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Back to School: Rules and Routines in the Classroom

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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photo of a girl blowing a bubble out of chewing gum

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.

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Janet Moeller-Abercrombie's picture
Janet Moeller-Abercrombie
International Educator, Certified by the NBPTS | Educational Leader, Licens

I've never thought of rules/routines that way, but I like how you differentiated them. When I wrote a post about allowing students input into problems, I was thinking about "rules" for things - when, in actuality, I was writing about routines (

I remember the year I explicitly allowed students to eat during class - the class was fine, but parents gave me a hard time. I now just let food appear. Like you said... if I don't say anything, it's not really a rule.

I've moved away from establishing "rules" at the beginning of the classroom. Instead, I start with an activity where students write and share responses to "I want a classroom where..." (

I agree that the fewer rules, the better. And, giving students input into some of those rules is one helpful step in avoiding power struggles later.

Corah's picture

My classroom creates rules much the same way. I teach 4th grade. I have the table groups create 5 rules that they want for their classroom this year. I then put all 25 rules up on the smartboard and the class deletes/combines similar ones. From the ones that are left we take the one that encompasses the larger idea. So if one rule said 'respect the teacher' and another said 'respect everyone' we kept the 'respect everyone'. We boiled it down to four good rules as a class. I feel that the students really felt more empowered by this activity and it helped them feel more like a team.

Patty Buononato's picture

I find the fewer the rules the more apt the students will follow them and remember them. I teach middle school, the rules of my classroom are.
1)Respect (includes each other, belongings, the teacher)
2)Be Responsible (for your actions, behavior, work and belongings)
3)Stay On Task/Be Prepared

ttrspks's picture
English Teacher from Queens, NY

What's your mission? Love that tidbit. I will be using it starting Monday!

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Love this post, Rebecca and happened to write a blog on a similar topic too. I keep thinking I have it down after 29 years in the classroom. Realized I'd been prioritizing guarding materials in a very busy 8th grade physcial science course at the expense of relaxing a bit. It's been a huge help with my relationship with my students - they feel a little more respect and less stuff goes missing. What a relief and realization. Hope it's helpful for others too.

Lauren Ashley's picture

This article really was great. I am a student teacher currently and have not been through the first couple weeks of school and wish I did so that I know what to do when I have my own classroom. Thank you for your advice! I really do appreciate it! Very helpful!

Marcia James-McKenzie's picture

I believe that students and teacher success hinge on classroom management. Teachers must establish rules and routine to control the learning environment.
I agree that consistency must be established. Students are intelligent little people and they watch us like hawks. If we are weal they will play us. If we are strong they will challenge us. The key to maintaining a healthy atmosphere and good standards is when we stick to the rules we formulated.
Secondly I would like to emphasize transparency. Many time we have confusion when these rules are misunderstood. I agree that teachers should teach rules. Role model them to ensure that everyone understands.
Thank you very much Rebecca for sharing this article. The establishment and reinforcement of rules and routine will definitely helps me to attain my goals and objectives which is increase student achievement academically.

Jojo Zhong's picture
Jojo Zhong
Early Childhood teacher from China

Thank you Rebecca for sharing your great post. Classroom management is defined as teacher's actions related to establishing and enforcing rules and procedures; carrying out disciplinary actions; maintaining an appropriate mental set. The strategy for building my classroom and setting up rules and routines is I will take time to explain both the rule itself and the reason behind it to the students. It will help the children to see the need for the rule and therefore, to accept it. Besides that, I like to implement negotiated rules and procedures between parents and children. Research and theory support the intuitive notion that well-articulated rules and procedures that are negotiated with students are a critical aspect of classroom management, affecting not only the behavior of students but also their academic achievement.

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