Simple and meaningful activities for early finishers

What to do (and what not to do) with fast finishersI can’t begin to tell you how many emails I’ve received from teachers at their wits end about this dilemma. You know the one: the whole class is completing the same simple math test, but one kid is done in less than three minutes while another child is still picking at his pencil eraser twenty minutes later (and his name isn’t even on the paper yet). What in the world are you supposed to do with kids who finish their work so much more quickly than everyone else?

Fortunately, there ARE solutions for fast finishers…but those solutions aren’t all created equally. Here’s a list of things I’ve tried in my classroom, ranked according to how effective I’ve found them to be:

Early finisher activities to use sparingly:

  • Helping other students. Peer teaching is a great when done purposefully and occasionally. But high achievers shouldn’t spent all their free time tutoring the low-achieving students. I learned this lesson early in my teaching career when the parent of a gifted child found out I was using this strategy and said, “That’s great that she’s teaching the other children. It’s an act of kindness and it allows her to think deeply about the topics. But what are you doing to challenge MY child and teach on her level?” I didn’t have an answer for that, and as a result, I started to really re-think the ways I addressed the needs of my fast finishers.
  • Helping the teacher. Let’s be honest: cleaning the class room and running errands aren’t really helping kids achieve learning goals. Kids often enjoy those tasks and they’re really useful for the teacher, but we have to stay focused on the reason why kids (even high-achieving kids) come to school: to learn. They deserve to spend most of their day being challenged, not working as an unpaid teacher assistant. As helpful as it is to have a child cut out your laminating, it’s best for the child if we save that sort of thing for them to do before or after school.
  • Doing more work. Nothing drains away a student’s feeling of accomplishment more than being told, “Great job with page 43! Now you can do page 44, too!” I can tell you from experience that the light literally disappears from their eyes when a teacher says that. After all, there’s no reason to finish your work if you’re just going to be given busy work or be told to do twice as much as the rest of the class. Overusing this strategy will result in your early finishers wasting time and dilly-dallying so that they don’t finish before their peers. No one wins.
  • Busy work and non-educational activities. If the only reason you’re giving a child an assignment is to keep them from bugging you or their friends, it’s busy work. Coloring sheets, dot-to-dots, word searches…we’ve all given them at one time or another. These things will keep kids (somewhat) quiet but don’t really engage them for any length of time, nor do they get you the most bang for your buck in terms of educational value. An occasional crossword puzzle won’t hurt anything, but look at the big picture: we only have our students for 10 short months, and much of that time has to be spent on test-driven learning. Our students desperately need more opportunities for critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. If they have a spare moment, it’s pretty precious, and it’s our choice whether to fill it with busy work or really utilize it.

Better options for early finishers:

  • Fun, meaningful, and differentiated activity packets. These types of activities abound on the internet. Some are high quality, others are really nothing more than busy work. However, if you choose activities that are enjoyable and push students toward their learning goals, this can be decent option for fast finishers. For a couple of years, I put together “math fun packets” for my students which were a collection of challenging higher-level thinking activities (from various teacher resource books) that the kids loved. They got a new packet every quarter and could work on the pages in any order whenever they had time during our math block. I created three slightly different versions of the packet (below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level) so that students were getting differentiated skill practice. It took some time to put these together, but since I only did it once a quarter and could re-use them from year to year, it was worth it.
  • Computer-based skill reinforcement activities. One of the best things about technology in the classroom is how easy it becomes to individualize instruction. High achieving students can be challenged by completing more advanced programs and games online; average workers who are fast finishers can play learning games that allow for reinforcement of skills they need more practice with. I’ve used CompassLearning Odyssey (my district had a subscription) for this purpose with great success: I created individualized learning paths for my students quickly and easily, and could track their progress. If you have iPads in the classroom, there are inexpensive apps that can do the same thing.
  • Individualized projects on topics the kids are passionate about. This is one of my favorites. If you have a handful of kids that are high achieving and always seem to finish before someone else, meet with them one-on-one and design long-term projects they can pursue for the entire quarter. That’s not as much work for the teacher as it sounds like: one project idea that has been a hit with lots of my high-achieving third graders is researching animal adaptations and then creating a pop-book, slideshow, etc. for the class. They spend weeks reading books and websites on the topic and taking notes, then a few more weeks putting together their project (spending maybe 20 minutes a day on it.)  This works really well for self-directed kids, who often create the project topic and guidelines themselves by the second semester.

My favorite solutions for early finishers:

  • Differentiate your instruction as much as possible. This is the ultimate solution to the early finisher dilemma, because students won’t finish early (or fall behind) as often when their tasks are differentiated and individualized. It takes time to learn how to do this (new teachers, don’t stress out!) but the better you get at it, the less often you’ll hear, “I’m done! Now what?” Open-ended activities are a great step in the right direction: try giving more of those as a start toward increased differentiation.
  • Structure your classroom so that everyone is not expected to do the same thing at the same time. Moving away from whole-group instruction and practice will allow students to spend more time working collaboratively, in small groups, in centers, etc. These learning opportunities are not only more meaningful for students in many cases, they also eliminate the problem of having the entire class disrupted when one student finishes and starts doing something different…and it prevents the competition aspect of kids feeling pressured to hurry up once they see that their peers are done.
  • Have kids READ when they’re done early. This is my number one activity for fast finishers because reading is ALWAYS a great use of students’ time. And bonus: it’s also the easiest for the teacher to manage! Let kids self-select a few books and keep them a book bin. Whenever they finish their work, they can grab their bin and choose one of the books to read. I gave my students the option to switch some or all of their books out once a week during morning work time so they always had engaging reading material that they were looking forward to digging into.

The Cornerstone BookIf you’re looking for more tips, I’ve written on a similar topic in chapter 28 of The Cornerstone book: it’s called “Time Management for Kids: Meeting the Needs of Slower Workers and Fast Finishers.” The chapter explains how to teach kids to manage their time wisely and provide logical consequences (rather than punishment) for students who don’t complete their work on time. It also explores ways you can plan student workloads according to individual needs: once you understand why a student is constantly falling behind or finishing before everyone else, it becomes much easier to choose helpful accommodations.

What do fast finishers do in your classroom? How do you meet the needs of kids who finish their work early?

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marianne Ainsworth September 11, 2012 at 10:24 am

Love the Blog. I love the reading idea, but use with caution. Students need to be taught how to select “just right” books. I’ve had kids spend all their time out of their seat “choosing” books and never actually reading.

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2 Angela Watson September 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Great point, Marianne! Teaching kids how to choose books and care for them appropriately is a really important part of the beginning of the school year. One nice thing about having kids keep the book bins I mentioned in the post is that they only choose new books once per week, and the teacher can check the bins to see what kids are reading.

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3 Karen September 11, 2012 at 7:18 pm

As a middle school English teacher, reading is always my go-to solution for fast finishers. I typically have an assignment for students each quarter or semester that involves a book they choose and do some sort of report or project over, so everyone should have a book all the time. Also, I generally have weekly vocabulary tests, so there is always the option to study vocabulary if a student has a few extra minutes. I like your idea of differentiated activity packets, though, and that’s something I never thought about. I’ll have to think about that one. When I was in elementary school, I remember doing SRA, which was basically that. Does SRA still exist? Is it only for elementary kids? I’m off to do some Googling!

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4 Angela Watson September 11, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Hi, Karen! I love the idea of giving kids one assignment each quarter based on the book of their choosing. SRA is indeed still around and there are materials for middle school kids.

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5 special education philippines September 11, 2012 at 9:01 pm

I am a homeschooling parent to my child who has ADHD, inattentive type. In our experience, when he finishes his task early we let him do the things he is interested the most – read books (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Newberry Awardee Books, Almanacs, etc). Now we are trying to help him create projects based from his favorite novels like joining essay contests, making his own joke book, and writing short stories.

In the special school I used to work for when a child finishes his task early, I let them do their homework early so that they have less work to do at home.

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6 Angela Watson September 11, 2012 at 10:31 pm

That’s perfect! How wonderful that your encourage your son to pursue his interests and dig more deeply into things he’s passionate about. :-)

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7 Valerie Baxter September 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm

I teach 2nd graders and find they ALWAYS want to be busy. My students have several choices, which are written on a poster for them to reference… They can read to self, work on differentiated math packets (like you mentioned), write a friendly letter to another 2nd grade pal, write in our class “Fish Tales” journal (based off the book Memoirs of a Goldfish – we are creating our own class journal of the fish in our class), or work on ixl.com for math practice. On Fridays, I also let them write/make books or play buddy games (math based).

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8 Valerie Baxter September 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm

I should add that I like the variety of choices (besides reading to self ) the students have and they like it too. Particularly at the beginning of the year, when the students are still building their stamina for reading to self and there are still a few low readers, the choice keeps them actively engaged.

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9 Kim Scanlon September 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm

I have a poster I created that gives them several options to do when they finish early. 1. Read a book 2. Ask questions time with me (content questions they don’t want to ask in front of class) 3. Begin homework and ask for help 4. Write a book suggestion (these are showcased on my reading recommendation board) 5. A journal entry about the day’s classes or what they’ve learned 6. Short story writing. I am working to set up activity centers, individual content practice like similes, verbs, etc. they will have a checklist and be expected to finish so many activities per 6 weeks.

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10 Sarah September 25, 2012 at 5:25 am

Hi.. I have a possible solution for getting students to self-select relevant books. When getting students to self select books that are the right level for them I get them to use the five finger test. If there are more that five words on a page that they either can’t read or can’t work outr the meaning of the text is too hard for them. They can keep count on their fingers and it ensures that they can read the text. Hope this helps!!

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11 Angela Watson September 25, 2012 at 11:38 am

Hi, Sarah, thanks for mentioning this. The five finger test is a great strategy for helping kids find books on the appropriate level. I used it for a few years with my third graders and some of them really liked it.

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12 Beth April 21, 2014 at 7:24 pm

This post caught my attention because it is definitely something that I struggle with as a newbie teacher. These ideas are fantastic and I am bookmarking this page! :)

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13 Jennifer October 26, 2014 at 4:25 pm

I teach 1st grade and I have am currently creating a collection of “book bags.” I fill a gift bag with response activities that can be reused or easily replenished. Each bag is coded according to its difficulty so that all of my students have access to this opportunity. My kids love these bags and I’ve noticed that my students, who typically spend more time choosing than reading books, will actually sit and really enjoy the activities.

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14 Angela Watson November 2, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Love this idea! Thank you for sharing.

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