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Classroom Management: Develop Clear Rules, Expectations

Jordan Catapano

As the character Jack states early in “Lord of the Flies,” “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages.” Of course, this novel eventually presents an absolute worst-case scenario we would never want our classrooms to devolve into.

We and our students know deep down that without rules and expectations, our classrooms can quickly become places where learning is less likely to happen. Behaviors inappropriate for the classroom environment are more likely to arise when there are few expectations for students to follow.

As teachers, we are the adults and the authority figures in our classrooms. As part of our responsibility to ensure students learn, we must create an environment via classroom management where students’ relational and academic behaviors are oriented in a manner most likely to ensure learning happens.

Classroom Management Rules and Expectations Improve Learning

There’s no doubt that the clearer the rules and expectations are, the more likely students will be to learn. Rules define the parameters of behavior for students, so they know what’s expected of them and also what behaviors are “Out of bounds.” When these rules are clearly defined, students are more likely to understand and abide by them.

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In “Classroom Management That Works,” Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering conclude from their research that, “The notion that designing and implementing rules and procedures in class and even at home has a profound impact on student behavior and on student learning,” noting that “the average number of disruptions in classes where rules and procedures were effectively implemented was 28 percentile points lower” than the average number of classroom disruptions without clear policies.

Fewer distractions mean more attention focused on the intended task. But beyond limiting distracting behaviors, effective rules and procedures can ensure that student energies are appropriately directed towards maximizing positive behaviors. We want our rules to show students both what to do and what not to do, so they have a clear framework of expectations to reference.

Categories of Rules

So what rules should you establish in your classroom? First, before you start listing every possible “Do this” and “Don’t do that,” keep in mind the number one rule about rules: They must be simple.

To make your rules simple, it’s important that your classroom have only a few. If you give a long list of rules and procedures, then it’s less likely students will remember or understand them all. Also, those few rules you end up producing should themselves be phrased in simple and easily understood terms. This likely means that your rules will be broad in scope, balancing that line between being specific enough to be black-and-white, while broad enough to be applied to multiple circumstances. It’s difficult to enforce expectations that aren’t established in your list; it’s also hard to enforce expectations that are gray and non-specific. The students need as much clarity as possible for what they ought or ought not to do.

One simple way to address multiple rules is to break them down into easily distinguishable categories. Not all rules relate to the same things, so putting them into categories helps students discern how and why they’re meant to be applied.

Some teachers like to distinguish between academic and behavior expectations. Academic expectations relate to how students ought to conduct themselves related to learning, homework, class activities, and so on. Behavioral expectations relate to how students interact with one another and contribute to a space where everyone can learn and feel safe. Other teachers like to have an “other” category that relates to special circumstances, including disaster drills, school assemblies, or recess.

Or instead of focusing on academics and behaviors, sometimes categories are best broken down by location. Some teachers might prefer to have rules for the classroom, hallway, self, others, and environment might make good umbrella rules that relate to many essentials in the classroom.

There’s no one-size-fits-all set of categories. What you establish should be what works best for you and your students. What works for a high school science teacher who sees her students one period a day will not be identical to what a third grade teacher will require of his students he’s working with throughout the day. Think through what will help you run your classroom in a manner that maximizes the positives and the learning.

How to Display and Teach Rules

Authors Mark and Christine Boynton remind us that, “Many teachers make the mistake of announcing rather than teaching parameters to their students. The truth is that students do not learn what's announced; they learn what they are taught.” It’s not enough for us to mention solely on day one what the rules are or to passively display them on the wall. Would you expect your students to learn the quadratic formula just by announcing it one day or hanging a poster somewhere?

Remember that expectations are taught, not passively absorbed. So how can we teach students to behave in ways that maximize their learning and the success of the total environment?

After introducing students to the rules and expectations, make sure that they are displayed in a manner that can be easily viewed and referenced. A large, colorful poster in an easy-to-see place in the classroom will work well. You don’t have to make this so imposing that it casts an Orwellian feel to your class, but if you expect students to abide by the expectations then making them easy to reference is essential.

But beyond just the introduction and posters, the most effective way to teach your expectations is to reinforce them in context. As situations come up that require abidance by certain procedures or expectations, make sure to verbally indicate this to students. If students do not follow the expectations, take a moment right then and there to remind them in a respectful way of what the expectation is. If teachers do this throughout the year, but especially early on, it can actually increase the amount of time dedicated to classroom instruction and dedicated learning. The opposite is true, too: if teachers fail to effectively reinforce these rules, then there’s a corresponding decrease in time that’s dedicated to instruction and learning.

Also, it’s important to model these actions yourself. If you expect students to think, speak, act, and interact in certain ways, make sure that you exemplify these characteristics. This is important first because it’s easier to enforce the rules we follow ourselves (rather than be a hypocrite), and second because our example shows students the “Rule in action.” By modeling the academic and behavioral expectations, we move from just announcing and enforcing to actually living out our expectations in a way others can emulate. Marzano reminds us to, “Model the behavior that you expect—at all times, but in particular when dealing with problem behavior.”   

Consequences

The poor convenience clerk in the animated series “The Simpsons” tells two disruptive customers, “I have asked you nicely not to mangle my merchandise. You leave me no choice but to … ask you nicely again.”

We could “Ask nicely” over and over again for students to abide by the rules and expectations, but we must remember that the other half of rules is the consequences. Now the real consequence of not following rules is that students’ educations suffer, and this should be reinforced to students. But other more immediate and tangible methods for consequence must be established as well.

When a discipline plan is effectively implemented, it’s unlikely that consequences will need to be delivered often. However, work with your administration to establish a clear sequence of consequential actions for failure to abide by certain rules. Consequences will vary depending on the type and severity of the action students take. Here are some suggestions for the types and degrees of consequence:

  • Teacher Recognition (silent signal, proximity control, “the teacher look,” etc.).
  • Verbal reinforcement/reminder of establish expectation.
  • Verbal warning.
  • A “Time Out” or isolation.
  • Loss of privilege.
  • Referral to an administrator (which the student may receive additional consequences).
  • Contact home to parent.
  • Restorative justice/restitution.
  • Conference with parents/administrators/counselors.

It takes time for a teacher to comfortably distinguish between circumstances that require certain types or degrees of consequence. Consequences must be delivered in a manner that is fair and consistent for all students involved. Although, consequences must also fit the behavior: if the student breaks a rule from the “Academic” category of expectations, how might you treat that differently from breaking a “Classroom Respect” expectation?

Whatever the consequences are, teachers must remember that consequences are used as teaching tools. Consequences are not just punishments delivered to justly deserving students, but they exist to tangibly reinforce the positive expectations we desire. That’s why more than anything else, communication leading up to and following the delivery of a consequence is essential.

Finally, make sure that you’re spending time reinforcing positive behaviors (not just punishing negative ones). If we want students to continually exhibit the behaviors that lead to a classroom of success and respect, then try using “positive” versions of the consequences listed above: Praise students, contact parents and administrators to report good things, add privileges, and so on.

Creating Rules With Students

So far we’ve talked strictly about how teachers can establish and enforce their classroom expectations, but have you considered how students might also play a role in this process?

Marzano reports, “Effective management includes getting input, feedback and suggestions from the students. It is helpful to have a discussion of the purpose of rules and procedures and how they develop out of needs of the group.” He goes on to describe how students might participate in the rule-creation process to varying degrees. At one end of the spectrum, teachers establish all the rules for themselves and their students. At the other end of the spectrum students develop all of the rules. In the middle are various degrees of collaboration; teachers can establish the rules and seek student feedback and input, or students can play a more central role in the conversation.

Whatever the extent students play a role in establishing the classroom rules and expectations, make sure that you leave room for establishing policies for yourself as well. When teachers invite input and feedback regarding their own manner of conduct, this helps students feel like they have more ownership and control over their learning and additional helps teachers better model how one abides by a set of expectations.

How do you ensure that your classroom is a place that maximizes learning and reinforces positive behaviors? Share your thoughts without community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.