Teaching Opinion

As a Rule, Forget About Rules

By David Ginsburg — September 07, 2010 4 min read
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I assumed as a new teacher that disciplinary rules and consequences were a key to a successful classroom. By the end of my first year, though, I considered most rules and consequences counterproductive, and barely had any in subsequent years. Here’s why:

  1. Rules are meant to be broken. Disciplinary consequences may deter students from getting caught breaking rules, but not from breaking them. As a first-year teacher, I banned gum-chewing. The following year I had no such rule, and instead just addressed rude or irresponsible gum use as it occurred. And in which year did I find more gum stuck under desks, hear more gum-cracking, and lose more instructional time due to sticky situations related to gum-chewing? Year one--by far.
  2. Rules preclude discretion. Once you establish a rule, you have to enforce it. Always. You might think this is an advantage of rules--they remove subjectivity from our response to unwanted behavior. But instead it forces us to take time out from teaching every time students break a rule, even when their behavior isn’t disruptive. It also forces us to give some kids exactly what they want: attention in response to negative behavior. If, on the other hand, we don’t formally ban a behavior, we can take a more discretionary approach toward it, which, among other things, means using one of the most powerful strategies for defusing misconduct: ignoring it.
  3. Rules invite confrontation. Unless a rule is consistently enforced school wide, individual teachers invite confrontation when they impose that rule in their classrooms. This was the case my first year with gum-chewing, which some teachers allowed and others didn’t. By not banning gum-chewing in future years, I no longer heard, “But Ms. Johnson lets us chew gum!” Yet I still had the latitude to address gum-chewers as necessary. And by doing so in a non-punitive way, I elicited cooperation from students rather than confrontation.
  4. Rule-breaking “punishment” is often a reward. Granted, a fear of punitive consequences deters some students from breaking rules. For others, however, those consequences actually serve as incentive for breaking rules.
    Students, for example, who welcome phone calls home, since they relish the chance to aggravate their parents. Or those who would rather serve detention during lunch than go to the cafeteria or playground.
  5. Rules create a coercive climate. Enforcing rules and consequences sets a coercive tone that not only affects students’ actions, but infects their attitudes. Students, in such a setting, see education as a short-term obligation rather than a lifelong source of fulfillment. As a result, they neither learn to their potential nor with passion or pride. It’s much better to treat most common misbehavior as teachable moments rather than punishable ones.
  6. Rules promote obedience, not discipline. Proponents of disciplinary rules stress that children need discipline, which is true. Yet discipline is more than obedience, as there are plenty of kids (adults too) who obey rules but lack discipline when it comes to work habits such as reliability, resolve, and resourcefulness. That’s why a more meaningful way to cultivate discipline in students is by raising academic standards so high that students must have strong work habits to reach them. And since it’s almost impossible for students to maintain such work habits while acting out, they must either behave responsibly or suffer a natural consequence: poor grades, a far greater deterrent than the usual punishment for breaking rules. Best of all, compliance in this case reflects students being conscientious rather than us being coercive.

Unconvinced? Or are you thinking it’s one thing to soften up when it comes to gum-chewing, but quite another to let more serious stuff go unchecked? Well, here’s the most basic reason of all for dispensing with disciplinary rules: even if they were effective in controlling students’ behavior, and even if they didn’t have the adverse effects listed above, most disciplinary rules are unnecessary. That’s because the key to minimizing misconduct is prevention, not punishment. And because the keys to prevention are sound classroom management and teaching practices that make sense whether students are defiant or obedient.

So, what if you’ve already started the year with an emphasis on disciplinary rules, and are now second-guessing this? No problem. Even I still had a few rules over the years (albeit a bit outside the box, as I’ll share in future posts). Besides, it’s never too late to tweak or even scrap some of your rules.

Then again, you could leave your rules in place and see for yourself how irrelevant they are in a well run classroom. I’m reminded of a teacher I coached whose classroom was so well managed and instruction was so well planned that she never had discipline problems. Yet she still kept a chart on the wall with disciplinary rules and consequences. Finally one day I asked her why she bothered with this. “I just feel better knowing they’re there just in case. Do you think I don’t need them?” she responded. “I know you don’t need them,” I replied.

Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission

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