Rethinking Classroom Rules

Excerpted from Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community (ASCD, 1996/2006)

Behaviorism lives on, not only in stickers and stars but in lists of concrete rules telling children exactly what they must, or must not, do. In a classroom management program called Assertive Discipline, broader guidelines (“Treat each other kindly”) are explicitly repudiated in favor of specific prescriptions (“Keep hands and feet to yourself”) and proscriptions (“No profanity”): “The more observable a rule is, the easier it is for students to understand and comply with it” (Canter and Canter 1992, p. 51). A program that presents itself as an enlightened alternative to Assertive Discipline takes the very same position: “Rules work best when they are behavioral and written in black-and-white terms” (Curwin and Mendler 1988, p. 21).

Much is made of the need to spell out these rules (and the consequences that invariably accompany them) in advance, in order to provide “predictability.” (Also, doing so may help to silence the inevitable complaints of unfairness in an environment defined by punitive consequences.) Thus, a teacher in the Discipline with Dignity video (Curwin and Mendler 1991) is brought on camera to announce with some satisfaction that her students are “aware, when they’ve broken a rule, what’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, and when it’s going to happen.”

Unfortunately, the real message communicated in such a classroom is that it is not a community where troublesome behavior is a problem to be solved together; it is a place where the teacher says “Do what I tell you, or here’s exactly what I’ll do to you.” Just as a threat is no less a threat because it is uttered calmly, so it does not change its nature merely because it is spelled out ahead of time. If anything, that will just enhance its salience.

It is not an accident that an article entitled (without irony) “How to Be an Effective Authoritarian” offers the following as its first piece of practical advice: “Rules should be specific….So that students do not have to define the real meaning of a rule, state it in specific, objective terms” (McDaniel 1982, p. 246). Notice that this prescription is more than behaviorism come to life; it is also, true to the essay’s title, authoritarianism come to life. It makes perfect sense to spell out specific rules that mandate specific behaviors if the overriding objective is to get students to do whatever the teacher demands.

If, however, the goal is to help students grow into compassionate, principled people, then having students “define the real meaning” of rules is the best way — perhaps the only way — that a list of rules prepared by the teacher can help students become thoughtful decision makers. But such an arrangement can only do so much: it is far better to ask children to create the rules.

Some classroom management programs now suggest bringing students in on that process. But it’s important to realize that this idea does not in itself reflect a constructivist perspective. For example, a program may allow, or even encourage, us to react with relief when a student comes up with the very rules that we had in mind: “What we have found is that the kids will either come up with the same rules [as the teacher] or even tougher rules, but then they have ownership and you can label them ‘We decided’ instead of ‘I decided'” (Nelsen et al. 1993, p. 140).

An adult with more ambitious objectives might well view such a neat correspondence with concern: Students may be saying what they think the teacher wants to hear, or reciting what they memorized in previous years. No learning has taken place in such a transaction, nor has any moral or intellectual growth. The point may be, as it seems to be with Rudolf Dreikurs, just to foster the appearance of participation in order to secure compliance.

Some teachers (and consultants) have more on their minds than getting kids to obey: They genuinely want to create a classroom where students are respectful of one another. But they try to reach these objectives by drilling students in the right way to act (e.g., Charney 1991). Students have no opportunity to reflect on why it may be the right way, nor any chance to disagree. Their job is to say and do what they are told. The fact that you or I may be entirely sympathetic with what they are told — for example, the importance of respecting other people’s feelings — shouldn’t blind us to the limits of what can be achieved merely by telling people something. We ought to be concerned when even “very reasonable rules [are]. . . imposed and enforced from above, with little opportunity for students to develop an understanding of, or personal commitment to, them” (Lewis 1995, p. 144). (A reliable earmark of this “imposed from above” approach, incidentally, is the use of public praise to reinforce certain behaviors.)

If students are to create rules, the teacher must be clear (first in her own mind, then with them) that the point is just that: to create. Student-generated rules that emerge from a deep and on-going conversation are likely to be valuable not because of the rules themselves but because of the conversation that gave rise to them. The process is the point.

But let’s go even further. From a constructivist perspective, the very idea of rules may be troubling. Teachers who have taken the important step of inviting students to help make up the rules would do well to question the value of generating a list of behavioral particulars — for at least three reasons. First of all, rules turn children into lawyers, scanning for loopholes and caveats, narrowing the discussion to technicalities when a problem occurs. The long-term implications of creating such a mindset are quite disturbing, as Marilyn Watson (1989) explains:

Students are encouraged to perform a kind of calculation: Is the fun or personal gain of this violation worth the pain or personal loss I’ll suffer if I get caught? The school is seen as a legal system in which one operates out of self-interest, making personal choices about one’s behavior and experiencing the positive and negative consequences of such choices. In this case, the school is not a moral agent, not a socializing agent; it does not define the kind of community which the child is joining, but acts merely as an enforcer of an externally determined code of conduct, a code that is imposed on only some members: the students.

Second, rules turn teachers into policemen, a role utterly at odds with being facilitators of learning. Watson again put it very well:

If adults are the upholders of order, then whenever they are in the presence of children, they must be vigilant. They must be watching for violations….And most children will avoid the presence of adults for fear that they will be controlled or chastised. Such an approach to discipline creates the very opposite of a caring community — in fact, it mitigates against the school’s becoming a community at all.

Third, rules usually enfold within them a punitive consequence for breaking them. The result is that we are thrown back into doing things to students rather than working with them to solve problems. The more “behavioral” or “black-and-white” the rule, the more likely it is that all these things will happen.

The alternative to concrete rules is not to say, “Do whatever you personally feel like.” (That’s a false dichotomy.) Rather, it is to engage the class in discussion about the “ways we want our class to be” (Child Development Project 1996a) and how that can be made to happen. There are few educational contrasts so sharp and meaningful as that between students being told what the teacher expects of them, what they are and are not permitted to do; and students coming together to reflect on how they can live and learn together. It is the difference between being prepared to spend a lifetime doing what one is told, and being prepared to take an active role in a democratic society (or to transform a society into one that is democratic, as the case may be).

Do children differ in terms of their ability to think abstractly? Sure. Those who are inclined to think in concrete terms, if only because they are younger, can begin with specific ideas for how we should treat one another. But the process shouldn’t end there. Working together to abstract a few common principles from a brainstormed list of specific suggestions can be, among other things, a terrific way of honing thinking skills. It can help even six-year-olds to transcend a preoccupation with black-and-white rules. But first we educators have to do so.