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Making Classroom Rules Work When We're Learning From Home

Looking for some tips on how to write your classroom rules?


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Laura Head

3 years ago | 6 min read

The rules are made up and the points don’t matter. So how do we get our students to bother trying?

A good teacher rule of thumb is to have your classroom rules come from your students. It empowers them to know that they’re the ones who curated the classroom culture, and increases their awareness of how they should behave.

In the first week of school every year, I used to reliably workshop new rules. I put the onus on my eight-year-olds, letting them craft the laws that reflected their community and their values. (Little did they know that each year, the rules would look virtually identical to the last, thanks to a little subconscious direction from yours truly.)

Each year, the rules worked. Yes, there was always a window of time when the kids had to acclimate, and yes, there were always days where tensions ran high and we needed to revisit the contract. But the rules were there as a moral foundation to our class of growing minds, and they served their purpose.

It wasn’t a coincidence. Posed opposite the classroom rules was a well-outlined charter of rewards and consequences. Follow the rules, earn some tokens, cash in the tokens for class prizes. Don’t follow the rules, lose tokens, prizes, and privileges. Action, reaction. As far as I was concerned, these back-end incentives explained the good behavior.

Enter remote learning. Sitting miles apart for just a couple hours a week, I can’t very well hand out tokens, prizes, or negative consequences effectively. The incentive of earning a token will wear off as soon as the clock ticks 4:00 and the laptop lid gets shut. Wouldn’t it be worse to create rules only to have them undermined? Why bother in the first place if I can’t hold my kids accountable?

Worried about student follow-through, I steered clear of rules altogether.

So we went lawless. And it got very Lord of the Flies very quickly. Making faces in their camera, taking frequent snack breaks, adding extra repeating letters onto vocabulary words (“campaignnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnasdfghj”), obscuring the shared screen with big fat circles or variegated scribbles, interrupting one another’s work in the shared document. Long live online learning.

I mean, duh.

It must have been a lovely time for the kids. But as their teacher who was trying to enlighten them with lofty new ideas and meet state standards, it turns out that there was definitely no advantage to not having class rules.

So despite my worries that a classroom contract would be disregarded for further folie, I reasoned that I had nothing to lose. I finally sat down with my group, and with an old familiar rhythm, gave them the lead to make some online school rules. Here’s what they came up with:

1. Write things that are a good try, instead of things that are silly or lazy.

2. Always be unmuted, and have your camera on if it works. Use your microphone at pod volume.

3, Show professional behavior with your face, voice, and screen.

4. If you have a question or comment, raise your hand or say “excuse me.” Don’t call out.

5. Hold onto side conversations until it’s independent or small-group work time.

They’re pretty good rules. They show self-reflection, integrity, and moral good. They speak to the canonical school rules, but have a remarkable relevance to our adapted online learning platform. And all from a group of twelve-year-olds.

And, perhaps more poignantly, the rules have work. A buoyant verbal reminder has been surprisingly effective in redirecting a student's behavior while we all work online. As they did in the classroom, the kids have taken it upon themselves to refer to the rules too, to keep each other in line.

It’s nice that the virtual rules work, but it's left me with a reckoning: Why do the rules work, even though I don’t have the student prizes I had before?

In school, I always credited our Room 305 Store with the ability to keep my students in line; the material incentives were enough to instill in kids a desire to do well. But in 2020, from across miles and an internet signal of variable strength, my students still exhibit lawful good behavior.

Every other Friday before dismissal, the Room 305 store opened for business. Any third grader with enough tokens to make a purchase could come up, consult the inventory, and pay me off. Prizes were exactly what you’d think: Stickers, erasers, and little plastic doo-dads that came in packs of 50 or 100 from Oriental Trading. When I was really on my game, seasonal trinkets would be in limited supply. It cost a very small fraction of my teacher salary to buy off a bunch of 8-year-olds and get them to act nicely from 8:00 to 2:30.

My students’ excitement for these prizes was directly proportional to my ability to market them attractively. Halloween bookmarks that were a limited edition, partner to the independent reading book of your choosing, and a perfect match to the costume you’d planned were worth saving for — a square of yellow plastic with a maze in it was not. A green fish eraser that would complete your set of aquatic-themed school supplies was worth earning tokens for — a dinky old pencil sharpener was not.

It was all in the sales pitch. The kids got enthusiastic about prizes that I was enthusiastic about. They’re like puppies that way.

I did this outside of material marketing, too. Students were reticent every year when we started a historical fiction book on Omakayas and her mid-19th century Native American tribe. So every year, I pulled up a map on the SMARTboard and we explored modern-day Michigan and Lake Superior, finding relevance in our lives to Omakayas’s. When we were studying Chinese geography, I drew a really bad version of the Great Wall of China and told them all about the historical account I was reading. When we could no longer procrastinate on the much-dreaded unit of fractions, I brought in pie.

When you give them a reason to care, kids will care about just about anything. Fractions. Chinese history. Fish erasers.

So each year when we wrote our classroom rules, I used the same brand of teacher marketing. “Okay guys, rule #4 is to try your best,” was not the origin of rule #4. Instead, it was something like: “I could turn in a worksheet where I whoosh through the problems (cue the pantomiming), and give it to Ms. Head, and whew I can go draw Minecraft stuff! But, I could take my time, not rush, hmmm — think about my answers, and nice-and-neatly turn in a worksheet. Then, when I’m done prim and proper, I can go off and do my drawings then.”

Just like I did when marketing for the school store or starting a new social studies unit, I used a presentation that evoked in my students a desire for something that they didn’t forcibly or inherently want. With a little help of some empathetic think-alouds, my kids became vested in trying to honor the classroom rules.

I don’t have my degree in child psychology and I can’t explain why.

But after that, anytime that I anemically referred to the classroom rules, my kids responded with equal apathy. Anytime we sat down to reflect on feelings, our autonomy, and our role in the classroom, the impending threat of a Purge faded back into fiction.

When you give them a reason to care, kids will care about just about anything. Kids don’t follow rules because they want prizes, they follow rules that they feel matter. Prizes are just the cheap plastic cherry on top.

Looking for some tips on how to write your classroom rules? Here’s a cheat sheet.

- Keep your contract to 5 or 6 basic and broad rules. Less is more.

- Keep your language positive. It’s the place for do’s not don’ts.

- Review your rules frequently with your group, especially at first, and especially when circumstances change (i.e. after a school break, or on a particularly crazy day).

- Align student behavior to classroom rules. Use positive and not negative language (i.e. “I would love to see your voice turned off” instead of “stop talking!”).

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Created by

Laura Head

Passionate educator writing insights on remote learning, early education, and social justice. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.


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