7 Ways to Challenge Early Finishers

Early finishers.

The kids college didn’t prepare me for.

I mean, when I wrote out my 30 minute lesson plan with 20 minutes of work time, student-teacher me fully expected all kids to be working exactly 20 minutes on my assignment, group project, whatever.

Boy, was I in for it the first time I taught a lesson.

You mean to tell me some kids will take 5 minutes to finish the assignment, some 10, some 15 minutes, some 45 minutes, and almost NO ONE will take my planned 20 minutes to finish the assignment???

THAT was a rude awakening!

10 years in the classroom later, and I learned exactly how to manage all of these different finish times.  I definitely didn’t get it right the first year, but it was definitely closer by year 10.

When I Finish, I Can…

Somewhere into my first year teaching, I came up with an I can list for my early finishers.  And at first, it wasn’t that great.  It basically said,

“When I finish, I can…read a book.”


But over the years, I found many more things to add to that list that I was comfortable with my early finishers doing and that would actually challenge them.

It’s important to note that there are PLENTY more things that I could add to this list that would be challenging…like STEM related and building challenges.  But one thing I’ve learned is that choices for early finishers need to be challenging and engaging, but also easy to clean up.  If it takes the early finishers three times as long to clean up a mess they got out just 5 minutes ago, it is instructional time wasted and defeats the point!

So to make it to my list for early finishers, it has to be engaging, challenging, and an easy clean up!

Let’s look at 7 things to use for early finishers.

1. Unfinished Work

Okay, so this one isn’t glamorous.  And it isn’t necessarily engaging and challenging, but it is necessary.

In my classroom, unfinished work is always ALWAYS the first thing early finishers do.  Now, many of my early finishers don’t have work that is unfinished because that’s why they are early finishers.

But some of my early finisher friends are ones who…ya know… rush through writing because they don’t like writing and do “just enough” in the messiest of ways to finish through.  And those kids often have work from other areas they need to finish.  And sometimes that’s all the encouragement they need to actually go back and do their best work on their writing so they can actually get to the other, more “engaging” early finisher options! 🙂 #realtalk

Each kid has a folder in his/her desk for unfinished work.  And unless that folder is empty, early finishers will camp out here.

2. Reading

Yep, you read that right.  Reading is still on my list.  Because there are plenty of kiddos out there who are engaged, challenged and on-task when their nose is in a book.  My own kid is one of those.  Give him a good book, and you won’t hear from him for at least 30 minutes!

But reading isn’t just about babysitting.

I always give my early finishers specific things to read for specific reasons:

  • familiar reading (like guided reading books, poetry folder, etc to practice fluency)
  • independent reading (like library books, books they’ve chosen on their independent reading level, etc.)
  • content reading (like books that are connected to our big idea in science or social studies)

Those content books are kept in a tub in our room for those early finishers to browse through and read.

So our early finisher chart says, “I can read to practice fluency” and “I can read to learn more about our big idea.”


Adding purpose to their reading adds challenge and engagement.

3. Puzzles

The next thing I love to do is give puzzles.  This gives a choice for my math minded firsties!  I always have 100’s chart puzzles on hand for kids to work on alone or with a partner.

These puzzles are easy prep, and can be changed throughout the year to add freshness, but with the same routine, so there is no need to teach how to do this over and over!

Also, when I return to the classroom, I would love to add a class puzzle!  This is an idea that came to me while I have been on mommy leave.  Our family loves having a puzzle going–especially during the winter!


I would love to have a table in our room devoted to a class puzzle with 100 pieces or more for kids to sit at and work on as they finish early.  What a great way to encourage collaboration, teamwork and logic all while engaging and challenging early finishers!  Plus, there’s no need to clean it up until the puzzle is finished!

4. Handwriting

Handwriting always seems to get cut in my first grade classroom.  We have time for it the first few weeks and then once guided reading starts, handwriting goes! #realtalk

But that doesn’t mean handwriting doesn’t need work.  And many times, early finishers struggle the most with taking their time to write neatly. #amiright?

I actually got this idea from another teacher late in my teaching career.  We save extra handwriting practice pages from the beginning of the year and put them in a bucket.  Then, early finishers can go grab a page and they practice writing with a marker or crayon.

Because everyone knows that handwriting is way more fun with markers! 🙂

Later in the year, when we run out of pages, I just print some off from my handwriting packet and add to the tub as needed!

Truth Time:  Some of my early finisher friends, have this choice as a must before moving on, because they need the extra practice (and don’t always want to choose to work on it!)

5. Journal Writing

This one has been on my early finishers chart from the beginning!  Sometimes, kids just finish writing from writers’ workshop.

But I also have letter paper available.  Kids can write a private note to me about whatever they want (best way to get info on kids–ever!) or a note to a friend.  Notes are turned in to me and then I read them and deliver them to the other kids (after I make sure they are ok) as needed!

The notes that are written to me, I try and write a quick note back to those kiddos before I return them–which makes this choice super engaging for lots of attention seeking friends!


6. Board Games

Here’s another one I plan to add when I return to the classroom: Board Games!  Over the last couple of years, I have learned how important specific board games can be in growing critical thinking skills and logic in our kids!  You can read more about that in this blog post.

Board games that encourage these important skills and are easy and quick to clean up are on my list!  For early finishers, I would prefer games that I can limit the players to 2 players only to help the noise level.  In my classroom early finishers always work alone or with one partner only just to help the management!

You can find my must have games for the classroom in this post and plenty of these are easy clean up and good for just 2 players!

7. Counting Collections

I just love counting collections.  And, yes, this is probably the one that’s the most difficult to clean up quickly, but if managed correctly, can be done.

If you are unfamiliar with Counting Collections, start with this post and then meet me back here. 🙂

Now that we all know what Counting Collections is, we can all see how fabulous this could be for early finishers!  This is not one I had in my classroom (other than our regular CC routine), but I definitely plan to add it to my early finisher list when I return to the classroom after Mommy break!

Many counting tubs can be done quickly with an easy clean up.  Some can’t.  So, you will need to be choosy about which tubs qualify for early finishers.

The best way to organize this is to have a separate shelf for early finisher Counting Collections.  I plan to have just 2-3 tubs or ziplock bags of seasonal items to count.  Things I’m thinking about that would be easy cleanup would be…

  • Seasonal Diecuts
  • Pop Cubes or other math manipulatives
  • Small Stickers – great for fine motor practice and easy to record counting

Of course, just like regular Counting Collections, students will need to record how they counted to extend their thinking!

Managing Early Finishers

From the first week of school, we have our early finishers chart posted in our room.  But it’s not a complete chart.  It usually just starts out with reading only as a choice!  That’s because that’s one of the few things we know a routine for during the first week of school.

I’d be asking for it if I let kids play board games and puzzles the first week!

As the year progresses, we add unfinished work, handwriting, journal writing, and more “hands on” options later in the year!  For example, once our counting collections regular routine is strong and kids can handle it independently while I pull groups, then I know they are ready for it to be a choice for early finishers!

Want the early finisher chart I use?  Download it here!

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