A new approach to classroom management


Rosie Byrnes


Some class rules govern specific behavior, like hand-raising or staying seated during class, but all of them are intended to guide students to learn and behave in a way that their teacher thinks is best.

If you were to walk into any classroom in the world and look around, odds are you’d find a list of rules posted somewhere on the walls.

The rules themselves would vary from class to class—but if you kept looking, you’d likely start to see some common themes among all classrooms.

Some class rules govern specific behavior, like hand-raising or staying seated during class. Others are more broad, such as “respect others” and “work hard.” All of them are intended to guide students to learn and behave in a way that their teacher thinks is best.

But classroom rules shouldn’t be about the teachers—they should exist to help the students. And yet, many students don’t know or understand their classroom rules, while others choose to disregard them completely.

So why do classrooms have rules?

The question seems silly (and maybe it is), but essentially our reasoning for having a set of classroom rules can be broken down into these goals:

1. We want to maintain order and structure.

This is the big one. In a room with thirty kids and one adult, maintaining order is essential. Having a list of rules to govern the class is a simple way to create a structure for how the classroom will operate—that is, as long as the rules are followed.

2. We want to set expectations for our students.

This is the reason most teachers go through their list of rules on the first day of school (and sometimes never reference them again… whoops). We want our students to have a clear understanding of how we expect them to behave in our classroom. After all, if students don’t know what we expect from them, how could they possibly meet those expectations?

Classroom rules provide a set of guidelines for students to follow so that they know they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing (or not) at any given time. And, when they get in trouble for failing to meet these expectations, they’ll know exactly why.

3. We want students to learn and practice important life skills.

Classroom rules, like societal rules, exist as a kind of social contract between members of a group (in this case, your class). When classroom rules include things like “take turns” and “don’t talk while others are talking,” it teaches students the importance of etiquette and respect.

4. We think we are supposed to.

After all, if every other classroom has a list of rules posted on the wall, yours should too—right?

These reasons (or the first three, at least) are perfectly valid, and help explain why classroom rules are such a universal tool for teachers around the globe.

So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, there are a few. For starters…

Students don’t always follow the rules.

It’s one thing to have a list of rules hanging on the wall of your classroom. But if kids aren’t actually following them, your classroom rules aren’t doing anyone much good.

There are a variety of reasons why rules might not be enforced—we’ll get into those in a moment—but the result is always the same: a complete failure to meet any of the goals that the rules were intending to reach.

Rather than a structured, orderly classroom, you end up with chaos. Students are no longer sure what’s expected of them—or they just don’t care. And you can forget about positive etiquette and social skills, too.

When classroom rules aren’t enforced, students suffer—and so does the teacher. One study found that teachers whose rules were enforced had higher job satisfaction, whereas those who reported less enforcement of school rules were at a greater risk of burnout.

Students don’t always understand the rules in the first place.

Rules that are too vague or abstract, like “respect others,” seem like a great catch-all solution to the unforeseen problems that might arise in our classrooms.

But the truth is that many students (especially the younger ones) have a hard time conceptualizing abstract ideas like “respect” and “responsibility.” While they might know what these words mean on the surface, putting them into practice is another story.

And, even if students do understand the meaning of every rule, they may not always understand why it’s a rule to begin with.

Students might not agree with the rules.

When teachers make the rules for their classrooms, they’re operating under the assumption that they know what’s best for all of their students. And, while we hope to lead them in the right direction, the truth is that we can’t know what’s best all the time.

In an attempt to cover all of their bases, teachers might fill their lists with rules that can seem arbitrary or unfair to students. And without listening to their perspective, we can’t really expect them to go along with our demands.

The rules are more about being compliant than they are about positive social contribution.

While our goal in creating a list of classroom rules might be to create a positive classroom community, the reality is that the way these rules function in the classroom isn’t often doing much more than teaching students to be obedient.

So we have to ask ourselves: is that really what we want to instill in them?

It’s often said that school is meant to prepare kids for the real world. We teach them the skills we think they’ll need, in the hopes that they find a productive place in the world as it exists today.

But the world is changing.

We don’t know what the world will look like by the time our students graduate—and it doesn’t make sense to keep preparing them for a world that no longer exists.

The world doesn’t want quiet, obedient workers anymore; it wants creative thinkers, risk-takers, and innovators. The most successful people in the world today aren’t the ones who are most compliant, or who follow their supervisor’s rules most carefully.

They’re the ones who question the rules, and then make their own; who are confident enough in their own moral compass to follow its course and create something new.

So instead of asking ourselves how we can prepare students for the world, we should be figuring out how we can empower them to make the world even better.

And that involves more than just obedience.

If we want our students to be independent thinkers, problem-solvers, and world-changers, we should be teaching them to understand, develop, and follow their own moral compass rather than someone else’s.

Instead of demanding that kids follow our classroom rules, we should be teaching students to understand their own set of values.

In his theory of morality, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg described morality as a set of stages coinciding with cognitive development. In the lowest of these stages, an individual’s moral compass is based on ideas of obedience and rewards, or disobedience and punishment—in other words, exactly what our “classroom rules” teach students to believe.

As people move through each stage, they are able to recognize that others may have differing viewpoints, and that rules and laws exist for the greater good. According to Kohlberg, most people don’t move beyond this stage of moral development—but those who do are able to determine their own personal set of values, and act accordingly.

If we want students to develop their own moral compasses, we should encourage them to contribute to the set of rules that govern their classroom. After all, students spend just as much time there as the teacher—so why shouldn’t they help determine how it will operate?

One solution? Replace your classroom rules with a list of “class values.”

Classroom rules and classroom values can operate in much the same way; both help to maintain order and set expectations for students. But their foundations—and ultimately their effect on students—are very different.

Class rules

  • Created by the teacher
  • Help maintain order & expectations
  • Teach compliance
  • Teacher is only authority
  • Students may not understand them
  • Students are more likely to resist
  • Important only to teacher

Class values

  • Created by the students
  • Help maintain order & expectations
  • Teach self-direction
  • Students have ownership
  • Students understand them all
  • Students are more likely to uphold
  • Important to students and teacher

So how do we do this?

Creating a list of class values is much the same as creating your classroom rules—but this time, your students are involved in every step of the decision-making process.

Step 1. Determine what is most important to your class.

For younger students, you can ask what their “perfect class” would look like, sound like, and feel like. You might ask what their ideal teacher or classmates would be like.

Step 2. Agree on behaviors that would maintain these important qualities.

For example, if your students say that their perfect classroom is welcoming, decide what the teacher and students can do to make that a reality. Should the classroom be clean and tidy? Should students be kind to each other? Should the teacher get to know each student well?

Step 3. Consolidate your class values into a list that is easy to understand.

You may choose to phrase them as an agreement rather than a demand: for instance, “We keep our classroom clean” rather than “Clean up after yourself.”

Step 4. If problems arise in your class, revisit your list of values together and determine whether any adjustments need to be made.

Making changes to your list isn’t a bad thing—after all, through this process students are learning to understand their own values and adjust their own moral compass as they go.

There’s no doubt that all classrooms need to have a system in place to keep everything running smoothly. By allowing students to have some element of ownership in that system, we can help to make sure that the system is one that works for them—and that they are learning valuable skills for their future in the process.