Research School Network: Establishing Effective Routines in School Culture James Dyke on how to establish and embed routines

Establishing Effective Routines in School Culture

James Dyke on how to establish and embed routines

by Bradford Research School
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In the first blog on this series concerning routines in school cultures, we explored the what’ and the why’.

If routines (or habits, formed by a contextual cue or trigger) are quite so crucial and empowering for both teachers and students, then we must explore the research and thinking behind how to establish them, how to get them off the ground’.

Why are effective routines difficult to establish (and maintain)?

As James Clear points out in Atomic Habits’:

All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time

Routines are thus a juxtaposition of an oak tree’s strength once established and embedded, with that of a delicate growing petal that can easily become damaged, twisted or mutated during its inception. In order to allow the roots of routine to become an anchor, we must spend the un-glamorous time establishing them, cultivating them, repetitively tending to them and never neglecting them.

As noted by Peps McCrea, routines take time to establish and are often accompanied by a dip’ in performance. In essence, they are easy to give up on. How many times, following the beginning of a new academic year, or perhaps following a static winter holiday, have you considered, and perhaps begun to attempt, to build the habit of a morning run or trip to the gym? Perhaps you succeeded for a week or two, only to allow life to prove a distraction and the newly formed habit to weakly dissipate into good intentions.

The same occurs in classrooms. If strong and effective routines were easy solutions to all of our classroom-based woes, then every teacher in the land would have them sussed and we would be concerning ourselves with something more pertinent.

Before working in a more centrally routines-driven school, I was very much left to my own devices when it came to creating routines. Some worked. Some failed. Those that failed were the ones that were either too unclear or complicated for the students, or were simply given up on by me when things became tough last lesson on a stuffy Friday.

How should we establish and then sustain effective routines?

I’d like to introduce the caveat that the most effective routines, no matter the quality or experience of the teacher establishing them, will be underpinned by a rigorous whole school system or culture. Routines that are consistent across classrooms, whole year group spaces, social spaces and teachers have a much higher chance of success than those that sit outside of these established norms’. As noted in the previous blog, a great routine is simply a social norm, and norms do not exist until they permeate a culture.

A great routine will be contain simplicity, whether that’s in its initial cue (the trigger for the routines) or in its execution for the students. Therefore, for school leaders, it’s worth concentrating on two details:

  1. The design of the cue
  2. The effort of the initial action

A well-designed cue should offer a distinct and clear signal to students with regard to what you want them to do: If teacher does X, I do Y. This cue should be distinct from others and multi-modal helps. Take for example our hands up routine at Dixons Trinity Chapeltown:

  1. Teacher raises hand (cue)
  2. Students fall silent (action)

There is clarity in the cue as it is a distinct action (there is no other time in which teachers raise their hands in this way) and it is not combined with any convoluted vocal instructions. In fact, in coaching, we often provide teachers with feedback not to ever speak over their own raised hands so as not to mutate the routine.

Similarly, a vocal cue that is used regularly in the service of celebration and praise is two claps after three’:

  1. Teacher states: Two claps after 3: 1,2,3
  2. Students clap twice

This time, the cue is vocal and distinct – there is no other time this particular phrasing is used and the initial action required of the students is minimal (it is, in fact, less onerous than an actual round of applause).

Once introduced, a routine’s effectiveness, or automaticity, should never be taken for granted. Not only will we soon enter the valley of latent potential’, but it will always need cultivating. As McCrea notes, a dip in performance of a routine is natural – perhaps, the delivery of the routine today was slightly muted, mumbled or rushed; perhaps some students weren’t listening; as I am typing this, my classroom resembles a sauna and even I would struggle to generate the effort required to pass paper out efficiently during the final lesson of the day. This dip is known as the valley of latent potential, and is inspired by James Clear in Atomic Habits.


We expect a routine to follow a straight trajectory upwards in its effectiveness when, conversely, it may go backwards due to complacency or other factors as mentioned above. This is the crucial point: we must push through. A lacklustre routine execution is enough to make staff want to give up, and this is where many routines fail. Instead, multiple repetitions are required. Perhaps a reset of the routine, and a reminder of its existence, followed by a practice are required. Whatever it takes to tighten up the routine and keep it alive: cultivation. Some require 20 repetitions, some 200. All will require attention.

As a school, we regularly return to the basics at the start of new terms or academic years, insisting that students and staff practice routines so that they remain consistent, tight and mutations do not occur. We also respond to soft data around the academy – which routines could do with attention for staff or students? Where might consistency slip?

In addition, for many school leaders it is tempting to implement hordes of new routines at the beginning of new school years or terms. This is asking for routines to fall beside the wayside – concentrating on the perfect execution over time of one, highest leverage, routine is more important than throwing five at both staff and students and hoping they stick. Implement them gradually, intelligently and stick them, and you will soon cultivate a garden.

The final image I would like to leave you with is one where routines are so well embedded that they take on a life of their own. At DTC, at around 7.59 every morning, you will observe a strange phenomenon: In the lecture theatre, a place where Year 10 (our vanguard year group) reside, the noise and chatter suddenly dips, and eyes glance at the clock – still 7:59; the conversation continues and the noise rises again, before almost automatically disappearing as the clock turns 8:00. By this point, staff have barely had a chance to raise their hands (the cue): the routine looked after itself.

By the end of Year 10, students will have experienced this precise routine around 700 times and that is reason why it works. It didn’t happen overnight, nor will we neglect it.

James Dyke is Head of English at Dixons Trinity Chapeltown. He is also an Evidence Lead for Dixons Academies Trust, focusing on the evidence around effective routines.

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