Ditch the ‘rules’

I hate rules. Classrooms do not need rules. In fact, neither do businesses or homes.

If you’ve created an Essential Agreement before, fantastic! Whether this is new to you or not, you will likely find a gem or two below. This is what we have done with learners in our classrooms, so be creative in how you might apply this to your own grade level, with your kids at home, or with your business team. This lesson is for everyone; Take what you like, leave the rest.

For teachers, if you’ve already started school, walk into your classroom, grab your classroom rules poster, bring it to the front of the room and as dramatically as possible, rip it in pieces, yelling, “We don’t need no stinking rules!”​​

 1. Discuss with kids what THEY want their learning environment to look like and be
 2. Collaboratively brainstorm all of the “rules” (on a whiteboard) that the class would need for your class community to achieve this learning environment
 3. As a class, erase “rules” that underestimate the students prior knowledge (it’s explained below)
 4. Group remaining “rules”
 5. Re-word the “rules” in the positive and check again for grouping
 6. Create a class agreement poster with the 4–8 agreements
 7. All members of the learning community — students, teacher and anyone else involved with the class needs to sign the poster and understand what they are committing to

 1. Discuss with your children what THEY want their home environment to look like, be like and feel like.
 2. Collaboratively brainstorm all of the “rules” (write them down on a piece of paper) implicit or explicit that your family has, such as those non-negotiables that pertain to your culture, values or belief systems. As a family add any additional “rules” you would need to achieve this home environment.
 3. As a family, erase any “rules” that underestimate how old the children are (explained below)
 4. Group remaining “rules”
 5. Re-word the “rules” into the positive and check again for any rules that could be grouped
 6. Create a home agreement poster with the 4–8 agreements
 7. All members of the family need to sign the poster and understand what they are committing to… consequences for not following the agreements by ALL family members including parents need to be agreed to also.

STEP 1: 
It’s easy to tell kids what type of learning environment or home YOU want, but this reinforces the traditional perspective and role of a teacher, as ‘sage on stage’, or parent as the authoritarian, rather than an activator, someone who inspires and empowers children to take charge and ownership of their own learning.

Instead, ask them what they want their classroom or home to FEEL like. We have had answers like: “safe, fun, exciting, challenging, peaceful”

 Now you have a goal. So, how do we reach that goal? Ask children to throw out possible rules to be able to achieve this type of environment. Remember that there is no wrong answer. Brainstorming is about the free-flow of ideas, any revision or editing comes later. This is the step where kids might say things like “No punching, no running in class, raise your hand before speaking, no yelling, etc…”
 Write it all down! Take awhile with this one and get every person involved. ​

 This is an interesting step. Jeff and I tend to think that many rules underestimate students’ intelligence and we repeat many of the same rules from a very young age through to when they are teens. As such, adults end up sounding like a broken record, and kids feeling that “rules” hold no meaning. So, at eleven years old, children should not have to be told “No running in class”. Why?
 Well, because at this age they understand why they shouldn’t and they’ve heard it too many times. Why be a broken record?

This step is also about showing them you trust them and that they are coming to you with prior knowledge. Ask them to tell you which ones that they shouldn’t need to be told. ​

 You might have over half of your board/worksheet filled and you are going to find similar types of rules like: “No punching, No kicking, No hitting, etc…” For now, this might be grouped as “No violence”, but don’t worry, we’re not done! By this point, you will be closing in on less than 20 rules.
 Here’s a picture of where you might be at in this stage of the process:

 Now it’s time to focus on Being and Becoming. It’s easy to say “Don’t” and “No”, but much more effective for kids to understand that we are not always perfect, and these are things we are working towards. Now, you might see rules like “No violence, No stealing, No breaking class materials, No cell phones at the table” becoming “Be respectful to each other and our community” and yes, it is everyone’s community, not just the teacher’s or the parent’s. Flip the script from the negative to the positive. 
 Once you have done this, you will likely see that many of the remaining rules fit under these large agreements. Continue to group under these big agreements until you only end up with 4–8.

 Now, make a big poster with these agreements. Make it fun, as this will be a collaborative piece that you will keep and revisit, reflect on and modify all year long (yeeps, the example below is not so artistic or creative).

 This is the important part. Everyone in the class or family has to agree upon this. If there are any members who will not sign the essential agreement, ask why, and modify the agreement until everyone is happy.
 The important step is that you, as a teacher (or parent), must sign as well. I always tell my kids to call me out if they feel I am not demonstrating one of these agreements. It shows my kids that we are on a level playing field, that everyone is capable of mistakes, and that the same expectations should be held by adults, challenging us to be the positive role models that they need.

Any time an issue comes up in class, or at home, you can always return to the agreement as a talking point and say: “You agreed to this. What could you have done instead that would show a behavior or solution that matches our essential agreement”?
 Here is a picture of what our completed essential agreement looked like for a grade 5 class Jeff taught:

We have put together some great resources for you to further explore Essential Agreements, check them out: http://www.pinterest.com/edpublishing/essential-agreements/
 We are sure you can pick holes in this entire lesson and we encourage you to do so. This is only one way to create an essential agreement, but we are certain there is something here that may help you on your journey. 
 Now, get out there and destroy those rules!

Originally published August 2014 for ED-ucation Publishing’s Newletter by: Jeff Hoffart
Republished with edits for Parents: January 2016 by Tosca Killoran

Originally published at www.ed-ucation.ca.