Establishing ground rules


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Establishing ground rules includes expressing and setting of expectations, clear formulation of rules and consequences, if those rules are disregarded. The clear expression of rules and consequences minimise the need for corrective measures, meaning the actual implementation of the consequences. Rules are behavioural norms, which apply in every situation. They have to be differentiated from procedures, which apply during a specific activity. For example, the ground rule of “raising the hand” to communicate in class may lead to a misunderstanding of what behaviour is expected in group work activities or whole-class discussions. A set of procedures to make pupils clear, what kind of behaviour is expected in specific activities can clear up misunderstandings. For a clear and comprehensive rule setting in class, it is recommended to make a positive formulation of the concerned rule instead of a prohibition and to compress the number of rules in order to facilitate for the pupils to keep them in mind.

Rules should be introduced to pupils in an age appropriate way, so that they are understandable for them and realistic to be abided. Rules should be fair and open for discussion. The participation in setting the expectations can increase pupils’ investment in standing by them. For example, if pupils are asked to explain the difference between an efficient and an inefficient class, their responses can be used for the formulation of ground rules. The teachers function as a role model for living these common set principles in everyday practice, i.e. by always coming prepared to lessons and returning written assignments on time. In this connection, teachers may also consider what kind of atmosphere and learning environment they want to create. The associated rules reflect these initial thoughts.

The determination of consequences require that pupils have a clear picture of what situation arises, if they don’t abide by the rules, before this situation arises. For this purpose, it is considered as useful to promote pupils’ understanding of the cause and effect relationship of rules and consequences and that they have an impact on it by choosing how to behave. In this way, pupils are supported in their development of self-discipline.

Consequences are effective, if they are logic for pupils. Further, their degree should increase gradually, in order to give pupils adequate warning before a serious punishment follows. However, pupils’ dignity has to be retained all the time.

The type of consequences that teachers choose is connected to their teaching style, their set rules and should be consistent with pupils’ understanding of these rules. For example, if discussion in class should be promoted and there are specific procedures for communication during whole-class activities, pupils who shouted out in a disturbing way may not be punished with sitting apart from the others remaining silent.

In order to establish pupils’ self-discipline it is considered useful to show them exactly where they stand on the hierarchy of consequences. It is assumed that pupils are more engaged to follow rules and control themselves when their behavioural progress is obvious to them and can be tracked back.

Expectations regarding behaviour are most effective if they are mapped out at the beginning of the year and reviewed throughout the year. Educational researcher Robert Marzano recommends starting this process by comparison with real-life situations. Most pupils have a sense of what kind of behaviour is expected from them in different situations. For example, they recognise that a doctor`s appointment requires behaviour following different rules than a situation of playing with friends. A discussion of rules outside of school is a good preparation for the discussion of classroom principles.

Furthermore, rules and principles have a direct correlation to learning goals. For example, when pupils follow the rule of “listening when someone else is speaking” they have the possibility to learn from each other. Practical examples of each rule support pupils’ awareness of their purpose and benefit. Investing in pupils’ engagement of achieving their behavioural goals just as in their academic goals motivates pupils to meet them.


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Title: Formulating classroom principles

Objective: To promote effective learning through goal setting

Contents: In this activity, you are asked to follow the steps below to create guidelines for classroom principles. In a first step, please read the points below and write a short paragraph for each point with contents that seem to be relevant for your classroom context. For support/inspiration, you are free to research more online material. When you have completed the task, the list can be used as a tool in class.

Creating classroom principles:

  1. Outline teacher/pupils expectations.
  2. Set goals for the whole class.
  3. Ask pupils to name one individual goal they would like to achieve in the coming year.
  4. Set ground rules for behaviour in class (punctuality, respect for each other and each other’s things, raise hand instead of shouting in class, etc.).
  5. Explain why set rules are necessary and useful for peaceful interaction and work.
  6. Outline how learning will be arranged and assessed.
  7. Create an open space for discussion and feedback.
  8. Ask pupils, if they have any wishes for rules in class.
  9. Add own ideas…

Material: Paper, pens, Flipchart paper, crayons


Title: Mutual understanding

Objective: To set logic rules based on a common understanding and common values

Contents: In this activity, the output, namely the list created in step 1 can be used. The rules and goals, which are previously created, can be introduced to pupils in order to make them more transparent and understandable for them. Plan and write down how you would explain the benefits of rules, including how each specific rule is connected to learning goals.

For example, the rule for “listening when someone else is talking” is designed so that pupils can benefit from each others’ knowledge. In class, pupils can collect ideas on what each rule means to them and provide examples of how rules look like (and doesn’t look like) in action.

For this purpose, you can ask some pupils to volunteer for a short role play on what it looks like to follow/don’t follow the rules and receive consequences.
Write the common set and approved rules on a flipchart paper and ask pupils to “sign” it with a small drawing/symbol (flower, animal, ship) which represents them and their agreement on the rules. Pin it somewhere in the classroom, where it is visible for everyone.

Material: Paper, pens, flipchart paper

 Case studies

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Description: Mr. Smith is a primary school teacher who establishes the rules of “being quiet” and “raising hands” during lessons with every new class. He discusses these and other rules together with the pupils and his approach worked well for many years. But in his new class there is a pupil called Mary, who seems to be unable to work quietly and raise her hand like her classmates. She knows about the rules and her grades are good. Also, she doesn’t seem to disturb the lesson intentionally, but shows a need to verbally express her thoughts regarding certain topics of different school subjects. Nevertheless, some of the other pupils already feel distracted by her comments and start to question the rules, because Mr. Smith doesn`t apply the aforementioned consequences to her. He hesitates to simply punish her because on the one hand he is afraid to cut off her curiosity. On the other hand, he thinks that she also needs to learn to respect the rules.

Reflecting questions:

  • What is your hypothesis about Mary’s needs?
  • How could Mr. Smith react in order to be fair to the class and respect Mary’s needs at the same time?
  • How can Mr. Smith keep the established ground rules and also support Mary’s curiosity and motivation?
  • If it isn’t possible to keep the established ground rules, in what way should they be modified?