Who Writes the Class Rules?

Who makes the rules in your classroom?

In the majority of classrooms, teachers allow the school rules to prevail, perhaps adding one or two that are specific to the group of students in the class. There are usually so many rules that they are typed out on a single sheet of 8.5 X 11 (sometimes 8.5 X 14!!) paper, in a small font, and tacked onto a bulletin board. Some teachers, realizing that no one can see them, duplicate the lists so that each child has his or her own copy to keep in a binder. Some of the rules are so trite that it is clear they were individualized. So when the teacher scolds a child and tells him/her that a rule has been broken, the student may have trouble discovering exactly which one (or two, or three).

Students are generally pretty aware of acceptable and unacceptable school and class behaviors. Often they get caught up in a moment and end up with an infraction. Except for a teacher, and possibly peers, the student has no one to remind him/her to hold back. The rules on the wall are too far to read, and the notebook was opened to an assignment–not the list of rules.

So how can teachers make seeing and following rules easier on their students? Have the class write its own rules.

“No way!!” say many educators. But the surprise is how readily the students engage in a rule-making session and, more importantly, how well they follow their own rules!

First, set a limit of how many rules they can have. I suggest 5 to 7. If this sounds low, consider that the students should be combining “similar rules” and discussing their similarities as they make suggestions. Seriously, when we read school rules that go on for a page or two, don’t we feel like some are nit-picking? The kids get it–they know what a simple rule like “Keep your hands to yourself” means. It means, “Don’t touch, hit, or hurt anyone, and keep your hands off others’ stuff!” They don’t need a rule for touching, another for hitting, a third for hurting by other means, and a fourth to keep their hands off people’s belongings without permission.

Second, make certain each rule is stated positively. Note that “Keep your hands to yourself” is stated in a “positive” way–that is, there are no Do-nots, Don’ts, Nos, or other words with negative connotations. Help the students rephrase negative-worded rules into positive statements.

Third, help students keep the length of each rule short–no more than five or six words per rule, if possible. The simpler the wording, the less the argument when a rule is broken.

Fourth (and most important!!), encourage the students to generate the rules. Be little more than the person recording and re-writing the rules on the Whiteboard. Let the students make the suggestions, give them time for discussion, and allow them to accept or reject each rule as it comes up.

Once the “general” rules are established and accepted by the class, transfer the rules to a sheet of posterboard, and write the rules out in large letters.

Post the rules at the front of the classroom, high enough to be seen by all of them, but clear of visual obstructions. For the first few days of school, review the rules with the students daily for a minute or two at the beginning of class or the school day. Sometimes, more discussion is needed by some students to clarify included behaviors.

During the first few days of school, instead of coming down hard on students who infringe on the rules, point out to them which of the rules the behavior violated. Allow other students to make constructive criticism or offer a better explanation. Your students may find that they need to add a rule or re-state one to accommodate something no one thought of on the first day. Remember that amendments are made all the time to the Constitution. These rules are the class’ constitution.

Above all, encourage students to help each other keep from breaking rules. Peer pressure can be positive as well as negative.

Have some sort of reward that the class can earn–perhaps 15 minutes of “free time” (make sure you define allowed activities clearly) at the end of Friday’s class if only one person breaks 1 rule during the week, for example. This works better for middle school and high school students who spend limited time in a class each day. For younger children or self-contained classes, the number of broken rules can be higher–at least during the first few weeks of school.

By the way, this also works with college students when class management is a problem.

Let me know what you think of this. If you already do something like this with your classes, share the successes and the unexpected experiences. We’d love to hear from you!!