Rules vs. procedures – Isn’t this just a matter of semantics?


I usually involve the students in the creation of classroom rules.  To me, we are just agreeing upon how we can make our classroom a safe and fun place to be. I don’t know if it’s really so different from a Discipline without Stress approach of having procedures, but “no rules.”  Isn’t this just a matter of semantics?


My teaching partner and I used to have “classroom rules” and like you, we routinely planned a time for kids to create the rules on the first day of school. In my experience this approach produced a different type of thinking within my own mind than the mindset created when I started to experiment with “procedures” rather than rules.  For me, the semantics that you refer to did make a difference in my own mind––a big difference.

I find I’m much more positive in my own mind when I purposely view “misbehavior” as coming from “someone who didn’t learn the procedure,” as when I perceive the same “misbehavior” coming from “someone who’s not following the rules.” Having tried both ways, I find I greatly prefer teaching from the “procedures mindset.”  I find it a more relaxing and positive approach to working with people. It puts me in a “teaching frame of mind,” rather than a “find a consequence for breaking the rule frame of mind.” This may not be the same for everyone, but it’s true for me.

The procedures mindset has also greatly focused me on the need for repetition of any one procedure (which might be identical to a particular “rule” I used to have before.) This made it possible for me to feel more in control of making my classroom run smoothly.

With a “rules mindset,” I didn’t have a good understanding of this issue. Although I always taught routines, I didn’t teach them well enough or provide enough practice to make them automatic for every child. Reading the Discipline without Stress information, which referred me to Harry Wong’s book on classroom management, I found the following statements attributed to research by Madeline Hunter:

  • For a child to learn something new, you need to repeat it on the average 8 times.
  • For a child to unlearn an old behavior and replace it with a new behavior you need to repeat the new behavior on the average 28 times.
  • 20 of those times are used to eliminate the old behavior and 8 of the times are used to learn the new behavior.

For the first time I began to see how the practice of teaching procedures would allow me to reach every child.  I could help the most challenged students become more successful in my classroom. It also helped me to understand the value of thinking out my class procedures clearly––before I taught them the first time!

One more understanding I adopted from my reading of Marvin Marshall’s  book  was that creating procedures and standards (what I used to think of as “rules,”) is the responsibility of the teacher, not the students. Although this was somewhat of a startling idea for me, it rang true.

Marshall’s view is that classroom management is the responsibility of the teacher––whereas discipline (in the sense of a child being in charge of their own behavior,) is the responsibility of the student. In Discipline without Stress, the teacher creates the procedures, because that’s the job they’ve signed on to do––to lead, to structure the room for learning etc. He says that that is not the job of the child.  The job of the child is to make choices about their own behavior.

If I think back to the days when I did have kids help create the rules, it wasn’t that I ever really intended to give them power to help create the rules at all––because I usually had several rules in my own mind already before the first day of school. (In fact, I often had a chart all prepared that I could whip out once “we’d finished creating the rules together.”) If a child came up with a rule I didn’t like, or didn’t think was reasonable or important, I didn’t allow that rule to stand. I manipulated the conversation to come around to what I had in my own mind anyway. So, when I thought about it, I realized that since the kids didn’t really create the rules at all, what was the point in my pretending that they did? Now that I have this clear in my own mind, it has made me a more confident teacher with a greater understanding of my own role in the classroom.

So these days, I create procedures rather than rules. By teaching my procedures well, I instill my expectations (I expect that they will follow the procedures I have taught.) By teaching the procedures thoroughly (8 or maybe more times for the most challenging children,) I am actually teaching students how to be well-behaved in my classroom––because some children really don’t know how. By following the procedures I teach, a child knows exactly what it means to be well-behaved.

Now, when it comes to discipline, that’s a different issue. Kids are responsible for their own discipline. Why? Because I can’t control another person, so it makes sense that each student has to be in charge of their own behavior. That’s the goal in this discipline approach––to teach kids about self-discipline, and the results of being self-disciplined (or not.) But that’s getting off track from our conversation here!

So, in part, it might be semantics, but in part, definitely not. That’s my personal experience anyway.

1 Comment
  1. Kerry, you are so right here. It drives me crazy when teachers have kids help create rules that are often ridiculous. One year a grade two teacher had a list of 22 rules because she wanted each child to contribute a rule. By the end of the list it was just a very silly list of don’ts. One example I find is with gum chewing – it isn’t allowed in our school – so when kids come with gum I simply ask them to spit it out and point to the garbage can. For young ones that is all that is needed, and perhaps a brief remider explanation that we don’t chew gum at school. So far, I have had good results using that approach with older kids too, although the school rule is 3 pages of lines for gum chewing. I do not give the lines, but I do calmly but assertively ask the student to put it in the garbage, and thank them when they do. I consider it reteaching the procedure for these kids and see no need to go off the deep end.