Back to School: Rules and Routines in the Classroom | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Back to School: Rules and Routines in the Classroom

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

I admit it. I allowed students to chew gum in class. Why? I chewed gum. I have a throat that tends to dry up mid-morning. Gum helps.

The point is that if you have a rule, you have to follow it yourself or the kids will question you, and worse, lose respect. No food allowed in the classroom and you have a Starbucks blueberry scone every morning that you eat during class? Just saying. I learned from experience. (The beauty of teaching 16- and 17-year-olds: They don't often hold back their opinions.) Being a model for what we expect is at times inconvenient and exhausting but it comes with the job.

Follow Through

Rules have consequences, and routines have reminders. For me, that meant far less rules and many, many more routines and procedures.

Once you make a rule, you have to stick with it. Students will expect a warning, a second warning, and then a consequence. A rule cannot be treated like a routine ever. If a classroom rule is, for example, Be On Time, then when a student walks in 22 seconds late, we can't say, "I reminded you yesterday about being tardy." We have to say, "This is a warning and a consequence will follow." And then, a consequence has to follow if they walk in two days later two seconds late.

All the other students are watching and expecting the follow through. If we just sigh, and mumble something under our breaths and let it slide, students will not see this as a rule. For this reason, we need to be incredibly selective when choosing that small handful of rules.

Choosing Routines to Emphasize

There will be procedures and routines that will take several seconds to go over and then others that are more in-depth. The ones that take extra effort to explain and model are often those that are borderline rules, like getting out of your seat.

You will want to address all scenarios for getting out of one's seat: sharpening a pencil, getting supplies or a tissue, turning in work, etc. I always told students, "If you're up, you are on a mission," that way, it sets it up nicely if you see a student wandering a bit or stopping at a classmate's desk for an off-topic chat, to ask, "What's your mission?" (This serves as a gentle reminder. Remember, the key word here is reminder, not consequence.)

There isn't really a limit to how many routines and procedures you have, but you will need to make sure that each one is clear to every learner in your room that first week of school.


Be it a rule or routine, kids have to know what it looks like and examples Day One. If a rule is a general, all-encompassing one such as, Be Respectful to All, you will have to give numerous examples of what this looks like -- and doesn't look like (regardless the age of the students).

Have the class brainstorm examples and you add a few yourself. Some of the things we expect them to always bring up; no name-calling, no putdowns, and no touching others. However, students always brainstorm things beyond what we can imagine, so it's important that they are part of this process. It also gives student ownership and a keener understanding of the rules for the class collectively.

Every time we decide to involve students in the decision-making or discovery process in the classroom, it takes considerably longer. We are often tempted just to give them the information. But exploring examples of what the rules and routines look like together will have big pay off the entire school year.

The Ultimate Goal

When teachers are together, we often spend most of our time talking not about classroom management, but about effective teaching. We can't help it, being that our goal is to be the most effective teachers we can be. When we are effective, the majority of kids are learning and getting what they need, goals and objectives are achieved, and we teachers feel an incredible sense of accomplishment.

Here's an interesting short quiz that rates your teaching effectiveness and comes from education author and speaker, Harry Wong. His book, The First Days of School, is a popular tome in our profession and offers wonderful strategies for effective teaching and setting up community in the classroom the beginning of the year. I think it's safe to say that schools and districts across the country have handed this book to countless new teachers.

In considering these crucial first weeks of school, what methods for effectively building classroom community and setting up rules and routines have worked best for you and your students? Please share in the comments section below.

Classroom Management

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

George Dewey's picture

Thanks for your comments and suggestions, all of them! I have felt for some years that it is important to have rules be student-generated, not only for the important "buy in," but, like our Constitution, it is important that all parties involved agree, first, on the importance of rules in the first place and, second, that they acquire near-universal support.
I tell my classes on the first day of school (11th and 12th grade physics)that the trouble with most rules in schools is that they are highly negative in character (if not threatening) and come "top down" from adults. Believing it important that these students are treated like adults if I am to expect them to act like adults, I paint this scenario: "Each of you is in charge of a very important meeting of your friends to decide what your team/club is to do and you have only an hour to conduct the business and your "boss" is expecting a report tomorrow first thing. What is the ONE rule (max two) you would insist on that everyone follow in your meeting?" Each student writes this down anonymously on stickies and places them on one of the white boards in the classroom. I collect them and copy all 30 of them (including silly comments like, "Eat peanuts"), project them the next class, discuss, and from that list draw up a brief (usually no more than 6-8) list of class rules which I expect them to follow for the remainder of the year. [Of course, in the discussion I can tweak or channel their individual rules into more succinct thoughts.] Typically, the most-used word is "respect" and "listen." [What a nice thing to emphasize first off in a new year!] The great thing about this is that of "buy in;" as I remind them throughout the year, THEY were the ones who set up the rules (not me) and I can hold them to the rules more consistently and effecively.

Roy Johnson's picture

After reading what you have posted, it took me back to the times when I was a high school student and a paraprofessional. In those classrooms the teacher did not give the students the opportunity to help with the classroom rules and you could see how the students did not follow all the rules. I think some of it was because some of the rules was not modeled by the teacher, like eating and drinking in the class and being on time. We tend to forget as adults that the students watch everything we do and if we continually walk into the classroom late because we were in the hall talking to another teacher, the students see this and think its ok for them to do the same. When working with high school aged students, we have to model the correct behaviors because we are expecting them to be "young adults," and for them to grow into that role, they need to see the correct behaviors of an adult.

shona hendrickson's picture

I too will like to thank you for your comments and suggestion. On the first day of school, my studnets and I discuss what rules we should have in the class and their consequences. When a rule is broken they are the ones who tell me what another students does that is wrong.

I agree with you that we as teachers need to set examples. Students look up to us and sometime try to model our behaviors. So if we set rules in out classrooms we should comply to them just like our students.

Fadia Hazama's picture

Rules are very important when trying to maintain a classroom. There is so much that must be taught that teachers must rely on students' self control throughout the day. I also had my students (second grade)create their own class rules, which we had to revisit on more than one occasion. However, once the rules were introduced, I had to spend some time modeling and reinforcing them. We cannot just post rules in the classroom and expect our students to follow them. Just like we teach students to read and write, we must also teach them to behave.

Danna Sabolik's picture

At my school we take the students through 10 days of "Basic Training" when school starts. We practice all procedures and go over the rules daily for 10 days. We model and practice everything including practice homework, practice test, sharpening pencils. I teach 2nd grade so we have a lesson on how to walk in the halls called "Marshmellow Toes". This week and a half of basic training is a life saver. It truly works. Not to say that during the year we don't have to have refresher courses like after Christmas break. They remember rather quickly though.

Julie Frederick's picture

Thank you for the information. I remember when I was getting my degree, I walked into a classroom in a very low-income area of town where many students didn't eat except when they were at school. As I sat in on the class to observe, the teacher pulls out a bag of apples and starts slicing and eating one as she is teaching. The kids were so focused on what she was eating that they were not paying attention. A little while later, she got onto a student for eating the rest of his granola bar from breakfast. Her comment to him was "we eat in the cafeteria, not in the classroom". Not only did this shock me, but I kept thinking about how cruel this teacher was. Not only was she eating in front of students who many days would go without food until they came to school, but then to penalize a student for doing something she had just done was so absolutely wrong to me. As a teacher, I make it a practice to always keep something in my classroom for the child who might be hungry. If they are hungry, they are not concentrating on what I am teaching. Also, I have problems with my blood sugar dropping drastically, so there are times when I have to eat something immediatley. When this happens, out comes my snack jar and we all stop for a "two minute stomach break".

Zedekiah Franklin's picture

I totally agree with teachers sticking with the rules they set. Its already enough trying to get the students to obey the rules.

Cathleen C.'s picture

This article made me reflect on my own classroom rules. I realized that I don't really have classroom rules, but school rules that I am required to enforce. The students know and understand the rules, but many constantly break the rules. When I read about rules having consequences, not reminders, I realized that I do this all too often in my classroom. I mostly feel sorry for the students because they have so much work outside of my classroom (many go to three or four different types of schools), so when a student comes to class and says they didn't do their homework because they didn't have time or they forgot it at home, I usually just give them a stern look and tell them to bring it back in two days. Most of the students, I'm sure, take advantage of this, so many students never bring their homework on time. Another rule they break is speaking Korean in class (they're suppose to only speak English so I can help them with it). I'm constantly reminding them to speak English, but the rule is no Korean anywhere in the school. What's frustrating about this is, students constantly speak Korean throughout the hallways but no one corrects them or disciplines them. And what's worse, the Korean homeroom teachers speak Korean to the students instead of English, so they students are seeing teachers speak Korean so they think it's okay. I can't speak Korean so they never see me do it, but they are so used to doing it in their homeroom classes, that they just talk Korean out of habit at this school. But, after reading this article, I want to become more firm with consequences for breaking the rules instead of letting them slip by with just a reminder. Thank you for helping me put some things into perspective!

Angela's picture
H.S. Spanish teacher

Classroom management has always been an issue of mine. When I was going through college, it was fairly common to hear the phrase "Don't smile until Christmas." As a short, female teacher teaching in a high school, I felt that saying held at least some truth to it. It seemed as though I would have to establish my authority in the classroom right from the beginning in order to get the respect from my students.
However, from my recent research and from reading these posts, I have recognized the importance of establishing a classroom community from day one. Yes, I hope my students still recognize me as the leader in the classroom, but I feel that they need to take ownership in the rules that are created. I like George's idea of having the students each write down one or two rules on a sticky note that will then be made into a few class rules. I really hope this helps my students take responsibility for their classroom environment and helps prevent many of the issues we have had in the past. Creating a classroom community should also help my students recognize that I care about them and their participation in my class. This should help to motivate my students to do their homework and learn the material - something of which I have struggled for some time.
I am questioning, however, how to address the possibility of different periods coming up with different rules. I would think that remembering different rules for each period would make it more difficult. Would you suggest working among the periods to come up with one set of rules? What about the possibility of students working in groups to come up with a short list? Does that help encourage students to really think through the rules?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.