What’s in a Rule?

Rules reveal a lot about what is valued in classrooms and schools. Recently, when visiting classrooms in a large school district, I saw vivid examples of how the rules of each room influenced children’s behavior, cooperation, creativity, independence, and passion for learning. I saw how the rules reflected the teachers’ values—whether or not students had participated in making the rules. In each classroom I visited, I imagined what it might be like to be a student, and how living by the rules of that room might inspire (or thwart) my learning.

In one classroom I visited, I found children busy at work and moving around the room to gather materials. There was an audible buzz and energy in the room, as the children worked together and shared ideas. As I made my way over to a group in the corner, a student approached me, and said with a big smile, “We’re making up games to practice our math facts. Would you like to see our game?”

She led me to her group and on the way I spotted the classroom rules, posted at eye-level near the Morning Meeting circle and signed by all the children:

  • My hands are gentle.
  • My words are kind.
  • I am a good listener.
  • I can control myself.

These rules set positive expectations for behavior, and they communicate a deep level of respect and faith in the children’s abilities.

In another classroom, these were the rules posted high on the wall in red letters:

  • Follow directions the first time given!
  • Ask before you walk or talk.
  • Keep your hands, feet, objects, and negative comments to yourself.
  • Keep your area neat.
  • Complete all work.

These rules also describe desired behavior in positive terms, but they send a very different message about who the classroom belongs to, and they set a very different tone.

In this classroom, I observed a group of children sitting quietly with their hands up, waiting. I leaned over and asked them, “Tell me what you’re doing right now.” One whispered, barely audibly, “We need to sharpen our pencils so we can do our morning work.” They were following the “Ask before you walk or talk” rule, but the rule wasn’t inspiring independence. I imagined what might have happened if the rule had been “Take care of yourself and others” instead. Would these children have been working instead of waiting?

Rules define the classroom climate. Creating a joyful and engaging classroom environment, where all children feel safe and welcome and supported emotionally and cognitively, is best accomplished with rules that inspire courage and that show our faith in children’s innate desire to learn and to do well.

The most effective rules are those that help build strong learning communities and nurture engaged learning. Creating rules with students helps to ensure that their aspirations and intentions are included, and it motivates them, too. “Everyday Rules that Work!” gives an overview of how this process works, and you can see lots of examples from real classrooms on the Rules in School board on Pinterest, including this image of the charts a teacher made as she and her students worked through their rule-creation process.

Now is a great time to reflect on your classroom rules, whether you have made them already or are in the midst of co-creating them with students right now. Where do your rules fall? Do they demand compliance and control? Do they inspire cooperation and love for learning? It’s not too late to make adjustments. Here are some questions to guide your reflection:

  • How can you engage students in the rule creation process?
  • What positive visions do your rules inspire?
  • What beliefs about children are communicated in your rules?
  • How might your classroom rules build children’s independence, empathy, cooperation, and engagement in learning?
Learn more:

Teaching Self-Discipline


Babs Freeman-Loftis is a Responsive Classroom consultant.

Tags: Classroom Rules