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Developing our Classroom Rules

Children need to know what is expected of them. At the beginning of the school year it is very important to establish with the children what is going to be considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior in their new classroom. In our classroom, we follow a similar process to establish the rules with our children as the one suggested in The First Six Weeks of School published by the Northeast Foundation for Children.

Initially, in order to be able to have conversations with children at the carpet, we establish "Meeting Rules." We talk with the children about what they think needs to happen for all of us to have a conversation and listen to each other when we sit together. We talk about how important it is to listen while someone else is talking and we dramatize situations in which two people are talking at the same time. We talk about raising their hand when they want a turn to talk as a way to make sure only one person talks at a time. We talk about how our bodies need to be ready to listen too, so our hands need to be down and our feet on the floor. As we establish the appropriate behaviors we show children simple visuals of each. We then use these visuals to give quiet reminders to children that are forgetting our meeting rules. For example, if a child talks out of turn, we point to the "raise your hand" picture card. This way we can help children remember the rules without interrupting what we or the children are saying.

Visual cards for our "meeting rules" : sit down, feet down, hands down, quiet, listen and raise your hand if you want to talk. The cards are placed above our easel, where we can point to them easily:

After the children are familiar with the meeting rules, we send a social studies homework for them to talk with their families about the rules they have at home:

When the children bring this homework back to school, we look at the homework together and talk about the rules they have at home. We ask why they think they need rules at home, and we talk about how we also need rules in our classroom. We say, "We want all of you to be able to learn, play and work in our classroom. And to learn, play and work together everyone needs to feel safe." We have a conversation about the things they like to do in our classroom, their favorite activities. We talk about how to do all those wonderful and fun things, we need to agree on some rules that we will all follow. Soon we begin brainstorming ideas for rules we need in our classroom and we write their ideas on chart paper (we write ALL ideas as the children had said them, and we write their name by their idea). Here is an example of the kind of ideas children give in this initial brainstorm:

  • No hitting
  • No bitting
  • No pushing
  • Be quiet
  • Listen
  • No running
  • Clean when it is time
  • Share the materials
  • Do not break the pencils
  • Do not break the books
  • Don't draw on the tables
  • Do not laugh if someone falls

When we have enough ideas on the chart (which may take more than one meeting depending on the children's interest and energy), we tell the children that we have noticed that some of their ideas go together. We point out, for example, that many of their ideas have to do with being SAFE with their bodies. We say, "Let's circle all the ideas that tell about being safe with our bodies with an orange marker," as we read down the list, we ask the children to decide if each idea should be circled in orange or not. We continue with this process circling their ideas with four different colors that correspond with 4 general rules that we have established beforehand. Because we teach kindergarten, we have decided on the rules we want for the classroom, but we involve the children in the creation of the rules in this way. In other grades teachers can let the children categorize the rules themselves, and the children can be the ones that decide the wording for each rule. In any case, it is better to have a small number of rules (3 to 5) that are all stated in positive terms (it is better to say what we want children to do, than to say what we do not want them to do). When the process of categorizing is finished we have four rules:

After we establish the rules, we continue working with the children on understanding each rule. We study one rule at a time and we invite children to make pictures of themselves and their friends following that rule.

We also dramatize situations in which children have to think of choosing ways to follow one of the rules. One strategy for these dramatizations is to tell children a story in which children, in other kindergarten classrooms, did not follow the rules (i.e. someone pulled someone else's hand going down the stairs and they both fell, or someone did not want to play with someone else at the playground). We give the characters names and we tell the stories using pictures. Then we ask for volunteers to dramatize the story. But just us we are getting to the part in which "someone" is going to break a rule, we STOP the action and ask the children to give ideas about what would be a "good choice." How could we turn the story around and have this character follow the rule? If he/she was not being safe with his/her body, what could he/she have done to be safe? Children usually have really good ideas about how to "fix" these stories and they love the opportunity to act them out.

Besides directly teaching and working together on understanding the rules, we make sure we talk about the rules throughout the day, not only when children forget to follow them but especially when children do remember to follow the rules. For example, after a very good clean up, we will say: "Wow! You really remembered to follow the green rule today! Our classroom looks beautiful! All the pencils and crayons are in the right place!" Or if we noticed a child being very nice and friendly we will compliment him/her on following the yellow rule and we will specifically mention what he/she did that was nice and friendly (i.e. "You patted your friend's back when he was crying," "You shared the red crayon and took turns with").

The rules are also displayed in our meeting area where children can see them everyday. Part of our daily morning meeting routines is to sing our classroom rules. The first year we co-taught together we wanted to make sure all the children saw and said the rules every day. We decided that singing them was the best way to accomplish this, since it would also be fun for the children. We also believe singing is a wonderful way to build community in a classroom. Singing together brings children together in a very special way. Since that first year we have been singing this song and we made up hand movements to go with it. Our children sang the song and made the movements daily. We believe this really helped them remember the rules throughout the day, and helped them think of themselves as a group of children that were safe with their bodies, good friends, and listened and took care of their classroom.

When I have looped with a Kindergarten class to first grade I have continued to sing the song with the children. However, their initial brainstorming has prompted me to add an extra rule. One year the children decided on the rule: "Always keep trying" and voted for a color for the new rule: light blue won. Another year the new rule was: "We always do our best!" and black was the winning color. So, in the first grade we sang: "We have five rules..."


Do you have a process to establish rules with your students? Even though you know what you want the rules to be, involving the student in the process of deciding the rules gives them ownership, which makes them more likely to respect the rules. Being involved in the process of establishing the rules, sends students a strong message: you trust them.

Can you think of a way to review your rules daily in a fun way? Older children may be excited to compose their own music for the rules, or to invent a special clapping pattern to chant the rules together.