Classroom Management

Establishing Classroom Norms to Enhance Students’ Collective Efficacy

Middle and high school students generally feel invested in norms since they work on creating and committing to them together.

January 24, 2024
Drazen Zigic / iStock

Pick from numerous inspirational movies and what do you get? Often a group of people with difficult odds. The need to work together. A common vision. The belief that it can be done if they give it their all. A recipe that equals success over and over. This is collective efficacy. And student collective efficacy starts with students at the center of the equation, and norms can be the catalyst.

Norms vs. rules

Using norms as the method for managing behavioral expectations can be a powerful tool in building student collective efficacy. So, what is the difference between rules and norms? Rules are top-down expectations that are enforced through external threat of consequences for noncompliance. In contrast, norms are commitments developed by the participants for behaviors they all agree to for a shared outcome.

Norms affect the learning environment quite a bit differently than rules do in four key ways. First, students are invested in commitments they came up with and agreed to in a different way than when they’re being told what they can and cannot do. It’s a commitment to each other. To some extent, all students are learning to make commitments to each other, but the social pressures of adolescence are a strong factor in norms being especially powerful at both the middle and high school levels.

Second, norms are an opportunity for students to hold themselves and each other accountable and to define the standards by which it’s acceptable to both behave and contribute. People generally meet expectations they value and understand.

Third, norms create the opportunity to contribute to their experience. Rules demand compliance that often germinates rebellious emotions. Rules also create an expectation of threat and failure. There’s usually a tardiness rule, for example, because it’s expected that students will be tardy, and so the punishment is established. The norms version is the commitment of being ready to start when the bell rings, to be considerate of other learners and hear the directions for the day’s tasks. It’s a language shift with the assumption of good intent—the notion that we want to be considerate of others and that we are invested in completing our tasks.

Finally, through norms, there’s a belief that together we can achieve the goals or scope of work set before the group, a belief that all contributions are valuable and necessary. When students know they’re not alone but instead have the learning community as resources and support, they also understand that they are a resource for others and therefore a valuable contributor to the group. 

Creating Classroom norms With Students

The choice to use norms instead of rules is really centered on two things: that some input comes from the students and that the norms are used in an integral and consistent way. At the start of a semester, group work, or project, present the concept of norms as the expectations of working together and include key components.

Start with where the students are currently. As a class or group, students should generate three to four clear ideas of what a successful working environment looks like. From there, establish basic commitments, keeping it limited to two to four that the class or group agrees to. For each commitment, students should articulate what that commitment looks like or what actions it means for them. This creates a shared language and vision. The teacher or a scribe for a smaller group captures the commitments in simple words for quick referral (e.g., everyone contributes; be prepared).

Once created, the norms must become the foundation of the work. They should be posted, referred to, and reflected on with consistency and action steps identified to improve the class/group work. As formal and transparent use of norms may be unfamiliar to students, teachers need to exercise patience and consistency. The initial norms and adherence to them may not be as deep as the teacher would like, but this will improve quickly if the norms are the central pillar of the work. 

Consider scaffolding and gradual release of responsibility as two wonderful tools to assist in building this skill in students. For scaffolding, the teacher can provide one to two norms, and the students provide one to two. This will provide modeling of the process while still offering direct contributions. We can offer ideas to select from (e.g. being prepared, listening to each other) or sentence stems to help generate priorities (e.g., When I work in a group, I would like my partners to…).

We can start by offering norms for the first group project, then offering the opportunity to adjust norms for the second, then have students add their own norms for the third. Finally, students can begin creating their own norms independently. It’s important that the teacher contribute only as much as is needed to diminish teacher investment in the norms in favor of student priorities. This will vary by age, experience, and maturity among other factors. 

Strategies for expansion

Once the foundation of using norms is laid, meaning that students know what they are and how to use them, can generate them with support and reflect on them, there’s plenty of room for expansion. 

One route to expand is to make setting the norms the first task for any project, group work, or class. This acknowledges that you need different norms for different tasks and people. It also enables students to begin to deepen the norms they use for much richer interactions.  

Another route to expand is to use self, group, and whole class reflection on the norms frequently and consistently in order to take action. Reflection needs action to follow it. Awareness should be raised; something should change or improve. View norms as a journey, not a destination, by reviewing and updating norms at least quarterly for a whole class and weekly or daily for projects.

When a deeper scaffold is needed, consider having “looks like,” “sounds like,” and, when necessary, “feels like” descriptors to help students correlate their behaviors and choices with the outcome desired. For example, in a group project, a norm like “everyone contributes” may look like each member of the group giving an idea for the project and completing their assigned part. That may sound like each person speaking up to share or writing their idea down for someone to share for them. That may feel like each person knowing they did their job and feeling confident that others did their part.

Generally speaking, students know what a healthy learning environment looks like. They may not know how to get there or what the components are, but they can visualize it. We see examples all around us of norms of behavior. Many students could use support in meeting these expectations by having a concrete process that helps them get successfully to the norms.

Instead of the “do this or else” approach, we can offer students an opportunity to meet success and grow in it. We can offer them the chance to build collective efficacy and belief that they have the skills needed to be successful through supporting their journey.

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Filed Under

  • Classroom Management
  • School Culture
  • Student Voice
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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