Effective Classroom Rules

One powerful force of classroom management is class rules.  What guidelines will direct student behavior?

Several weeks ago, attended a classroom management presentation up north, in Jeonju.  One speaker shared clear and actionable insights about classroom rules.

I embraced some of her wisdom but elected to ignore other aspects.  Regardless, I see great merit in every guideline she shared.

Three Principles of Effective Classroom Rules:

1 – Positive

Positive rules point to what students ought to do.  Negative rules express what students should not do.

Negative rules present a two-fold problem.

First, who likes being told what not to do?  Damn near nobody.

“Don’t do this.”

“Don’t do that.”

“Don’t do that either.”

Social psychologists have a mountain of literature to suggest that prohibitions tend to tempt and exacerbate undesired behavior.  

Their findings support a theory known as reactance.  In short, when authority figures scold us on what not to do (especially with minor or amoral actions), many may resent such denials of freedom and turn toward the prohibited behavior.  Some call this the “forbidden fruit” effect after the timeless biblical tale of Adam and Eve.

In addition to potential backfire, negative rules steer us from the goal of rules in the first place – clarifying and promoting desired behavior.

We could make laundry lists of undesired actions without expressing the behavior we want from students.

Granted, many negative rules are only one logical step removed from the desired behavior.

“Don’t be late.” —> “Be on-time.”

“Don’t call out.” —> “Raise your hand.”

“Don’t talk when the teacher is speaking.” —> “Listen when the teacher is speaking.”

But why make things tougher for your students?  Desired difficulties should not apply to classroom management.  Why require mental gymnastics, no matter how simple?

In brief, rules should instruct desired behaviors, not list prohibited behaviors.


2- Concise

This covers both the length of individual rules and the number of total rules. 

Students’ (and everyone’s) working memory is limited.  We can pay conscious attention to only so many rules before our behavior lapses.

Three to five rules is ideal for most classrooms.  Too many rules incur a burdensome memory tax.

Another way to alleviate this encumbrance is to shorten our sentences.

“Please bring a pencil to every class.”

This rule is okay.  It’s positive, observable, and easy to follow.  But it begs for simplification.

“Bring a pencil.”

This shorter sentence implicitly entails “every class.”


In short, simpler is better.


3 – Observable

If rules are too short, they may descend into unenforceable vagueness.  For example,

“Be kind.”

This is definitely concise.  It’s also positive. But it’s convoluted and tough to observe.  What constitutes “kindness” is contextual.

For example, I often see students punch each other in jest.  I may see student-on-student violence and deem the behavior as unkind. But I’m also ignorant of the depth and network of students’ relationships.  They could be best friends engaging in play. Regardless, kind and unkind behavior is a judgment call in the eyes of a teacher.

There are several ways to approach this vague rule.  If a teacher wishes to avert physical violence in class, one rule could be-

“Keep your hands and feet to yourself.”

This rule may overshoot by prohibiting physical play.  But perhaps less aggressive students also contributes to a more manageable classroom.

Another possibility is this:

“Think before you speak.”

As the former rule targets unkind physical actions in class, the latter targets unkind words.  

This rule isn’t observable at first glance.  After all, teachers cannot observe “thinking” with their eyes and ears. But teachers can observe students pausing before speaking, which correlates with conscious thought.

Also, this rule does not preclude students from malice.

“Yeah, I thought about saying something mean and then I said it.”

However, one could argue that heat-of-the-moment hurtful comments are more frequent than cool-minded malice.  Rules may not be perfectly tangible and observable, but many rules are amendable.


My Rules:

In my class, I posted three rules.  They have indisputable concision and positivity.  However, I confess that they are far from observable.

1 – Respect

2 – Listen

3 – Effort

I choose to sacrifice observability for maximum concision.

I teach high school students, many of whom have intermediate levels of English.  In other words, they already have strong mental maps of the words “respect”, “listen” and “effort.”  These mental maps may be small in English, but they are vast in Korean.

While individual students’ mental maps may diverge in minor ways, they do not depart into opposites.  In other words, I don’t have students who believe that “listen” means “talk” or that “respect” means “assholery.”

Due to its irreducible succinctness, I often catch students tossing my rules to each other in class.

“Yeah, respect.”

“Listen, listen.”

Sometimes they speak the rules in jest.  This doesn’t concern me.  I find that rules my students adopt in jest will ultimately shift in sincerity with repeated exposure.  Cognitive dissonance will win out.

The older a teacher’s learners, the more one can shift to less observable rules.  For one, most high school and adult learners have years of practice in classroom etiquette.  I don’t have to remind my students to stay in their seats or to pay attention when the teacher speaks.  Sure, some students will drift off-focus and fall into idle chatter. But a gentle reminder or name-drop brings them back.

For younger learners, I understand that more concrete rules are important.  Students’ abstract thinking and mental models of “kindness”, “respect”, or “effort” are under construction.  Therefore, I understand how younger learners would benefit from more directly observable behavior.

Regardless of our opinions on what makes effective classroom rules, paying conscious attention to the rules we set and model in class can potentiate a powerful, positive learning environment.

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