Some Thoughts on Classroom Rules, Part 1

If you do a web search for “classroom management” you will get a lot of posts about classroom rules.  This reflects a common misconception about managing a classroom:  if you have enough good rules, the class will be managed. 

I beg to differ.

Rules are about discipline, not about management.  Management is structuring the classroom and the class in a way that ensures learning will take place and maximizing the amount of time for learning.  Discipline is something else.

A google search shows the definition of “discipline” is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”  So classroom rules fall in the category of discipline. 

I’ve said many times that I would rather work in a school that had a lot of procedures and no rules than in a school with a lot of rules and no procedures.  Why?  Rules do not guarantee that students will do what the rule says. 

An analogy might be the speed limit.  There are rules, laws, that govern how fast one can drive a car in a particular area, but most people tend to drive faster than the speed limit.  They are breaking the law, or not following the rule.  I include myself in that group of rule-breakers.  I travel about 6 miles an hour above the posted speed limit figuring the police won’t bother with me where there are others who are going much faster. 

Everyone who is exceeding the speed limit knows they are breaking the law, but they do it anyway.  Why?  Pretty much for the same reason I do it:  we figure we won’t get caught, and even if the police see us, they won’t do anything about it.

The same is usually true for students in school.  Just because there is a rule that says to do a certain thing doesn’t mean the student won’t do that thing.  They are likely to do that thing hoping they won’t get caught.  This casts the teacher in the role of behavior police, watching students for infractions of the rules and punishing them when they inevitably get caught.

What does this do to teachers and students?

Students view teachers as the enemy.
Okay, “enemy” is probably too strong a word.  Instead, think “them and us”.  Students learn that teachers are in the “them” or “other” group and his/her peers are in the “us” group of fellow conspirators.

We’ve known for a long time that student-teacher relationships are of paramount importance.  Students will do a lot of things for a teacher who they believe likes them than for a teacher they view as disliking them or even being indifferent to them. 

When a teacher’s “classroom management plan” is all about rules then relationships have little to do with whether or not the student will do what the teacher asks.  Now the stage has been set for a game of “catch me if you can”.  The student see that what s/he or his peers are doing is fun and the teacher is there to prevent them from having that fun.

Fred Jones observed “zones of proximity” in the classroom.  Students who are closest to the teacher are in the “red zone” meaning their negative behavior will likely cease.  Students a little further away from the teachers are in the “yellow zone” meaning they will proceed with a particular behavior with caution.  Students in the “green zone”, farthest from the teacher, have a green light to go ahead with whatever behavior because the teacher is likely too far away from the teacher for him/her to see the negative behaviors. 

Fred Jones, Zones of Proximity in the classroom

These “zones of proximity” are used as the reason teachers should continuously more around the room.  However, what happens if the teacher is working with a small reading group and other students are supposed to be involved with station work?  The teacher cannot move  around the room and continue to work with the reading group.  If students have learned that the teacher’s proximity is the reason why s/he is to “behave”, then it is likely that s/he will engage in proscribed behavior when s/he is at a station and not working directly with the teacher.

Harry and Rosemary Wong characterize rules as a dare.  I know of few students who will walk away from a dare!

Students learn to be more sneaky.
As a result of the previous point, students learn to hide their misbehavior. 

For example, back in the dark ages when I was in high school, we had a school rule against passing notes.  Remember, this was before cell phones or even personal computers, so writing notes was a way to communicate with your friends under the teachers’ noses.  My friends and I probably watched too many spy shows on TV, and we devised many ways to pass notes so that the teacher would never know.  My favorite way was to roll up the note and put it into the barrel of a ballpoint pen after I’d removed the ink cartridge.  I don’t recall ever having a note intercepted by a teacher when I used that method!

Being told we couldn’t pass notes didn’t result in us not passing notes.  We just found more and more clever ways to pass them. 

I think every teacher has had that student who, when confronted with breaking a rule, turns on an Oscar-quality performance, telling us that they did no such thing.  You’ve probably also had the student who can seem to turn the tears on and off at will, and who look at you with those big eyes brimming with tears begging us to overlook this egregious behavior “just this once”.  In my opinion, this is just another way of being sneaky about things.  These students have learned that if they are caught, they should prevaricate.

Students can’t do what they don’t know how to do.
For any desired behavior to actually happen, students have to be developmentally capable of it and they have to have been taught how to do it. 

For example, just saying “respect the teacher” doesn’t mean the child knows how to do that.  S/he may actually like the teacher very much, but the way s/he knows how to show that may be a long way off from what the teacher wants to see.

An example of this happened to a speech-language therapist working with kindergarten children.  Ms. X was seated on one of the tiny chairs and working with a small group of children, holding a conversation with them while in the regular classroom.  One of the girls in the class came up behind Ms. X, reached around her and squeezed both of Ms. X’s breasts saying, “honk, honk!”  Ms. X gently took the girls hands and pulled her around to face her.  “No, we don’t do that to ladies,” she said.  The little girl’s face crumpled, “But Daddy does that to Mommy all the time, and she likes it!”  Ms. X staggered into my office, laughing so hard she could barely walk, to share that story with me.  After laughing myself, I wound up having to call the child’s parents to suggest the adults be cognizant of how children soak up things like a sponge, and that children do not have filters about what is okay for some and not okay for others.

While this story is funny, it illustrates my case in point:  children do not always know what we mean by rules and sometimes they have learned a different way of doing something than what we had in mind.  Many teachers have a rule about “respect.”  Yet signs of respect differ by family and by culture.  What the teacher means by respect may be entirely different than what the child has learned about respect.

I remember all too well asking a child if they were allowed to walk on the furniture at home.  He looked at me with what appeared to be sincere confusion and said, “Yes.”

Children have to be taught how to follow certain rules.  Just telling them isn’t enough.  Just as we have to do with procedures, many children must be taught, have the opportunity to practice, and have their efforts reinforced before they can follow a particular rule.

Children can’t do what they are not able to do.
Rules are sometimes things children are not capable of doing. 

One aspect of this is developmental.  Asking a kindergartener to sit still is not practical.  A five year old’s concept of sitting still is to squirm and wiggle and tap and twist and tie themselves into knots.  Expecting something different is like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.  It isn’t going to happen. 

Expecting a teenager to sit up straight is a terrific goal.  We adults know that they will be healthier in the long run and feel better in the short run.  But teenagers slump.  It is the nature of the beast.  Having a rule that says “sit up straight” doesn’t make sense when it is so very difficult for a teenager to comply.

Another aspect has to do with who the rule is really for.  A first grader is not usually responsible for setting an alarm, getting up when the alarm goes off, getting his/her clothes on and hair combed, etc.  It is an adult’s responsibility for that to happen.  The rule says that students are not to be tardy to school, but punishing the child doesn’t make sense.  It is not his/her fault if the parent oversleeps or has a flexible interpretation of “on time”.  On the other hand, a high school student is much more capable of all of the above, and it makes sense to hold him/her accountable for being to school on time.

Teachers focus on the negative.
Probably the most damaging aspect of focusing on rules has to do with the teacher’s attitude.

I’ve written many times about the power of a teacher’s attitude and beliefs.  If a teacher believes something about a student, even if the teacher never vocalizes that belief, and even if the teacher consciously believes s/he is treating everyone the same, the teacher will subconsciously act on that belief by treating some students differently.

If the teacher is focused on whether or not students follow rules, s/he will most likely watch for students who are breaking the rules rather than noticing those who are following the rules.  It may be an unusual thing for Susie Creamcheese to misbehave and the teacher noticing her disobedience will likely keep Susie in check.  However, THAT student already has a reputation for being out of line.  If the teacher is focused on seeing who is violating the rules, s/he will notice THAT student more often than not.

THAT student may have learned that any attention is better than no attention, but that is not what we really want the students to learn. 

What do we want students to learn about rules and behavior?  Most of us want students to learn how to self-regulate, to have self-discipline, and to do the right thing even when no one is watching.  Rules don’t teach that.  In fact, rules themselves do not teach.  It is the teacher – or parent, or peer – who teaches about behavior.  Rules are a tool teachers can use to draw a line in the sand that says “this I will tolerate in this classroom and this I will not tolerate”.  Rules allow a teacher to enforce behavioral expectations with negative consequences or punishments.  But rules only work a little bit, and may instead be elicit the responses outlined above.   

I challenge you to consider what it is that you are trying to accomplish with the rules you’ve selected for your classroom.  Are any of the rules you have making you the enemy in students’ eyes?  Are they making students better at hiding misbehavior?  Are the students able to follow the rules?  Are you so busy watching for students breaking the rules that you aren’t able to see the good things they are doing? 

Make a few notes about these thoughts so you don’t forget them.  We’ll come back to those ideas in the weeks ahead.

Look for more about Roe’s Rules for Rules in upcoming posts.

Photo by Miguel Constantin Montes from Pexels

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Kathryn Roe has been an educator for 39 years. She began teaching in a juvenile corrections facility (no, she was not an inmate!). She has taught in public and private schools, special education and regular education, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She moved from the classroom into administration where she was a principal and a curriculum director. She taught pre-service teachers at the university level for the past 13 years. Classroom management is her passion!

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