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.
It’s also important to minimize the number of disruptions and distractions in your class. 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, you must remember to keep your rules simple. To make your rules simple, it’s important that your classroom has 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.
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 student learning.
How to Display and Teach Rules
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.
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 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. 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.
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? Consider giving students the opportunity to participate in the rule-creation process.
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 additionally helps teachers better model how one abides by a set of expectations.