George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

The 5 Critical Categories of Rules

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

In the responses to several of my previous posts, many comments focused on the debate of whether children need rules, or whether children are better off with free choice and have the ability to make correct decisions when free to do so. Summerhill by A.S. Neill is offered as a shining example of that school of thought. In a 1999 New York Times article "Summerhill Revisited," Alan Riding posited why the results of Summerhill were not as glowing as A.S. Neill described in his landmark book.

Choices and Limits

I fully agree that children need choices, a lot more than they get now in their school experience. Children also need limits to frame their choices. In fact choices without limits and limits without choices are both doomed to denying children the opportunity of learning how to act responsibly. The extreme of each position is this:

  • Limits without choices: "Do what I say or else."
  • Choices without limits: "Do whatever you want."

Neither of these options works in school, but when we combine the two, we have a symbiotic relationship that is designed to teach responsibility: "You cannot hit. But you can express anger. Here are three ways you can do it. Maybe you can add more."

Limits Are Rules

In school, we express limits as rules. A good rule is behavioral, clear and always enforced when broken. "Be respectful," for example, is a terrible rule because it is a value, not a behavior. It is important to teach students to show respect, but it's far too broad to enforce. It covers everything. "Raise your hand before you speak" is also not a good rule because it cannot always be enforced. Sometimes asking students to raise their hands is a bad idea. Hand raising works better as an expectation than as a rule.

Regardless of whether a school is open and free or traditional, limits or rules are necessary to teach students responsibility. I have identified five areas that I call critical categories which are useful when deciding what rules you need. Because rules work best when students have a say in their selection, I prefer teaching students what these critical categories mean, and developing rules together.

The categories are meant to be guidelines, not absolutes. Each category has its own focus. They add to the clarity of thought when considering the issues facing your school. Some issues, like those related to safety, cross categories between procedures (what to do if there is an intruder in the school) and social (keep your hands and feet to yourself). Worry less about trying to decide which is the best category for a rule and more about examining each category to see if it gives you ideas for making rules.

Critical Categories

  1. Academic: These rules and expectations are related to learning, such as doing homework, class participation, cheating and interrupting others.
    • Do your own work.
    • Hand in all work on time.

  2. Social: These rules and expectations involve interactive issues such as fighting, put-downs, insubordination and the misuse of technology-related devices.
    • Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
    • Touch other students' property only with permission.
    • Shut off all smart phones in class.

  3. Procedural: These rules and expectations are more important with younger children, but they apply to all. They include being on time, lining up, getting notes from and to home when necessary, dress codes (if your school has them) and behavior in common areas like the corridors, lunchroom and library. They also include safety procedures to inform students what to do when there is a dangerous situation in school.
    • Put your supplies away when you finish using them.
    • When you hear me warn you, go immediately into the safe area.

  4. Cultural: These rules and expectations are about the way we treat minority groups based on religion, race, sexual orientation or disability.
    • Do not offer food to a student who is fasting.
    • Do not insult another student's religious clothing.

  5. Personal: These are rules and expectations that students create for themselves to help them be better students and to improve the way they treat others.
    • I will let others finish saying something before speaking myself.
    • I will do my homework without texting until it is finished.
    Personal rules can be divided into two groups: those that students share publically and those that are kept confidential. Teachers can use journals, sharing circles or the "Friday report activity" when students share with the class the progress they made in following one of their personal rules.

All societies, whether free or not, need limits to protect the rights of the individuals who comprise that society. Schools, by the nature of their organization, goals and structure, require a different set of limits to be successful. The critical categories provide insight on the type of rules that are best for school environments.

Was this useful? (3)
Redesign Your Classroom Space

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (10) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (10) Sign in or register to comment

Khan Mashiur Rahman's picture

social and emotional learning part gives me a great knowledge. I think, we all have something to learn, something to read, something to do.from here I learn about many thing which I did not know.
Thank you virtually.

Melanie Eisen's picture
Melanie Eisen
Assistant director of professional development, YUSP

How many rules should a classroom have?

AquiAmigo's picture

I tell my teacher ed students that 2-4 rules is plenty. Marzano had research indicating that this was a good range. The key is that the rules should be positive and be broad expectations of behavior. Procedures, on the other hand, are a different story.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Melanie,
The answer to your question is simple, but the reason for it is more complicated.Rules are part of thee elements, all necessary to manage your classroom.1) values: these are general beliefs and principles. THEY CAN NEVER BE ENFORCED. Respect and try hard are examples of values. See:
2) Rules: These are all based on values, are observable behaviours and always formally enforced. Don't run in the hall, or Be on time are examples. Rules are like laws.You cannot be arrested for not trying.
3) procedures: These are like rules but are enforced informally, or not enforced at all. Raise your hand before speaking is an example. Sometimes it is best to let a discussion continue without hand raising.

If you build your discipline plan this way the answer to your question is: as many as you need. There is no correct number. It depends on what matters most to you to run your classroom effectively. No one knows that but you.

If you want detailed information on how to build a discipline plan, get my new e-book, Affirmative Classroom Management, published by ASCD. It carefully explains in step by step format how to develop a plan including consequences for breaking rules.

good luck

Carrie-Anne Cyre's picture
Carrie-Anne Cyre
Social Media Lead at

This is the best article on rules I've read. The clear definition between values and limits is, I think, extremely important for effective classroom management. As well as sharing this on our work Twitter, I think I'll share it on my personal Twitter in case any of my friends who are parents are interested in it!

sean's picture

Wow, I just took my rules off the way to take off a few.

srajojava's picture

This is a great article. I have used more vague rules in the past and have had some difficulty enforcing things that were either procedures that I had taught but not posted or little things that I felt my rules encompassed but students didn't see as part of those categories. I am wondering what your written rules look like?

Marco Wang's picture
Marco Wang
Early childhood (0-8 years) Pre-service Teacher

I really like the idea of defining the rules into 5 categories. And can't agree more that students need to have choices within limits and a say in rules.

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

In an older discussion about classroom management tips, Dr. Tracey Garrett shared this comment, I think it's very fitting here:

An environment that is dictated by too many rules is rigid, cold and likely to create an atmosphere of rebellion. Rules and routines are an excellent way to communicate your behavioral expectations, but not the way to completely "manage" your classroom.

Is there a cut-and-dry answer for exactly how many rules are best? Certainly not. It depends on the classroom climate and the teacher. But breaking down rules into the 5 categories you've mentioned seems like a good way to evaluate and weed out arbitrary rules, or restructure/rephrase rules that aren't clear. Thanks for your insight!

Link to the conversation:

SRMorency's picture

I travel to various location teaching STEM and engineering classes to ages 4-14. This means I have a great deal of different classroom types, groups and situations. I have found it helpful to keep my rules simple, while having them cover all the bases. Students are
more able to follow these rules when there are only a few and they are clearly understood. These are my 2 basic rules for all of my classes.
*respect others peoples person, property and feelings
*let others learn


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.