How We Want Our School to Be

Several years ago, teachers at Ironia Elementary, a suburban New Jersey school with 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, began working with their students each September to create classroom rules—simple but powerful guidelines for behavior that set the stage for a productive year of learning. Once all teachers were invested in the yearly rules creation process, bullying and other misbehaviors diminished and the school culture improved.

Better, but Not Good Enough

But it wasn’t enough. “While it was important to have classroom rules that children were invested in, everyone knows that the areas outside the classroom are where children often feel least safe at school,” says Dennis Copeland, Ironia’s principal for the past six years. Staff shared Copeland’s growing concern about behavior in nonclassroom areas—on the bus, on the playground, and in the lunchroom.

Listening, Reflecting, Envisioning

So Copeland did what he always does when he needs to solve problems at his school: He listened. At faculty meetings, team meetings, PTO meetings, class meetings, back-to-school nights, and any other school event; on the website; and in face-to-face conversations with staff, students, and parents, he asked what kind of school they wanted to work at and be in. They reflected, envisioned, and answered.

Accepting the Challenge

After many months, when he sensed that they’d reached a solid understanding of how they wanted their school to be, Copeland invited the school community to join in a process to develop whole-school rules that would mirror the rules-creation process they were using in the classrooms. “Our goal was to provide a set of common expectations and consistency throughout the school,” said Copeland, “and we knew that to do this, we needed buy-in from students, teachers, administrators, parents, and every adult who interacted with children in our school. With almost 600 students and a staff of 70, we knew that building broad ownership would be no easy task.”

But they were up to the challenge. A little over a year later, Ironia had four powerful schoolwide rules that the community embraced, a more friendly school culture, fewer discipline problems, and a sense of pride in what they had created. Following are the highlights of their process.

Crafting Relevant, Workable Whole-School Rules

  1. With the help of two highly skilled Responsive Classroom–trained teachers, Janice Friedland and Cathy Murphy, Copeland forms a Whole-School Rules Committee led by vice principal Cynthia Mizelle and band teacher Vee Popat. In addition to the leaders, the committee consists of fourteen members: five grade level teachers, six lunch/recess aides, and three parents. Copeland emphasizes that while he will always be available to offer guidance and information, he wants this to be a “ground up” instead of a “top down” effort. It’s important that the committee—and ultimately the whole school community—”own the rules.”
  2. Meeting once or twice monthly during the school day, committee members identify behavior problems they’re noticing outside of classrooms and rules they think would be helpful in creating a more positive school climate.
  3. In all twenty-six homerooms, students also discuss behavior problems they’re noticing and rules that might help. Ten student representatives (two from each grade level) then report the distilled results of the discussions to the committee.
  4. The committee drafts Ironia’s whole school rules.
  5. Through emails, meetings, website postings, and letters home, Copeland shares the draft rules with the school com­munity and invites input.
  6. Using this input, the committee revises the rules and makes a plan, including setting the time frame, for notifying the entire school community of the final rules.
  7. Ironia’s Whole School Rules are shared and celebrated with the school community through grade-level student team meetings, monthly whole-school meetings, classroom Morning Meetings, parent-teacher conferences, staff meetings, PTO meetings, and back-to-school night presentations.
Ironia’s Whole School Rules
  1. I will think before I act and follow directions to keep my school and bus safe.
  2. I will take care of what belongs to me, my classmates, my school, and my bus.
  3. I will be kind and include others at school and on the bus.
  4. I will do my best and make smart choices at school and on the bus.

Rules to Love and Live By

Ironia’s powerful collaborative process yielded school rules that continue to be broadly embraced by students, staff, and parents. “Our quest to become a school that respects the voices of all is a spiral process,” reflects Copeland, “and one rooted in continuous improvement. As such, we will revisit our rules often to ensure that they continue to be embraced by all and help us to become the school we want to be.”

Bring positive behavior to your school. Two experienced administrators offer practical strategies for creating a positive school climate, reducing problem behaviors, and building behavior management skills. Each chapter of Responsive School Discipline: Essentials for Elementary School Leaders targets one key discipline issue and starts with a checklist of action steps. For comprehensive discipline reform, go through the chapters in order. For help with a particular challenge, go right to the chapter you need.

Mary Beth Forton is director of publications and communications for Northeast Foundation for Children. She’s a co-author of Rules in School and has helped create many other Responsive Classroom publications.
Tags: Building Schoolwide Community