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Responsive Classroom Strategies

From Our Hopes and Dreams
Come the Rules


"The quest for rules helps us achieve our hopes. 'If we are going to be able to learn math, what rules do we need?' 'If we are going to be able to make friends, what rules do we need?' 'The rules help the good things happen."

Ruth Charney describes how to develop rules that lead to the achievement of hopes and dreams.

Many years ago, I learned an interesting lesson from a particularly scrappy group of third graders. Our rule, "Respect One Another," was a daily challenge.

After much discussion and modeling, the class decided that a "No Teasing" amendment -- spelled out in bold letters -- was needed. So, we defined teasing, its verbal and nonverbal forms. We talked about "safe jokes" in reaction to the "I was only kidding" defense. We practiced what to do instead of teasing. And, importantly, we talked about taking our "No Teasing" rule on the road -- to lunch and even out to recess.

One day, just as I thought things were definitely progressing, one of my students asked me the following question: "Mrs. C.," she said, "Does the "No Teasing" rule count across the street or down the block? I mean that's not really at school yet, right?"

"Wrong!" I thought. My aim as a teacher is to make sure that rules are internalized, so they are carried with them, even down the block. For children, the boundaries need to be more defined, the pace slower. It can be a long trek along the route from desk to pencil sharpener, from hallway to bathroom, from music class to recess, and finally down the street to home -- one that requires much reinforcement! And that trek begins with the collaborative effort of creating rules for the classroom.

"The rules help the good things happen," my colleague Chip Wood states.

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The construction of rules is part of a proactive approach to discipline.

Teachers using the Responsive Classroom approach develop rules with their students every year during the first six weeks of school. The process starts by generating and sharing "Hopes and Dreams" for the year.

The quest for rules helps us achieve our hopes. "If we are going to be able to learn hard math, what rules do we need?" "If we are going to be able to make new friends, what rules do we need?" "If we are going to be able to be more inclusive and not have cliques, what rules do we need?" The rules help the good things happen.

The rules that are framed are in the children's language and reflect their best thinking. From kindergarten through 8th grade, however, the rules should reflect certain common characteristics:

Rules frame an ideal.Rules are positive statements. We want rules that help guide our behaviors toward what we want rather than what we don't want. Our rules help us all envision and work towards a positive community. Often in kindergarten, children offer lists of what not to do. (Don't throw the blocks. Don't walk on the books. Don't hit people. Don't say bad words.) As we formulate rules, however, we also affirm our goals; if we don't throw or hit, what do we do in our classroom so everyone can feel safe and learn?

Rules are general guidelines. Rules are broad rather than specific statements. They need to cover only three categories: how we take care of ourselves, how we take care of others, and how we take care of the environment. It is our intention to help develop reasoned and critical thinking that can be applied to, but doesn't prescribe, every situation. A rule that says, "We will take care of ourselves" might require real thinking about critical choices, such as whether to do or not do homework, whether to sit next to a chatty friend during a work period, or whether to remember to wear mittens to recess. After a lengthy discussion, one fifth-grade class that had brainstormed a very long list of rules, suddenly realized that they might all be said with the single word, "Respect." How explicit the rules are and how many you need (3 - 6) depends very much on the nature of the group and their age. The concrete details of each rule -- what it sounds like and looks like at each grade level -- become part of the rich and ongoing learning of the year.

We also know that we want "a few rules we will remember rather than many we will forget."

Rules require action. The rules must be lived each day, to become a reality rather than just nice words on a wall. They are lived when they are thoroughly integrated into the routines and rituals of classroom life. They are lived when they are made explicit through teacher expectations. They are lived when they are intentionally taught through modeling, practice and more practice. They are lived when they can be observed by the way adults treat one another and their students in the school. We need to be able to reinforce the efforts children make to follow the rules. We need to notice and respectfully speak to the ways they do not. And we need to be able to say, when a child is rude, "I do not speak to you that way. You may not speak to me or others in that tone either."


"If we want our classroom to be a place where everyone can learn and everyone can have and be a friend, what rules do we need?"

The process that teachers use to construct rules with students include the following steps:

Teachers share their academic and social hopes for the year. Students share their academic and social hopes for the year. (See article #1) Teachers begin the process of creating rules by paraphrasing their "hopes and dreams" and those of the students, reinforcing the idea that rules help "the good things happen." They help children take risks in their learning, sustain efforts, form a more open community where "girls can be friends with boys and no one teases you."

"What rules do we need so Latisha can read chapter books and Jacob can do his homework without getting upset?"

Teachers and students brainstorm rules: Students list their ideas for classroom rules. Teachers chart all the rules students suggest, compiling an "however-long" list of should-do's and should-nots without comment. (Don't throw toys. Listen to the teacher. Don't run in the halls. Be nice to everyone.)

Rules expressed as negative statements are re-phrased as positives:

"If we don't call out, what do we do?" (Raise our hands when someone else is speaking.)
"If we don't talk to our friends when someone is sharing, what do we do?" (Actively listen.)
"If we don't call names, what do we do?" (Use friendly words: "put-ups" not put-downs.)
"If we don't run in the halls,."

From the many, come the few. Teachers work with children to consolidate the rules into three to five general rules. Teachers might help children see the general categories of respecting self, others, and classroom/school environment, and then have them sort the list. Sometimes as children sort and categorize by the ones that "seem the same," they come up with the classifications that serve their classroom. Some examples of completed rules might be:

First Grade Rules

1. Be nice and use friendly words.
2. Take care of all our toys, crayons, books, and other stuff.
3. Listen.
4. Wait your turn.
Fourth Grade Rules

1. Treat others the way you want to be treated and don't laugh when someone makes a mistake.
2. Take care of our belongings.
3. When others are working, be respectful so you don't distract anyone.
4. Raise your hand.

Sign and post the rules. Have the children copy the rules beautifully on poster board, sign them, and hang them in a prominent place in the classroom. Children also might illustrate and show examples. Rules can also be copied and sent home for parents to read and review with their children.


It is important not to rush the rule-making process, which might take three or more meetings. It also is important to keep each discussion and step in the process lively and short. Sometimes, in the effort to get it done, discussion meetings get drawn out and kids get restless and say anything just to be done with it! While you are waiting for the class to generate the rules, it is fine to have a set of rules and procedures ready so that the start of the year is orderly and calm. In the Responsive Classroom approach, teachers always establish and practice the expectations for the quiet signal, for example.

With older children, I find it helpful to have them think and write about the rules before we begin to brainstorm. I might ask the following questions: "What is a rule you think is most important for you to learn this year to feel safe? What is a rule you think is most important for the class so everyone can learn and feel safe? I have also asked students to think about the rule that is the "hardest for them to follow" and the one that is "easiest for them to follow."

When students have participated in this process for many years, you want to make sure it doesn't get stale and rote. Questions that help imbue words like respect, inclusion, and care with the details that matter can make it more real. In our 8th grade class, for example, respect for our things became "Only take something out of another person's backpack or locker if you have permission." Respect for one another included "Listen with an open mind even if you disagree" and "If you invite someone to lunch or play a game, really talk to them."

There also are other ways to create rules with students. Some are explored more fully in "Teaching Children to Care" and "Rules in School." (See Additional Resources below.)

Remember, our rules are only as good as our ability to teach and model them. And, as always, we know that even the best behaved children will have times when they test even the rules they helped create. Empathy for our rule-breakers makes our community stronger.

Note: This article describes some of the procedures teachers using the Responsive Classroom approach implement to develop rules. A subsequent article will focus on teaching the rules.
  • The Responsive Classroom
  • Rules in School,Brady, Forton, Porter and Wood (NEFC 2003)
  • Teaching Children to Care, Charney (NEFC 2002)
  • First Six Weeks of School, Denton & Kriete (NEFC 2000)
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