Classroom, Elementary, Junior High, school

Tips for Students Who Have Difficulty During Unstructured Time

During the school day, there are a significant number of times when students engage in unstructured times. For example, recess, lunch break, getting ready at lockers, moving through the hallways, and so on.


The vast majority of students do absolutely fine during these times. However, some can be triggered and have issues with peers or adults, become emotional, or shut down.


There are a lot of reasons students may have trouble during unstructured times during the day. Perhaps they have anxiety, they could have ADHD, students on the Autism Spectrum can be triggered, there could be ODD in the mix, and obviously these are just some of the things we can diagnose and “label”.


There are many strategies we can try to help support these kids and make life just a little bit easier for them, ourselves, and their peers during these times. Check out my recommendations.


Go inside early


Sometimes, lining up can be a trigger for students. This can be because they are overly competitive and always want to be first. They may get annoyed if peers aren’t following proper protocols. They may have issues with personal space.


No matter what the reason, if you’re seeing that a student continues to have difficulty in the morning when coming in, after lunch, or so on, try giving them the option of coming in early.


When the student comes in early, you can use this time effectively as well.

If you’re rushed in the mornings getting things ready for the day, ask them to help you hand something out, organize computers, or another equally useful job.

If thes tudent has a behaviour issue, this might be a good time to go through daily expectations or check in with them about their emotions.

Just try not to let this be wasted time. Maybe they just need to sit quietly to collect themselves; if that’s going to help them regulate throughout the day, it’s not a waste of time! Use your professional judgment to figure out what would be best for this particular kiddo.


You’ll inevitably have at least one peer call this out as being “unfair”, but remind them that fair is not equal and different students need different things to be successful.

Give the student a job and praise


Some students have difficulty during unstructured time because there’s no purpose to it. They may get bored and create issues, they could be out policing peers, or any other less than helpful activity.
If you give them a job to do, this may help to alleviate these issues.


Of course, be sure to think about the student’s strengths and weaknesses when deciding what type of job to give them.


For example, if they have a problem around policing others, having them referee a soccer game is going to be a terrible decision. But, having them show a new student around the playground and introduce them to peers may be a good option.

Or, having them “buddy up” with a younger student and teach them how to draw their favourite Pokémon could be an option. There are tons of possibilities.


One thing to make sure to avoid is making this a punishment for them. Unless they’ve done something wrong and really do deserve an appropraite punishment, they still need to be enjoying their recess, just like everyone else.


Provide a purpose for an activity


Just like mentioned above, often students who are having difficulty in unstructured time need to have something specific to do.


If they feel like an activity they’re doing is open ended or a waste of time, that’s just asking for trouble. So, make sure you’re giving them purpose and structure when they are doing certain activities whcih may not be structured enough.


For example, you can say “I want you to get your science textbook from your locker and come right back to class. You have two minutes”.

Or, “by the end of this work period, you should finish one paragraph. I will check on you every five minutes”.


When students know exactly what they need to accomplish during a time where there is little teacher led instruction, they are much more likely be able to complete it. Additionally, if they do not, then you have another jumping off point for how to work with them.

Were they not able to do it? Did they choose not to do it? Were they distracted? These are all things you can work with the student on to figure out how to best move forward and make them more successful.


Give transition warnings and reminders


Sometimes students have difficulty moving between structured and unstructured time because they did not expect the change to occur so suddenly.


Giving students warnings when transitions are going to be happening can help them to prepare mentally for what is going to occur.

Further, reminding of them of what the expectations are during the transition is also helpful. This way, they not only know that the transition will be happening, they can prepare for all of the expectations they’ll be needing to follow.


This is easy to do before something like recess, but can be more challenging when students are finished and coming in from recess.

You often can’t, or don’t want to, have to cut your lunch hour short to track down a student to tell them recess is almost over and how to come into the classroom. Instead, when you go to collect the class from recess, just go remind the student of expectations for being in the halls and coming back into the room.


Encourage group games


This tip can go either way, depending on the student. Sometimes it can be rough if the student has difficulty playing with others, but learning how to properly play games and interact with peers is a life skill. And believe me, you know as well as I do that other kids will definitely tell them if they’re being out of line.


Group activities are often a good choice for some kids because they tend to have a clear structure and rules. There is also, generally, a purpose.


Games like grounders, tag, soccer, four square, and so on offer kids who get bored and need purpose something very clear to do.


Of course, if you have a student who is overly competitive, doesn’t play by rules, or hates losing, those are skills to work on first before thrusting them into a situation you know they’ll fail at.


Encourage participation in clubs


Some of our students who have challenges with unstructured time are not involved in any activities outside of school.


They may have trouble engaging with peers or doing things other than being on technology.


If we can get them to sign up for a school club, team, or activity, this can be a really great option for teaching them skills they may be lacking.


Some schools may be small and not have many options, but even something as simple as a “game club” where kids come in at lunch once a week and play board games is helpful. It will encourage kids to take turns, play with others, use imagination, and have fun.

Plus, a teacher will be supervising to help build these skills and nip any issues in the bud.

What do you think? Are these tips helpful? Have you tried any of them before? Let me know!

Enjoyed this? Here are some other blog posts on Katie is a Teacher you may like:

Want even more? Here are some Katie is a Teacher resources you may be interested in:

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