Creating Classroom Rules

Developing classroom rules is an integral part of building a solid foundation in your classroom. It may seem like a simple thing to do, but many new teachers and even seasoned veterans make rules in a way that sets them up for failure. My first few years in the classroom, I made simple mistakes that cost my students in a big way.

Use these tips for classroom rules to set your students up for success from day one!

This post is really meant to help you NOT do what I did. Check out these simple and easy to implement tips will set you and your students up for success from day one!

What is the difference between a RULE and a GUIDELINE? 

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a new teacher was that I did not clearly distinguish between my classroom rules and my classroom guidelines.

Guidelines are basic traits and behaviors that students can exhibit in order to be successful both in your classroom and life. 

The district in which I teach has implemented Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports. As a part of this, we came up with this school-wide pledge to recite with our students every morning:

I will come to school PREPARED to learn. 
I will act with RESPECT and INTEGRITY. 
I am DETERMINED to give my best EFFORT
to be all that I can be. 

Our PRIDE Pledge is a great example of Classroom Guidelines because it focuses on traits that we want to instill in students that will help them be successful both in the classroom and beyond.  These are general goals that we have agreed upon as a staff that we would like to reinforce in all of our classrooms.  However, they aren't great "rules" because what the terms mean and what they look like is up for discussion. 

Rules are specific and observable behaviors that have consequences tied to them when they are not followed. 

When followed, classroom rules should prevent the majority of classroom misbehaviors. Therefore, before writing your classroom rules, it is important to brainstorm all the behaviors you commonly experience. Then write 3-5 Classroom Rules that will address those behaviors proactively. The following tips will help ensure that you get the most out of your classroom rules! 

1.) Classroom Rules should be SPECIFIC. 

Classroom rules should consist of specific, observable behaviors. Avoid including attitudes or character traits, such as "Be Responsible". When rules are not specific and observable, they can be interpreted differently by different people. This leads to student confusion about the expectations and can result in power struggles. In the previous example, because "being responsible" is open for interpretation, students may try to defend their behavior when you correct them. Responsibility is an important trait for students to learn, and therefore it makes a better guideline than rule.  

2.) Classroom Rules should be POSITIVE. 

Classroom rules should also always be stated in a positive manner. Positivity sets the tone in your classroom that you expect students to be successful and will support them along the way. It focuses their attention directly on the positive, prosocial behavior you want to see instead of on the behavior you don't want to see. This is especially helpful when a rule has been broken because when you direct the student's attention to the rule, it will focus the student's attention on what you want to see, not what they may have been doing wrong.

3.) Classroom Rules should be ALWAYS TRUE. 

This was one of the biggest mistakes I made during my first years in the classroom. I would have a rule like, "Raise your hand for permission to speak." Yet, I didn't ALWAYS expect kids to raise their hands and wait for permission before speaking. For example, many times, it was perfectly acceptable for students to call out ideas when we were brainstorming. I never asked students to raise their hands when I posed questions to them in a small group. And I certainly didn't expect them to raise their hands and wait to speak when they were working with partners or small groups independently. Students were confused about when exactly the rule applied.  

This is when I realized that raising their hands was an EXPECTATION for specific routines during the day, but it wasn't really a RULE that was always true. Once I truly stuck with rules that were always true, and saved the rest for explicitly taught expectations, my students behaviors greatly improved. 

4.) Classroom Rules should be EXPLICITLY TAUGHT. 

In my early years, I knew I needed to break things down into smaller steps, but I just didn't realize HOW SMALL those steps needed to be. I also thought if I taught it once, then reviewed it, and let them practice, that my work was done. WRONG. The reality was, I didn't spend enough time teaching the rules and expectations, and I moved into academic content way too quickly. 

Neurologically speaking, it takes 
  • 8X for a child to learn something brand new
  • 28X for a child to unlearn an old behavior and learn a NEW one
  • 66X for brain's to develop a new neural pathway when changing from one routine to another
WHOA. If that's not proof that you want to teach rules and procedures right the first time, I don't know what is! Take your time and teach it thoroughly and correctly from the beginning. 

5.) Classroom Rules should be REINFORCED. 

Once you have determined your classroom rules, they should be posted somewhere prominently in your classroom. The most important part of this step is that you don't let the rules just become "wallpaper", something you hang up on your classroom wall with the intention to use, but rarely return to it. Your classroom walls are valuable "real estate", so don't waste the space by hanging up a lot of things you never use.

Posting your classroom rules is also a helpful tool when a student has broken the rule. When they are posted, you can use a nonverbal cue (such as pointing) to direct student attention to the rules poster. You could also hold up your finger to represent the number of the rule that has been broken if the student needs further clarification. This directs the students attention to the positive behavior that you wish them to exhibit. It also helps break eye contact, which can prevent the student from inviting you into a power struggle.

Stay tuned next week for a more in-depth look at designing your classroom routines and procedures.

Developing effective classroom rules is so important to the success of your classroom. Use these tips to set your students up for success!

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For this collaborative blog series, Dr. Tonja Irvine from Resource to Desk has also shared her perspective on how to create classroom contracts that are meaningful to students and effective. Check out her post here: 3 Tips for Making a Class Contract.  

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