Rules vs. Procedures

Here is a better approach than relying on rules.

Relying on classroom rules is a mistake-even though it is common practice.

When I returned to the classroom after 24 years as an elementary, middle, and high school principal and district director of education, I quickly discovered how rules hindered good relationships and effective discipline. I found myself coming to school everyday wearing a blue uniform with copper buttons. I had become a cop-rather than a facilitator of learning, a role model, a mentor, a coach. The reason is simple: If a student breaks a rule, our tendency is to enforce the rule. This is a natural thought process because the assumption is that if the rule is not enforced, people will take advantage of it. Therefore, in order to remain in control, goes the thinking, the rule must be enforced.

Rules are necessary in games. But in relationships between people, 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 or effective teaching.

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

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:

  • Rules were unclear or perceived as unfairly or inconsistently enforced.
  • Students didn’t believe in the rules.
  • Teachers and administrators disagreed on the proper responses to student misconduct.
  • Teachers tended to have punitive attitudes.
    (Joan Gaustad ERIC Digest 780)

The findings that “teachers tended to have punitive attitudes” is often the result of the enforcement mindset from relying on rules. We teachers market information. Note that people don’t “buy” from someone they don’t like-and this includes students. Even the slowest salesperson knows enough not to alienate the prospective customer.

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.

After analyzing my rules, I concluded that they were actually expectations or procedures.

Realizing that (1) positivity is more effective than negativity, (2) having a desire to empower rather than overpower my students, and (3) wanting to promote responsibility, I stopped using the term “rules.” Since my goal was to promote responsibility, I used the following:




When a student doesn’t follow a procedure, the natural tendency is to teach the procedure until it is learned. This is a positive, empowering mindset, and the same approach teachers use for anything else that was taught but not learned.

I found that teaching procedures is the essence of good classroom management. Here is what I did. Regardless of the grade level, I did NOT ASSSUME students knew what I wanted them to do. Instead, I modeled the procedure, taught it, and the class practiced it. In addition, every time something bothered me, I asked myself, “What procedure can I teach?”

Since the brain envisions images, rather than words, I started to have my students visualize procedures. For example, the number of homework assignments that I received significantly increased when I started having my students visualize procedures about their homework. I started asking questions, such as the following:

  • “When will you do your homework?”
  • “If you are engaged in some enjoyable activity, what procedure will you use to redirect your attention in order to do your homework?”
  • “Where will you do the homework, sitting at a table or lying on your bed?”
  • “Will you be watching TV and have your brain switchtasking?”
  • “What materials will you need to take home or have ready to accomplish the task?”

When I started teaching procedures, rather than relying on rules, my relationships significantly increased and so did student learning. In a nutshell, what I had done was simply to change my mindset from an enforcer of rules to an effective teacher by teaching procedures. I was now in the relationship business and had regained the joy of classroom teaching.