they’ve just returned from recess or PE, then a different sort of break is in order—one meant to calm, refocus, and restore.

In this case, ask your students to stand silently behind their desks, feet wide and hands behind their backs. Pause a moment and let their breathing regulate naturally. Then lead them in a series of long, slow breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth, as the diaphragm extends and retracts.

Go ahead and reach above your head and stretch during the inhalation phase if you wish, bringing your hands down and in front on the exhale. Five to ten repetitions followed by another pause should do the trick in calming and rejuvenating restless minds and overactive limbs.

Lean heavily on routines.

It’s critically important that you finish the school day—that is, the last several minutes—without chaos, confusion, or misbehavior, that your last connection with your students matches the purpose-driven start of the morning.

This day-after-day expectation will help you avoid a mountain of headaches at dismissal. But that’s not all. Surprisingly, it will also help keep your students engaged and focused from the early afternoon through to the end.

Well-performed routines, you see, act as bookends to periods of learning, ensuring that the goals, ambitions, and responsibilities of your classroom are never far from mind. In other words, there is always another expectation around the bend, another active responsibility to stay sharp and ready for.

To that end, be sure and teach, model, and practice precisely what you expect during the last ten minutes of the school day. Your students need to be purposeful and busy and held to a standard of excellence all the way up until the moment they leave your room.

Done right, there should be limited talking and virtually zero guidance on your part. Your role should be primarily that of an observer, carefully verifying that the high-bar standards you set for them are met.

Finish in silence.

Have your end-of-day routine finish with every student standing behind their desk, silent, reflective, backpack looped over shoulders. Wait until all are looking at you. Then, while referring to the clock on the wall, ask for 30 seconds of silence.

This safeguards a peaceful, pleasant ending to your school day and eliminates the yelling, pushing, and running misbehavior so common after dismissal. It also gives you a chance to provide a final thought, note of humor, or word of encouragement to send along with them.

Make eye contact with each student, one at a time, as a silent invitation to line up. After repositioning yourself to the front of the line, release them out into the world with an easy smile, to their families, their homes, and their neighborhood lives.

The Space Between

The teachers who produce the greatest progress in their students year after year aren’t necessarily the most dynamic. They aren’t always funny or interesting or outwardly inspiring. They don’t all know how to play guitar and sing or draw like Bill Watterson.

And their lessons aren’t always earth shattering.

But what they do better than most is keep their students on task. They keep them focused and motivated and encouraged to take academic chances. They get the most out of each moment—from morning bell to dismissal.

They’ve developed the classroom management skills to keep distractions, interruptions, and time-consuming misbehaviors to a scanty, bare minimum.

They focus their attention not so much on the moments outside of the school day—the meetings, discussions, trainings, busy work, and other necessary teacherly duties—but on the space between, the moments they’re alone with their students.

The moments of pure, day-to-day inspiration. The moments of discovery, of relationships, of smiles and breakthroughs and thank yous.

For this is what it comes down to. Simply this, and this alone.

The space between.

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14 Responses to How To Keep Your Students Focused The Last Hour Of The School Day

  1. Carolyn November 2, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    I try so hard to get us consistent at the end of the day. So what happens? Office calls with someone going home early, kids from other classes stop by with announcements, yearbook staff comes by for pix, other teacher sends naughty student for time out, PA system announced something, it never ends. I’ve counted as many as ten interruptions in our last hour and a half. So frustrating.

  2. Roderick Woodard November 2, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    I’ve always wanted to teach since I was 4 years old! It has been a lifelong dream of mine since elementary school. I want to teach elementary school, preferable grades 2-5. Thank you for providing such useful information that I can use in the future as I one day make the transition from Paraprofessional to Teacher! 🙂

    • Michael Linsin November 3, 2013 at 7:24 am #

      You’re welcome, Roderick! You’ll be prepared to have a great career.


  3. Bona November 3, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    Class room management n how to teach well and delivery effectively in the class.

  4. Greg November 3, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    Once again, bravo, Michael! I noticed how you ended this month’s article with a profound, but simple, thought- “The Space Between”. I could not agree more! I am a veteran teacher (and regular reader of Michael’s). If you are a new teacher, read these emails a few times and let them sink in, marinate a bit ,so to speak. Heed his advice! It is mistake to read these and think, “Yes, but in my class this wouldn’t work.” They do work.

    • Michael Linsin November 4, 2013 at 7:19 am #

      Thanks Greg!


  5. Lynn D. November 5, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    I’ve had great success adapting a lot of your ideas to teaching K – 7 PE, Michael. A related question for the last part of PE classes…sometimes as well as a class has been going, they lose focus and following routines in the last few minutes of class, stopping and listening, holding onto equipment, putting things away, and then we run out of time to redo, since another class will be coming in…suggestions?

    • Michael Linsin November 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

      Hi Lynn,

      It’s something you have to take note of and revisit the following week. The consequence is having to practice the end-of-lesson routine instead of jumping right into PE. The wonderful benefit of PE is that fun is built-in, and so having to set that aside to spend time on something that pales in comparison can be an effective lesson.


  6. Karen January 23, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    I’m an avid reader, veteran teacher, and firm believer in classroom management being the secret to maintaining a deep love for teaching. This year I have a new schedule. I am an art teacher and have 30 sections of elementary art. At the last block of each day the specialists are assigned a rotating class. We see grade 1 on day 1 and so on. This rotates through six sections of each grade. In essence I see my last class of the day once every 36 school days. I have a set routine, but with the lapse of time between visits to my room for “extra” art and dismissal, kiddos are always having trouble maintaining the calm and productive class atmosphere. This is especially true for the grade 1 and 2 bunch. Any advice or experience in a similar situation? Thanks for your wisdom!

    • Michael Linsin January 23, 2016 at 7:11 pm #

      Hi Karen,

      I have some experience teaching groups of students so infrequently, but I’ll have to think away on the topic. It would have to be a future article topic, however. It’s too big to answer in an email or comment section.


  7. Mary June 20, 2016 at 8:42 am #

    Have been teaching for 18 years and still don’t have a handle on dismissal time. Our kids are called a few buses at a time over the PA system and over a 20 minute period. I need to check off when each student leaves the room. I have tried silence – kids seemed annoyed with me when I institute this system. I have had them sit in a circle on floor – some sit and some don’t because the 1st group called have a foot out the door. I have told them they can talk quietly at their desks but eventually they get loud. They ask to sit with friends and they get loud again. They always follow the procedure for a few days then all “you know what” breaks out a few days later. It is way too noisy and my least favorite time of day. I can’t wait for them to leave. Not a good way to end our day. What can I do?

    • Michael Linsin June 20, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

      Hi Mary,

      I’d require them to either begin their homework, read independently, or some other academic work. Continue with academics until the last student leaves.