Rules, Citizenship, and Discipline

A common practice in classrooms around the world is to establish classroom rules, either by the teacher alone or by the teacher and students cooperatively. Rules are necessary in games, but in relationships they are counterproductive. Although the establishment of rules has good intentions, their implementation often produces deleterious effects.

When Johns Hopkins University researchers analyzed data from more than 600 schools, they found six characteristics associated with discipline problems. Notice that the first three 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 didn’t know what the rules were or disagreed on the proper responses to student misconduct.
  4. Teacher-administrator cooperation was poor or the administration was inactive.
  5. Misconduct was ignored.
  6. Teachers tended to have punitive attitudes.


Classroom rules often work against the very reason for their existence: to have students self-discipline and maintain decorum. But quality schools and quality workplaces do not rely on rules. Neither does citizenship education rely on rules. Citizenship education has to do with appropriate and inappropriate classroom conduct, and rules are kept to a minimum—such as “respect for one another and safety.” Citizenship is really little more than the conscious practice of civic etiquette—the public manners that make the places where we live workable when we practice them, and unbearable when we don’t.

Ultimately, rules are “left-hemisphered.” They are sensible, orderly, and structured. However, students who “break the rules” often operate spontaneously and process randomly—typical “right-hemisphere” thinking. In addition, rules often engender a search for loopholes. Rather than using rules, teachers would be better served by using responsibilities, of which you’ll find many discussions about on this blog.