Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Great “Respect” Deception

October 4, 2013
Photo credit: iStockphoto

I have visited and trained in schools in every state in America, and at most of these sites, I've had a conversation with teachers and administrators similar to the one below:

Me: How many rules do you have?
Answer: (proudly) I only have one rule. It's respect for everyone.
Me: Do you allow hitting?
Answer: No.
Me: Do you allow swearing at the teacher?
Answer: No.
Me: Do you allow cell phones in class?
Answer: No.
Me: Again, how many rules do you have?
Answer: (laughing) One, I think.

I ask about five more questions regarding various behaviors and discover that wearing provocative clothing, selling drugs, bringing weapons to school, coming late to class and running in the halls are also not allowed. I ask again, "How many rules do you have?" The answer is still: "One."

Something strange is going on here.

Deception Clumps

Because so many educators have come to believe the myth of "the fewer rules, the better" (which I was taught in my teacher training program), they have developed what I call deception clumps. They throw as many rules as possible into a respectably titled non-communicative clump:

  • Be respectful.
  • Try your best.
  • Do unto others.
  • Be nice.

These all sound like positive, valuable things that are worth teaching to students, but because they are not behaviors, they cannot be enforced.

I define a rule as what you enforce every time it's broken. Platitudes cannot be enforced because there is no line to cross, there's nothing predictable for students to understand, and they're too vague to be useful. In essence, these clumps allow teachers to enforce anything whenever they want under any conditions they chose. It's a get into jail free card. Rules aren't reduced by clumping them -- they are only hidden from students. Often, the only way students can find the real lines is by crossing them. This encourages rule breaking rather than stopping it.

Back to my earlier discussions about respect: I ask these educators to imagine being arrested for being disrespectful. None can. But in America we have a dark history of just that -- arresting and even killing people for not being respectful. It's what racists did to minorities during the Jim Crow era. Minorities were harassed, jailed and even murdered when folks broke no laws. The Emmett Till case is just one example of how non-behavioral generalities give license to make up laws as you go along. Currently, one of the biggest controversies in many cities is the "stop and frisk" procedure, because it allows police action when no clear violation has occurred. Once again, the recipients of this technique are mostly minorities.

I doubt that most schools use respect as a way to show cultural bias, but with "respect" type rules, the opportunity for confusion exists for both the teachers and students.

Values vs. Rules

Many teachers and administrators tell me that they define their "respect rule" with lists of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. This is a step in the right direction -- as long as other behaviors not on the list are not enforced. The better system is to use these clumps in a more positive way. Instead of eliminating them, we can elevate them to be more important than rules. We can use them to define the values of the school, list under each value the behaviors that are unacceptable, and convert our responses to those behaviors into our rules. Instead of choosing values or rules, we can use both interdependently. Of course, the rules need to be directly related to their values. Airlines do this to perfection. We can use their example.

The values explain the why of behavior, and the rules explain the what. Both are necessary. The two most important school and classroom values are:

  1. All students will be safe.
  2. Everyone here will learn.

Most rules can be determined from these two values. This method provides both motivation for following rules and clear, predictable lines between acceptable and unacceptable. If you want fewer rules, which I still think is a good idea, then don't clump them. Just cross some off your list.

Many teachers complain that they can't cover everything under this system. But that is its greatest strength. We don't need to cover everything and shouldn’t try. Informal interventions are far more effective than rule enforcement in changing student behavior.

We can strengthen this system even further by allowing and encouraging input from students and even their parents. Students are far more likely to follow rules based on their values than those from authority.

Let's stop deceiving students and ourselves into thinking we have only one rule when we have many. Let's find balance between values and rules. And let's communicate the truth to our students.


1From Curwin, Richard L. Affirmative Classroom Management: How do I develop effective rules and consequences in my school? by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, Virginia. To be released in December 2013.

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