After a busy morning, Mr. Hulsey’s third graders are ready for lunch, squirming as they stand in line at their classroom door. Mr. Hulsey raises his hand, the agreed-upon class signal for attention. When everyone’s quiet and looking at him, he speaks: “Our rules say we’ll take care of each other and our environment. How will that look and sound in the lunchroom today?”
Students’ hands shoot up and the answers come readily: Speak in six-inch voices. Say “Thank you.” Remember to empty your tray. If you spill, clean it up.
“Sounds like we’re ready,” says Mr. Hulsey, signaling the line leader to lead the class to the cafeteria.
In this brief conversation, one of many such discussions he has with students each day about rules, Mr. Hulsey has helped his class prepare to follow their classroom rules in a specific situation—lunch in the cafeteria.
Such “rules talk,” a vital part of the Responsive Classroom approach to discipline, can yield great benefits. Through these conversations, we remind children that positive behavior is expected, and we help them understand how that behavior will look and sound. We reinforce the idea that rules (and the actions that express them) help make their community work. And we show children that thinking about behavior is a normal and important part of life.
Rules and the Responsive Classroom Approach
Teachers using the Responsive Classroom approach teach children that rules are necessary because they help us make school a safe place where everyone can learn. Responsive Classroom teachers assume that children will need practice as they learn to abide by classroom rules, and they understand that children will make mistakes as they learn. Instead of focusing on punishing rule-breakers, they concentrate on helping children gradually assume more and more responsibility for their own behavior.
Helping children apply behavior expectations to different classroom situations is an essential part of this process. It’s done by discussing and reflecting on rules throughout the day and the year, as part of planned lessons and in the moment as needed.
These discussions needn’t be long or weighty. In fact, it’s often best if they’re brief and immediate, closely linked in time to a particular situation. With a little practice, you’ll find it’s not hard to weave quick conversations about rules into daily life with your students. Here are some tips to get you started:
Begin with Meaningful Rules
In the Responsive Classroom approach to discipline, teachers and children work together to formulate classroom rules—expectations for how everyone will behave so that their days together are pleasant and everyone can learn. All year, but especially during the early weeks of school, teachers talk about why rules matter, how following the rules looks and sounds, and what will happen when children forget or decide not to follow the rules. Checking in about rules frequently makes sense to children if they started off the year this way.
However, even if you formulated your classroom rules by yourself and simply presented them to your class early in the year, the point is the same: to make conversations about rules effective, your students must know what the rules are, the reasons behind them, and the behaviors that go with them. Start by revisiting your classroom rules, if necessary.
Focus on Positives
Rules reminders are usually intended to help children apply general guidelines (“Be safe”) to specific situations (playing on the monkey bars at recess). Focus on the positive behaviors you want to see: What are some things we’ll do to be safe on the monkey bars today? If children reply in the negative—We won’t jump from the top to the ground—ask them to rephrase in the positive: We’ll climb down from the top.
In these brief discussions, avoid focusing on prior misbehaviors: Yesterday, you were roughhousing all over the playground, and several kids got pushed down and hurt. I don’t want to see that again! What will you do to make sure I don’t? Instead, help the children see what positive behaviors they can choose today: What can we do to make sure today’s recess is safer than yesterday’s? If you think you need to have a longer discussion about yesterday’s misbehaviors—what the misbehaviors were, why they happened, why they have to stop—do that separately.
Use Open-Ended Questions
Asking “So what’s the most important thing to remember about playing safely on the monkey bars?” will elicit far different answers from children than its open-ended counterpart, “What are some ways that we could follow our ‘Be safe’ rule when we play on the monkey bars?” Open-ended questions challenge students to think more deeply about the rules, draw on prior knowledge, and listen carefully to each other’s ideas. Closed-ended questions signal children that you simply want them to figure out what you think is the right answer and parrot it back to you.
Keep Reminders Brief
Have a quick conversation when you want children to remember the rules and connect them immediately to actions. Extended discussions of behavior (or any other topic) can be better handled in a class meeting or, if appropriate, a session with several children or just one child.
The duration of a rules talk will vary depending on the children’s age and ability to think reflectively about their behavior. If you teach younger children, you’ll probably want to keep brief conversations to a minute or so. With older students, three to five minutes is plenty of time for a check-in.
Ask Appropriate Questions
For younger students, try asking just one question about a single rule: Our second rule says “Take care of your classmates.” What’s one way you will do that during choice time today? Older students may be able to reflect on more complex questions. For example, in a conversation about playground behavior, you might say, “We have one rule that says ‘Be safe’ and another that says ‘Include everyone.’ Suppose you’re playing football and one of your classmates really wants to join in, but she’s never played before. What could you do to honor these two rules?”
Use Rules Talk Proactively and Reflectively
Talking about rules before any situation where following rules may be tricky can help prevent misbehavior. With ideas of what positive behavior looks and sounds like fresh in their minds, children not only have an easier time replicating that behavior but also understand the strong connection between their rules and their actions. Mr. Hulsey checked in with his class just before lunch—a situation that has proven challenging for his lively class. You might have a conversation about rules with your class before a whole-school meeting, a collaborative work session,a field trip, or any situation that has been (or might be) tough for your particular students.
Conversations about rules can also happen after an event to help students reflect on their behavior. After an especially difficult lunchtime, you might say, “Let’s look at our rules again. What was a hard rule to follow during lunch today?” For older students, you might add: “What could we do better next time?”
Talking Your Way to Positive Behavior
Talking about the rules with children helps them translate rules into everyday actions, but it does more than that. Rules talk demonstrates that rules are an important part of classroom life and that they apply equally to everyone. It also shows children that checking and reflecting on behavior is something all of us do, all the time. We’re learners throughout our lives, with responsibilities to ourselves and those around us—responsibilities that rules and rules talk can help us fulfill.
Based on the new, 2nd edition of Rules In School.
Rules In School: Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom offers practical techniques to help you set expectations, teach and reinforce positive behavior, and quickly get children back on track.