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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

December 16, 2000

Strategies for Effective Classroom Rules

by Michelle Louwerse

Thinking about Rules

Kids The class of nine- to twelve-year-olds was having trouble organizing itself into neatly lined up teams for the next activity. I had already given them flags denoting the names of their teams and had written the team names on the board. When one team finally managed to form a line, I burst out, "Look at the Orange team! What a nice line! You get a point!" The chalk mark on the board riveted the attention of the other teams. "And you're quiet. One more point!"

In seconds, the other two teams magically lined up and stood at attention like soldiers. "Wow, look at the Purple and Green teams! Such straight lines. You all get one point! And everyone is so quiet. One more point!" Everyone was energized and focused before we even started the game.

On my way home that evening, I thought about why that response had been successful, and, more importantly, how I could replicate that success in different situations, such as in a non-game context where there were no points as motivation. The first step seemed to be that, rather than making behavior I as teacher felt was most appropriate for the activity at that time--in this case, standing in line and listening quietly to my instructions--subject to mere commands of the moment, it would be more effective to make that behavior part of "the rules". In this way, students were motivated to behave not only at the beginning, but throughout the game. This, I realized, was the second step, which is how to ensure that the rules are effective.

What I'd like to do in this article is to briefly examine the nature of rules within the classroom, and then to discuss different strategies for making them effective. As a note, I use the term 'rules,' but one might also use 'classroom policy' or other terms. Because the strategies can be applied to both isolated activities like a game or to long-term policies like no name-calling, I've decided to use one term for the sake of simplicity.

Communication through Rules

One way to look at rules is as a way of communication between the teacher and the class. In setting and enforcing rules, a teacher can convey expectations and values, while students communicate in turn through how they respond to the rules. The older and better able to communicate in English the students are, the more the rules can be negotiated among teacher and students. I've sometimes let the class decide what the punishment should be for a certain 'crime' by giving them a choice from three, generally silly punishments, such as doing a dance, so that the experience bonds the class in humor while highlighting the rule, rather than making the student who has misbehaved feel unjustly picked on and friendless.

Having rules is of little use, however, unless they are effective. Three things help ensure a rule's effectiveness: clarity, consistency, and commitment.

1. Clarity

Students must understand what the rule is, that it is a rule (applicable to all and not just you being grouchy or having a grudge against the student, for example), and that there will be consequences if the rule is broken. Some concepts, such as cheating, may be difficult for younger children to understand, whereas others, like doing "original" work and not copying, may be culturally based. Sometimes a student may stop doing something because you look angry and not because he/she understands that that behavior was unacceptable and why.

One year I had a student who kept hitting me out of a sense of play. I sternly told him not to do it several times, but the problem seemed to be that he couldn't understand that it hurt. "Do what I do," said a friend of mine. "Cry." I don't remember exactly if I cried, but I do remember that his advice reminded me to communicate in a way that is meaningful to the students at their age and level of development and in the context of a foreign language classroom.

Another problem was conveying the idea of "doing you own work," especially during craft activities such as making Halloween masks. I would bring an example of, say, a jack o'lantern mask, show various pictures of skeletons, ghosts, and witches, and encourage the students to make a mask based on their favorite creature. And then I'd end up with ten jack o'lantern masks.

"What you need to do is to show them that there can be more than one kind of mask," advised a colleague. "Why not take in two or three different sample masks?" That made me see the situation in a new light: it was not that my students were unable to be original, but that they didn't know they had permission to. I might think I was saying, "Let's make a mask like this jack o値antern one," meaning any type of mask fashioned like the jack o値antern one, but perhaps they were hearing, "Let's make a jack o'lantern mask."

2. Consistency

Students are sensitive to injustice--or what they perceive as injustice--and to any wishy-washiness on the part of the local figure of authority, in this case, you the teacher. Strive to enforce rules consistently, not just where the most obvious or repeat offenders are concerned, and include yourself when appropriate. In one of my four-year-old classes, it was the rule that before going to the restroom to wash hands after a messy craft activity, one had to go to the teacher and say, "Wash hands, please." Because I also needed to clean up, I would say to myself, "Wash hands, please," and then turn and say, "Okay, go ahead." "Thank you." The students enjoyed the silly dramatics, and could appreciate that the concept that a rule is a rule for everybody.

For me, the challenge to consistency is expedience. Sometimes, no matter how good a rule may be, it's just a little inconvenient and one would prefer to overlook it, just this once. But it's those sacrifices to expedience, which may seem inconsequential to the teacher, which can convey to the student the sense that the rule is not important and that its enforcement is arbitrary.

For example, one of my rules is that when students don't know, they must say in English, " I don't know," or ask, "What is it?" Often students might forget and blurt it out in Japanese, or during a moment of high excitement be unable to recall the phrase, and I'm tempted to feed them the phrase or simply supply the term. But gradually I disciplined myself to wait and appear as if I don't understand unless they speak to me in English (even "What?" is acceptable sometimes), and to look for other ways to help students use the phrase without my help. (For more on this, see Classroom Language)

Consistently swift responses to rule infractions convey the seriousness of the rule. One rule that I give this priority to is that of no name calling. Even if I'm in the middle of helping another student, if I hear "baka" (stupid) or "aho" (dummy) or "Hetadesune" (You're really bad at that, aren't you?), I'll stop and address the problem, which includes having the student apologize.

Although I have mixed feelings about it because it's not part of English-language culture, I have the student bow, because that communicates an apology in Japan and helps to get the meaning across to both the student making the apology and the recipient. Simply saying "I'm sorry" alone can be mere parroting. After a few classes, I rarely hear any name-calling, and there have been students who were timid and teased at the beginning of the year who within a few months show marked growth in self-confidence and enjoyment.

3. Commitment

Having clearly communicated the rule, the next step is implementing it. Here the teacher needs to be committed to the rule by being willing to put in the time and energy to follow up on it, and not simply issue verbal reminders with a blind eye to whether the students' behavior actually changes in response. The key to a successful rule is motivating the students to want to keep it, and I'd like to discuss three general strategies for doing this: a) deterrence and punishment, b) rewards and incentives, and c) alternatives.

a) deterrence and punishment
"Negative reinforcement" can help as a response to unwanted behavior or as a way to discourage it. It's important, however, that the student(s) always know that it is the behavior that is undesirable and not the person. It's good to praise or otherwise re-assure the student once the behavior has been corrected, such as by a smile or a point.

Teacher's displeasure: Younger children are especially sensitive to the teacher's moods and feelings towards them. Thus, a swift, stern look can quickly stop a child from standing on a chair, or an ominous "Shintaroooooo" (the student's name) can get the child to erase the picture he has just doodled on the desk.

Penalties: During games, points can be deducted or turns lost.

Punishments: The most effective of these, in both the long- and the short-term, were in the spirit of fun. Elementary school students, for example, loved the "cha cha dance," which included a few pseudo-cha cha moves and ended with a bow and an "I'm sorry." Students who cheated or got a little out of control were required to do the cha cha dance in front of the class, but because it was silly and because I would do the dance with them if they were shy, no one felt stigmatized or picked on, but the message that this was undesirable behavior was conveyed. Other silly punishments include doing the dead cockroach and singing "Happy Birthday" in English (which most know . . . more or less).

b) rewards and incentives
Maybe I'm just a shiny, happy person, but I much prefer positive reinforcement as a general rule. Positive reinforcements also do wonders for children with low esteem and for those, as is sadly increasingly the case here in Japan, under a lot of stress to achieve. A fun class with a supportive and firm teacher helps students feel secure and enjoy being in a foreign-language environment, which can at times be stressful (for both the students and you).

Teacher's pleasure: A simple "That's great!" does wonders, as does a gentle touch on the shoulders (the nature of physical contact being dependent on the culture). For younger students, one can never overdo praise or smiles, as long as they池e sincere.

Points: As mentioned earlier, they can be used not simply for right answers, but also for desired behavior. Why not let using English to say, "I don't know," earn a few points? I've sometimes kept a running score of points throughout the class, and at the end of each class, everyone received something, and students who exceeded a certain number of points received something extra, like two stickers instead of one, or the fancy stamp instead of the ordinary one. I wouldn't do this on a daily basis, however, but more just to motivate the students or remind them that behavior does count.

3. Commitment (cont'd)

Stamps and stickers: Stamps and stickers have been great motivators in getting students excited about doing homework and written classwork. At the beginning of each class, I quickly check the student's homework. Next to every correct answer, they get a stamp, and if the homework was all done correctly, they get a stamp at the top of the page. As soon as incorrect answers are fixed, they get a stamp. In some classes there's a homework chart glued inside their books, and they can choose a sticker to stick on the space for that day. (For ideas on using stamps and stickers to motivate English use, see "Classroom Language Is Real Communication".)

Stamps are cheap and reusable, which is why I like them, but stickers come in more varieties. Either way, students enjoy them and enjoy collecting different ones, and it makes something otherwise dull become a game.

Recognition: During dictation exercises, the first one to spell the word correctly gets to write it on the board for the others to check their own work against or copy. I try to ensure that everyone has a chance to write on the board at least once, such as by asking the people who finish first to wait and let someone else write. Other forms of recognition can include public praise or letting that student go around stamping other students' work as they finish.

Leadership: Kids love being in charge, and sometimes the best reward is letting someone be the teacher. Forms of leadership include being the caller for a round of bingo, slap, musical chairs or other game, calling roll and marking the attendance book, or deciding what color to color something during a classtime exercise.

c) alternatives
Sometimes rewards and deterrents simply don't work. In one class I had a boy who could not stop hitting other students or jumping on their backs. Keiji was a nice child, but seemed to be unable to understand that the other students didn't like it and were getting angry. I tried a variety of rewards and deterrents, including sending him outside the room for five minutes (more painful for me than to him, I think! But the rest of the class appreciated that I was not letting the behavior go unpunished.), but nothing seemed to work.

Finally, I took him out of all group activities completely by letting him be score keeper. This kept him involved in a positive way and gave him a chance to use English while protecting the other students from him.

Also, sometimes the students may not be able to immediately figure out what the desired behavior is, and ways to guide them to that are needed before they can be rewarded. In the section on consistency, for example, in order to encourage students to use English when they didn't know something or wanted to ask what something was in English, an immediate response of praise or deterrence would not have been helpful, and I didn't want to "feed" them "I don't know" or "What is it?"

One thing I did was teach them non-verbal cues. When I wanted to cue them to use "I don't know," I shrugged my shoulders. If the particular student couldn't recall the English, usually someone else shouted it out. Then when the student in question said it, he/she would be rewarded.


Resistance to a rule or its consequences might best be viewed not as disobedience but as the student(s) communicating with you. The first time I tried to do use the cha cha dance in response to a student's cheating, he refused. At first I thought he was being unfair, because another student before him had done the dance, and he had laughed and cheered with everyone else. I insisted, and these awful tears began trickling down his face. Did I feel terrible!

Now that I'm older and wiser, I realize that, at ten, he was sensitive to making an idiot of himself, and now if someone seems hesitant, I offer to do it together. The shy ones just wave their hands in the air while I go the whole enchilada, and everyone's happy. It may seem that, in these cases, the students get away "unpunished," but appreciating their close shave with public humiliation, they are careful not to get caught again.

Continued resistance or a definite change in the atmosphere could signal that the rule and/or its follow-up are not appropriate and should be changed.


Teachers bring to the classroom their personal visions of what education and relationships between people should be, and rules can be one way of communicating these expectations and values between teachers and students. Clarity, consistency, and commitment help ensure that the communication is effective, while have a variety of strategies for implementing (or enforcing) rules can help students come to believe in those values and expectations as well.

Students' response to the rule and/or its follow-up should be respected as one way in which they are communicating with you, and the time and effort you spend in working to understand their language(s) will definitely be worthwhile.

Michele Louwerse

A native of Hawaii, Michele Louwerse has taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and organized summer English camps and teacher training workshops in Hong Kong and Guangdong (Canton), China. After earning an M.Ed. in Secondary English Education at New York University, she taught at the Nagoya (Japan) YMCA English School for five years, including two years as head coordinator, and specialized in classes for children aged 4-6 years. She is currently working at the National Council of YMCAs of Japan.

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