Teachers are stressed. Parents are stressed. Students are stressed. The past few school years have been overwhelming for just about everyone. As schools have done their best to try to navigate how to safely give students the best learning experience they can, they’ve had to make some tough decisions.

In many schools this has meant paring down the school schedule so that it’s more manageable, and time can be spent on making sure students are learning the essential basic curriculum. This is so important in order to make sure students are learning what they need to know, at grade-level, without being too overwhelmed.

But with so many cuts made to schedules, the end result could mean a schedule that makes it difficult for students to get the help they need, or to participate in enriching activities as they normally would.

Of course, some schools may have the opposite problem — instead of paring down their schedule they may have tried to keep their bell schedule exactly the same as they did in pre-Covid school years. With many students learning, and teachers teaching, in a hybrid or remote setting, it can be nearly impossible to keep up with the old schedule’s demands.

But is there a happy medium? A way to provide essential curriculum, but also give students time for other essential activities? Especially as many schools return to fully in-person learning, these are important questions. Flex periods, sometimes called activity periods, win time, as well as advisory, have their place in a school’s schedule for a variety of reasons. These can be used to help students build relationships with their teachers and fellow students, to receive extra help that they need, or intervention, to pursue a project that interests them — essentially its flexible time that can be used for whatever a student needs.

While this might seem like ‘extra’ time that should be stripped away to make room for more essential activities, we’d like to present 3 reasons why now, more than ever, flex periods are essential.

1. Giving students voice and choice

Everyone is feeling a loss of control right now. Especially in a remote learning setting, students may feel isolated, like they are slipping away from their peers and teachers.

Student voice matters because when students feel that they have no voice in decisions that are being made, they may start to feel that what they have to say doesn’t matter. They could start to feel disconnected from school and lose motivation.

Where do flex periods come into play? Some schools give students the freedom to chose how they want to use their flex time. This gives students the chance to make a choice about what they need, and what they want to do with their time. They can use their flex period to get help where they need it, or explore a topic or project they’re passionate about. Some kids may just need some downtime to read or talk with friends. Giving students the freedom of choice makes them feel empowered, and teaches them how to manage their time.

Flex periods can also provide opportunities for students to express what matters to them. How a student chooses to spend their time speaks to what they value. And of course, students should feel that their voices are heard in every class. But having a time period dedicated to giving students independent learning will only strengthen this.

Some schools have used this time to encourage students to give TED-style talks to their peers, perform a piece of music or poetry, share something that matters to them. In a year when there is so much chaos, a flex period can allow students to have some agency over their learning, and express what they are thinking and feeling.

2. Time for extra help

‘Covid slide’ is not a joke. Many students have experienced dramatic learning loss since the beginning of the pandemic. And now, it may be hard for them to meet with teachers like they did before to get the help they need. And teachers, who are already overburdened, have enough on their plate trying to come up with how to teach students in the classroom, and those at home, simultaneously.

A flex period builds time into the school day for extra help. Some schools are assigning a portion of their schedule as ‘office hours’, where teachers make themselves available for students to meet with them to get help.

Why is this so valuable? This way, students can continue to learn grade-level material in their regular classes. Then this built-in flex period can provide remediation if they need it, to help them catch up on things they’ve missed, and master what they’re learning right now. It’s not before or after school, it’s not during lunch. And it’s not an extra class that teachers have to teach.

Check out the hybrid schedule example below. At this high school, they include daily office hours and then a large chunk of time in the middle of the week for intervention and enrichment. The school days is shorter, 9-2, but still allows students to rotate through all of their classes. You’ll also note that this schedule includes weekly PLC time for staff, which is essential to identifying student needs and planning for interventions and enrichment.

3. Opportunities for SEL

Social-emotional learning is making its way into classrooms all over the world, and for good reason.

Stress, mental health issues, and trauma are on the increase. Students are bombarded with uncertainty, instability, and in many cases, violence.

How can flex time help? It cannot solve the problems that students are facing at home or in the community. But flex time is a great opportunity for school counselors to have a class period. They can use this time to run workshops and host guest speakers. But it can also be time for students to get the social and emotional supports that they need.

Some schools have used their flex period as a way for students to regularly meet with school counselors. They can meet one-on-one, or in small group settings, and if the school has one or more flex periods a day, this can be a way for counselors to meet with every single student in the school, multiple times a year.

It could be argued that this school year especially, students need social-emotional supports. They also need academic support, and they need to have voice and choice in their learning. 3 reasons not to cut your flex period this year. Your students need you, and they need time. We recognize that every school is different, and what may work for some may not work for others. But at the heart of every decision a school makes is students.

We’ve seen firsthand the passion that educators bring to the classroom, every day. Your students are priceless, and this is what drives the work you do. As the months push ahead we know educators are making the best decisions they can to give their students what they need.