One of hardest situations as a substitute is when students finish their assignments early or when a lesson plan left by the teacher does not cover the entire class time. It can quickly become difficult to manage student behavior if they have no task or direction during that "down time."
This article will cover some important considerations and ideas for filling extra time with appropriate activities.
Check Student Work
One important thing you should do, especially with students who finish early, is check to make sure that they have truly completed all of their assignment. This includes following all directions, such as answering questions in complete sentences or showing work on math problems. Ask students to finish or fix up anything that they need to fully complete their assignment.
If you have time at the start of the day, or when you notice that there will likely be extra time, ask an aide, a nearby staff member, or the office for a recommended activity that you can facilitate. Schools may have preferred activities and can provide you with resources.
Common Activity Options
When you consider your options, you want to choose an activity that fits the grade level, the amount of time remaining in class, and the materials available. You will want an activity that keeps students in an easily manageable situation; there are many fun activities that simply aren't a good option because they can invite wild or inappropriate behaviors.
Drawing / Coloring
This is an easy activity that works well for elementary and middle grades. Give students a blank page to draw on and to color if materials are available. If you need blank paper, it is okay to ask a classroom aide, a nearby staff member, or the office for paper.
It is helpful, especially for younger grades, to suggest some themes or ideas for their drawing, such as animals, pirates, outer space, or their favorite movie/cartoon characters.
Some elementary teachers keep stacks of coloring pages for students to use when they complete work, so that may be an option if available.
This activity can work well from 1st grade through high school. Give students a piece of blank lined paper for their writing. If you need lined paper, it is okay to ask a classroom aide, a nearby staff member, or the office for paper.
Similar to drawing, it is helpful to suggest some genres or prompts to give students a start. For example, you can suggest that students write a mystery story, or a funny story, or a magical story. Or, you might write a starter sentence on the board for them to base a story on. For example:
- You won't believe the crazy thing that I saw today. (Finish the story.)
- I got trapped in the zoo overnight. (Finish the story.)
- I woke up with a superpower. (Finish the story.)
You can also use thought-provoking prompts. For example:
- My future plans include...
- If I had all the time and money in the world, I would...
- My perfect day would be...
Call on student volunteers to share something from their work. This activity fits well for a shorter amount of extra time left in class. Students can share:
- an excerpt of something that they wrote
- their progress on a class project
- something that they learned that day
- something that they enjoyed from the day's work
Seated Class Games
Games that can be facilitated while students remain at their assigned seats are a fun option for extra time. It is also a good idea to choose games that are low-stress and that aren't overly competitive. You will only want to use this option if everyone is finished with their assignment so that it doesn't distract or rush those who are still working. Below are a few ideas for games.
We tend to think of these as something to do at the beginning of a class or when meeting new people, but ice breaker activities work great when there is extra time and can build community even later in the school year! One easy activity is to ask a general question and then take volunteers to answer. Questions can be serious or fun, but make sure they fit with the age group and are appropriate for school. Some examples for different ages include:
- What is your favorite (color, food, animal, cartoon character, sport, etc.)?
- What do you want to do when you grow up/graduate?
- Do you sleep with your socks on?
- What is the neatest place you have ever visited?
On the whiteboard, you can write students' responses or keep a tally—this helps everyone track what has been shared and can elicit more participation!
For this game, students who want to participate stand at their desk. You give each student, one at a time (moving from one end of the room to the other) a turn to answer or respond to whatever you decide for the game topic. For example, you could give each student a different word to spell, or a multiplication problem (0x0 through 12x12), or ask a question related to the day's reading or work. Students who answer correctly on their turn get to remain standing; students who answer incorrectly must sit down. You continue around the room until there is one winner standing.
For this game, students write the letters of the alphabet from A to Z, one letter per line, along the left side of their paper. Once everyone is ready, you give a topic, such as ANIMALS, and students write one word per line that starts with each letter, based on the topic (see example below). Give students 5 minutes to try and get a word for every letter. Students can play several rounds by creating a new column per round.
Topic Ideas: foods, superheroes, video games, school items, clothes, colors, sports
This game is commonly known as "hangman" but uses a snowman (or something else) to avoid the violent imagery. This game is appropriate for 3rd grade and up. You come up with a word or phrase, put blanks for each letter in the phrase on the whiteboard, and call on students to to guess letters. It is helpful to give students a topic, such as "video game" or "cartoon character" so that they can better guess the puzzle as letters get filled in.
You can draw a snowman or anything else that makes for a simple drawing that you can add details to (car, rocket ship, pizza, etc.). Traditionally, the student who correctly solves the word or phrase gets to come up with the next word or phrase. If you choose to do this, the student must share it with you first to ensure that it is appropriate and so that you can help with the right number of blanks and spelling.
No Personal Devices
Students in most grades, and especially in older grades, bring personal devices to school, including cell phones, smart watches, Air Pods, and gaming devices. Although some teachers may allow students to use personal devices during extra time (and students will be quick to point this out), there are many significant issues that can arise, including cyberbullying, theft, and streaming inappropriate content. Substitutes should not resort to allowing students to use personal devices to fill time.
Some substitutes might think about bringing in their own pre-printed copies of a fun handout or coloring page in case there is extra time, but schools are very guarded about materials and content. Even seemingly innocuous pages may upset school leaders who are responsible for approving classroom materials. If you do bring any pre-printed pages, you must get approval from school leadership to use them.
Movement and Competitive Games
Games that involve movement around the classroom can lead to wild or physical misbehavior, and some games may become overly competitive and lead to additional issues. These kinds of games should only be considered if there is a classroom aide to support or a very small, easily managed class.