Keeping Rules Front and Center During the Winter Slump

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.
Recently I noticed my first graders having more trouble than usual sticking to our classroom rules. Several possible explanations came to mind as I began to reflect:

“Am I not doing something I should be doing, such as giving reinforcing feedback when I see the children following procedures? Am I not proactively reminding them of our rules so as to set them up for success before an activity? Or is it just that it’s been a very cold, long winter, even here in the South, and spring is taking its good old time getting here?”

I could honestly answer that I was giving reinforcing feedback and proactive reminders. I was also redirecting the children with verbal and nonverbal cues and logical consequences when their behavior veered off track. And I was ensuring that the children’s schoolwork was engaging and appropriately challenging. I made a mental note to keep doing these things and even ramping up my efforts. But I also knew that I needed to do something special to help the children keep their rules alive during this midyear slump.

Going Public With Our Goals

Keeping the rules alive isn’t new to my students. I often have them think about our rules and pick one to work on for the day. They don’t have to let me or anyone else know which rule they picked; they just have to privately push themselves to abide by that rule. Throughout the day, I simply make sure I observe and comment on the rule-respecting behavior I notice, such as by saying, “I see several desk areas are looking neater. Maybe it’s because some of you decided to work on our rule of respecting the classroom environment.”

But now I wanted to go a step further. So one Monday morning, I gathered the class in a circle on the meeting rug. I told them we were going to pair up with a classmate, tell them which rule we were going to work on, and ask them to help us with that effort. This new element—making our goal public and asking someone for help—would, I hoped, make the difference in whether we stayed rule respecters through these challenging winter months.

My student teacher and I modeled. We sat knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye, and I told her that I wanted to do a better job keeping my teacher work space neat and organized. I noted that I often left for a meeting or for home in a hurry without straightening my papers and books, and that taking a moment to tidy up would be working on Rule 3—“Respect our classroom environment.” Then I said, “Ms. F., would you help me by giving me a gentle reminder whenever you notice things out of place?” Ms. F. said she would be happy to help. Next, Ms. F. shared her rule-respecting goal with me and asked for my help.

Varied Goals

After naming what they noticed about this modeling, the children paired up and talked with their partners just the way they saw Ms. F. and me do it. I circulated and listened in. Their goals were varied. Some students said they wanted to use kinder words when talking with their tablemates. Others said they would try to be the fastest when they noticed the quiet signal. Yet others shared that they were going to focus on getting to work right away after hearing the teachers’ directions. All of the partners seemed supportive of each other.

As the day unfolded, I observed and used reinforcing language to comment on how quickly students got down to work, the kind words being exchanged among neighbors, and the positive choices students made when working cooperatively during a phonics activity.

At the end of the day, as we cleaned up and packed to go home, I overheard one of the students say, “I’d better pick up my crayons and markers and put them in my pouch because Madison will be coming over here to remind me.” That’s when I knew for sure that the few minutes we spent making our goals public and asking for help had improved our classroom environment.

Gayle Robert teaches at Mimosa Park Elementary School in Luling, Louisiana. She is a Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher.

Tags: Classroom Rules, Middle of the Year, Revisiting Rules, School Breaks