Theory and practice

Throw out your classroom rules — and use guidelines instead

Running a classroom with the guideline ‘we take care of each other’
Happy early year educator
September 14, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

• Guest author Mike Huber explores why classroom rules can sometimes cause more trouble than they prevent. Guidelines, he says, can be a gentler, more cooperative way to help everyone get along in the classroom.

• We'll explore Mike's golden guideline of "we take care of each other," and you'll hear his experiences of the positive changes it brought to his own early education practice.

• At the bottom, you'll find some tips and pointers to help you develop and implement your own classroom guidelines in early education.

When I started teaching, I used classroom rules that I assumed were universal. No running, no throwing, no pushing, and so on. I quickly found out that these rules were not as clear for everybody as I thought. 

One preschooler, Jeremy came running to me: “Teacher! Teacher! Sarah’s throwing toys!” I walked over to Sarah only to discover she was throwing a paper airplane. I told Jeremy, “It’s OK to throw paper airplanes because they are made for throwing.” 

A few days later, Jeremy ran over to me again, “Teacher! Teacher! Ravi’s throwing toys! And it’s not a paper airplane!” I walked over to Ravi to see that he was throwing a pillow at Sarah, who was laughing and throwing the pillow back at him. 

The rules that I thought would foster community in the classroom did just the opposite. I was having to remind various children of one of the rules from the ever-growing list. I called out the names of a few children frequently because they had a harder time following these rules consistently. Meanwhile, other children were policing their peers, letting me know whenever there was an infraction.

As an adult, I understood why I worried about children running in the room and why I might allow a child to run to the bathroom before they wet themselves. Children viewed rules as something you followed, or else you were bad. Rather than making the room feel like a safe and secure place, they divided children into ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ depending how compliant they were. 

Getting back to my goal of fostering community, I got rid of my long list of rules and used one rule (or guideline): We take care of each other. 

Why classroom guidelines work better than rules

I discovered what many other teachers have found: the more I try to control children, the less self-control they exhibit. It was then that I learned about guidelines from Dan Gartrell in his book, Education for a Civil Society: How Guidance Teaches Young Children Democratic Life Skills. Guidelines tell children what they can do, not what they cannot do.

I found that when I started using guidelines, it was like I was on the same team as the child. When I used rules and I saw a child run in the classroom, I would tell them to “use walking feet” or “wait until we get outside.” What I was really doing was opposing the child, setting myself up for a battle of wills. If a child was running after I switched to guidelines, I would say, “I am worried someone will get hurt if you run over here where others are playing family. What could we do so we are taking care of each other?” Then the child and I were on the same team. We would look for a place that would be safe to run. Is there a place to run that would not interrupt others? Are there any toys on the ground or furniture the child could trip on? 

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How to use guidelines in early education

If you decide to switch to using ‘we take care of each other’ as your guideline in your child care setting, first introduce the guideline and what it means. How do children take care of each other? Each child and teacher can help others in some way, and they can also ask for help. You can foster this by helping children turn to peers when they need help. (e.g., “I’ve seen Maddie cut yarn. Should we ask her? (child nods) Maddie, Eric would like some yarn, could you cut it for him?”

Taking care of each other also means caring for someone who is upset even if you didn’t cause them to be upset. You can teach children to ask an upset peer, “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help?” When I used rules, I spent too much time identifying the child who broke the rules rather than caring for the child who was hurt. The child who caused the injury often got upset if I asked them to check in, seeing it as punishment. Of course, once both children are calm enough to talk, you can help them resolve the conflict. But the focus is not on assigning blame, but taking care of each other. 

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When we don’t take care of each other

Now that the children in your classroom are learning what it means to take care of each other, you can also use the guideline when a child is behaving in a way that could cause harm for themselves or others. If you notice a child is about to throw a block, you can hold your hand in front of theirs and say, “Remember, we take care of each other in our classroom. I’m worried that if you throw a block, it could hurt someone. Is there something you could throw that wouldn’t hurt if you accidentally hit someone?” Perhaps the child could throw rolled up socks or small pillows.

When you see a child behaving in a way that makes you nervous, here are the three steps to take:

  1. Use “I” statements such as “I am worried about…” 
  2. Remind them of the guideline (“In our classroom, we take care of each other.”)
  3. Problem-solve together (“How could you (throw, run, climb, etc.) while taking care of others?”

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Using guidelines in the classroom

Guidelines don’t just keep the classroom safe — they encourage children and adults to problem-solve. You aren’t asking a child to simply stop a behavior, but to find a way to do it while taking care of others. Problem solving in this way allows the child to feel in control and over time, fosters self-control.

Children are not the only ones influenced by using guidelines. When you focus on children taking care of each other, you may become more comfortable with some of the physical games common with preschoolers such as superhero play, roughhousing, and pretending to use guns. Before swooping in, ask yourself:

  • Are the children playing taking care of each other?
  • Does everyone want to play this way?
  • Can they say stop or leave the game if they want?
  • If someone gets hurt, does the play stop while they check in with each other?

If you’re used to hard rules in your classroom, it may be uncomfortable when you first introduce guidelines. I worried that my classroom would descend into chaos if I wasn’t reminding children of each of my growing list of rules. What I found instead was children no longer came to me to tell me that a child was throwing a paper airplane or a pillow. I could focus my attention on joining children in play, and problem solving with them when needed. Perhaps most importantly, I shifted from seeing rules as something I imposed on the children. Guidelines put me on the same team as the children. It wasn’t just “children take care of each other,” but we take care of each other.

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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