George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Rules and Routines in the Classroom

An argument for keeping hard rules to a minimum.

I admit it: I allowed students to chew gum in class. Why? Because I chewed gum. I have a throat that tends to get dry after mid-morning, and 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, may lose respect. No food allowed in the classroom and you eat a blueberry scone during class every morning? I learned from experience. The beauty of teaching 16- and 17-year-olds is that 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. What worked for me was far fewer 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 being on time is a classroom rule, for example, 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 seconds late two days later.

All the other students are watching and expecting the follow through. If we just sigh, shake our head, and let it slide, students will not see being on time as a rule. We need to be selective when choosing that small handful of rules because those will need to be enforced.

Choosing Routines to Emphasize

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

You’ll 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,” which sets it up nicely: If you see a student wandering a bit or stopping at a classmate’s desk for an off-topic chat, ask, “What’s your mission?” This serves as a gentle reminder. The key word here is reminder—this kind of situation doesn’t need a consequence.

There isn’t really a limit to how many routines and procedures you have, but you’ll need to make sure each one is clear to every learner in your room.


Be it a rule or a routine, kids have to know what it looks like, with examples, on day one. If a rule is a general, all-encompassing one like “be respectful to all,” you’ll have to give numerous examples of what that looks like—and what it doesn’t look like.

Have the class brainstorm examples and add a few yourself. Some of the things we expect students to bring up: no name-calling or putdowns, and hands to yourselves. However, students always brainstorm things beyond what we can imagine, so it’s important that they’re part of this process. It gives 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’re often tempted to just give them the information. But exploring examples of what the rules and routines look like together gives students ownership around these agreements, which will pay off the entire school year.

The Ultimate Goal

Of course, the ultimate goal of teaching is not enforcing rules and routines but teaching effectively. And when teachers are together, we spend most of our time talking not about classroom management, but about effective teaching. When we’re 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 a short quiz that rates your teaching effectiveness. It comes from education author and speaker Harry Wong, whose book The First Days of School is a popular tome in our profession, with wonderful strategies for teaching effectively and setting up structures and community in the classroom at the beginning of the year.

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vitaminwildebeast's picture

Ironically enough, I tried taking the quiz but found many of the statements to be poorly worded and confusing. For example, one of the statements refers to "tests". I couldn't tell if it was referring ONLY to tests, or just assessments in general, or...what it was trying to say, really.

Kathleen's picture

With younger students who are culturally diverse having consistent structure and procedures allow them to feel safe, know what to expect, and be able to think about their school work. But rules don't have to be cumbersome. Using the character counts model that many schools use anyway here are a few basic guidelines. Be respectful. Be responsible. Do your best work at all times. Be safe. Follow directions. These should be posted from day 1 and discussed with your class. I have a few other posters about pencil sharpening, how to use the book shelf, and scheduling times, etc. But all these are just part of the main class rules which allow my students and I to function together. As the author stated earlier the main goal is to create an atmosphere that will allow optimal learning to occur.

Kathleen's picture

Here is another idea not my own. From your school or district's basic safety and behavior or character policies brainstorm with your students a list of rules for the class. Write down their ideas and have them explain. Then arrange those that are based on general premises. For example: "Don't kick someone" might fit under "Be safe" or "Be respectful". Student participation in the rule making process gives them ownership and makes them feel empowered.

Mr. B's picture

I think there's an opportunity to tie rules and routines to the mission. And I see the mission as our "top value" as a class. As suggested at the end of the article, we're supposed to be teaching effectively. (I'd like to restate that so it expresses what we--teachers and students--are supposed to be achieving.) If it's no apparent, I believe in sharing management of the classroom with the students--at all ages. Obviously, it takes a different form in Kindergarten than it does in high school. One question that gets raised her is how to make that fit into school policy and rules... for example, if the school has a "no gum chewing policy" does the teacher have the right to ignore that?

Mr. B's picture

I'm compelled to add agreement with vitaminwildbest regarding the "quiz." The quiz is clearly designed to sell the book. Frankly, it came across as "if you don't agree with our opinions, you are an "at risk teacher" and need our help."

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