Classroom Rules are Counterproductive

Image of a school room

Classroom rules are counterproductive and prompt stress between adults and young people. This is because rules place the adult in an adversarial relationship. Relying on rules is coercive and promotes obedience rather than responsibility.

The reason is simple. If a student breaks a rule, our tendency is to enforce the rule. The assumption is that if the rule is not enforced, people will take advantage of it. Therefore, in order to remain in control, we must enforce all rules.

Rules are essential in games. But in relationships, reliance on rules is counterproductive because the enforcement mentality automatically creates adversarial relationships. Enforcing rules too often promotes power struggles that rarely result in win-win situations.

Rules aim at obedience. But obedience does not inspire nor do they create desire. In addition, rules aim at compliance. If a rule is not followed, compliance itself is oftentimes followed by some coercive action such as imposed punishment.

Problems with Classroom Rules

Although the establishment of rules is motivated by good intentions, their implementation often produces deleterious effects. When Johns Hopkins University researchers analyzed data from more than 600 schools, they found seven characteristics associated with student discipline problems. Four of them concerned rules:

  1. Rules were unclear or perceived as unfairly or inconsistently enforced.
  2. Students didn’t believe in the rules.
  3. Teachers and administrators disagreed on the proper responses to student misconduct.
  4. Teachers tended to have punitive attitudes.

The last finding that “teachers tended to have punitive attitudes” is often the result of an enforcement mindset of relying on rules. Rules are “left-hemisphere” dominant. They are sensible, orderly, and structured. “Left hemisphere” dominant students are often the ones who follow rules and are successful in school.

But what about the “right-hemisphere” dominant type of student who acts spontaneously and impulsively and whose brain processes randomly? These are the students who don’t follow the rules or who break them altogether. These students need structure and relying on rules does not provide what these students need for success.

Realizing that positivity is more effective than negativity, having a desire to empower rather than overpower my students, and wanting to promote responsibility, I stopped using the term “rules” and instead teach procedures. This one simple shift can make a world of difference in any classroom.

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