Expectations Excel—Rules Reek! by Willy Wood

by Willy Wood


There are so many things to do in the first few days of a new school year–students’ names to learn, routines to establish, class goals to go over, etc.  Of all of the many tasks that must be done, one that is absolutely crucial is the establishment of classroom expectations–that is, how we act here, and why. What expectations are set, and how they are set are key components of establishing the classroom culture.  This is something you need to get right, or it could negatively affect the whole school year!


Expectations vs. Rules


First, we need to clarify the difference between what I call “expectations” and what I call “rules,” (some people use these terms differently than I do, and some people even use them synonymously) and why, in general terms, I favor expectations over rules.

When I talk about a classroom “expectation,” I mean “a general statement of value that serves to guide behavior.”  When I talk about “rules,” I mean specific statements of “do this, don’t do that” that are almost invariably coupled with “consequences” (read, “punishments,” though it’s not PC to use that word anymore).

For example, let’s say your school last year had a problem with students calling other students names or using put-downs in the halls and in class, and you’ve decided that this must be addressed at the outset this school year.  Using my definitions of “expectations” and “rules,” an expectation would be something like “Show respect for everyone in the classroom at all times” or, more simply, “Be respectful.”  A “rules and consequences” approach to the same issue might produce something along the lines of “Don’t call other students names or use put-downs.  Students who break this rule will be given a warning the first time.  If the behavior is repeated, the offending student will be given one day’s detention.”

So, why do I favor the first (expectations) example over the second (rule and consequence) example?  Some would criticize an expectation like “Be respectful” as being vague.  “Everyone has their own ideas about what respect looks like,” they might say.  My response?  “Exactly!  Which means that we would be forced, as a class, to define “respect” by talking about or, better yet, acting out, what respect looks like and sounds like, perhaps generating a T Chart for “looks like” and “sounds like” as we go.

In other words, we would go through a very conscious process of definition.  But here’s the point: It’s not the definition that we arrive at that’s important; it’s the process that’s important and that builds community.  It’s a lot quicker and easier (in the short term, anyway) to simply produce a rule saying “don’t call people names” and punish those who do it, but what do students end up with in such a situation?  With just another case (in an endless string of such cases throughout their schooling) where the teacher has the power and wields that power, and where the students are not asked or expected to think for themselves and to consider how their actions affect others.

We would go through the same process for defining each expectation (a total of perhaps 3 to 5 should cover all the territory necessary–more would be counterproductive).  Yes, this takes time, but believe me, it’s time well spent, as it pays off in better community and cooperation throughout the school year.


Generating Expectations


OK, let’s dig a little deeper into the topic of expectations–why we need them, how to set them, and how to make sure they are implemented.

Let’s start with the easy one first–why do we need expectations?  Well, whenever any group of people have a “contract,” whether business or social, to get together regularly over an extended period of time (a work arrangement, a living arrangement, a school arrangement, etc.), it is necessary, for things to run smoothly, if everyone is on the same page about what the goals of the group are and what values need to be established and adhered to in order for the group to meet its goals.

The broad, general goals in a classroom situation are the same everywhere–that the classroom would be a place where the teacher can teach and the learners can learn to their maximum ability and where they can feel safe (both physically and emotionally) to do so.  Of course, at a more specific level, there will be different goals in a high school science class than in a third grade classroom, but these more specific goals are described in the curriculum.  Expectations are those statements of intent that guide the group as they strive to achieve the large, general goals of the group.  To fail to guide this process, to simply let the group dynamics develop as they will, is to live in hope (or denial).  Rarely will things turn out well in such a case.  So, how to go about it?

One approach that I like and have seen work very well (not the only way to do it, by any means) is called the Living Above the Line approach.  This approach to developing responsible behavior originated, surprisingly, from a course for entrepreneurs and business people called Money & You, but I first read about it in the book Quantum Teaching.  In this method, the teacher describes the general goals of the classroom, which I defined above as “that the classroom would be a place where the teacher can teach and the learners can learn to their maximum ability and where they can feel safe (both physically and emotionally) to do so” (of course, your definition might be different) and leads the students in a discussion of what the classroom would have to look like and sound like in order for those general goals to be met.  (Note: the examples I am about to walk you through would be what this process might look like in a high school classroom.)  As good ideas are thrown out, they need to be captured in some way.  Making a large T-chart (on chart paper, on the white board, chalk board, or Smart Board) with the headings “Looks Like” and “Sounds Like” works well.  This discussion is the source from which the classroom expectations will spring.

The teacher then takes a large piece of paper (such as chart paper) and draws a heavy line horizontally across the middle of the paper, dividing it in half.  Above this line, the teacher writes “Living Above the Line.”  Below the line, he or she writes, “Living Below the Line.”  Using the ideas generated from the previous discussion as a guide, the group looks for words that would encapsulate what being responsible to the group’s goals would look and sound like (in effect, you are summarizing the previous discussion).  When good descriptive words or phrases are generated, they go “above the line” on the new chart.  The opposites of these words or phrases go “below the line” on the chart.

For example, while describing the difference between expectations and rules/consequences above, I said that one expectation that might be generated would be “Be Respectful.”  If, during the “looks like/sounds like” discussion, your class generated items such as “not calling other people names,” or “listening intently when someone is talking,” or “not interrupting,” or “not putting others down when we disagree with them,” then all of these (and many others) could be summarized with one expectation–that we be respectful of others.  See how that works?  So, you would write “Be Respectful” above the line on the poster.  What would be the flip side of being respectful?  Well, obviously, be disrespectful, right?  So you might write “Being Disrespectful” below the line.

Some other expectations that might be generated could include “Being Accountable for Our Actions,” or “Looking for Solutions.”  The flip side of “Being Accountable for Our Actions”  might be “Laying Blame” or “Justifying One’s Actions” or “Denying Responsibility” (you might choose to write all of these below the line–there’s no rule that says you have to have a one-to-one correspondence between Above the Line and Below the Line statements).  The flip side of “Looking for Solutions” might be “Always Focusing on Problems” or “Giving Up.”  The goal here is to summarize the entire “looks like/sounds like” discussion in 3-5 Living Above the Line statements and to get them on the poster, plus their opposites.


Expectations Without Modeling Equals…Nada!


The next step is Modeling, and in my experience, this is the step teachers skip most often.  Don’t do it!  Skipping this step can blow the whole exercise.  Here’s how it works: you may notice that the expectations generated by the previous step are very broad and general.  By the way, they are NOT vague, as some people will claim.  If something is vague, that means it’s unclear.  There’s nothing unclear about “Be Responsible”; we all know, in general, what that means.  But this statement definitely is general, so the next step is to generate some specific examples of what “Be Responsible” would look like in a school setting.  This is where modeling comes in.

The most effective way to do this is through role playing.  Take some of the initial situations generated by your “looks like/sounds like” discussion and have students act them out while the other students watch.  For example, if you are making “Be Responsible” more specific, you might act out what inattentive listening looks like and point out how that is disrespectful to the speaker and that that kind of behavior is Below the Line behavior (disrespect), then act out what attentive listening looks and sounds like, discuss why this is responsible behavior, and point out that this goes Above the Line on the chart.  You may not act out scenarios for each expectation all at once, but you could spread this role playing out over the first week or even two weeks of school.  These role plays help students to begin to internalize these important distinctions and to take ownership of their own behavior and the behavior of those around them.

The final step, as with anything, is Follow-Through.  As you go through the year, whenever a situation arises that demonstrates Below the Line behavior, simply refer the student to the chart and ask them, “Are you above the line right now, or below the line?”  Work with students to continue to refine these distinctions across the school year, and you will be astounded how much ownership they begin to take of their behavior.

Now, let me anticipate a few objections that some of you have probably been thinking about while you’ve been reading.  First of all, some of you who teach younger children may have been thinking, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but my kids are too young for all this deep thinking.”  Of course, such awareness is developmental, but the process can still work with younger children.  You, as the adult, will have to guide their thinking more, but make sure that they do as much of the processing as possible.  Don’t do the thinking for them, or they really won’t take responsibility for their own behavior.

Some of you are also probably thinking, “OK, if you have to do all this modeling and role playing in order to make the general expectations more specific anyway, why not just take the specifics and turn them into rules with consequences in the first place?”  For example, instead of saying, “Be Respectful,” why not just have rules such as “Don’t call others names” or “listen attentively when others talk,” along with consequences for when these rules are abused?  I know that the distinction may be difficult right now, but it really does matter how you go about this. So, let me break it down for you.  There are actually ten reasons why rules, as defined above, don’t work well in the classroom.


Ten Reasons Rules Reek


Reason #1: The first problem that I see with rules occurs when a teacher (or an administrator, if done on a school-wide basis) decides in advance (for example, in August) what rules are going to be used in that classroom or school for the year.  Why is this a problem?  Because you haven’t met the kids yet!  You simply don’t know if a situation will even come up during the year, so why make up a rule for it?  You’re just guessing!

“Now wait a minute,” you say, “I’ve been teaching for X many years, and I know certain situations that come up every year with this age of kids.  Why not go ahead and create a rule and a clear consequence and communicate that to the kids right off the bat?  Why not head this particular problem off at the pass?”  I can think of at least two good reasons.

First, while there probably are certain issues that come up virtually every year with a certain age group of kids, you still can’t be 100% certain that that issue will come up this year with this group of kids, so why expect trouble before it happens?  Isn’t this just one more form of low expectations?  Maybe this year’s group won’t exhibit this problem, so a rule isn’t necessary.

Second, you came up with the rule and consequence.  Students had no say in creating the rule, its wording, or what consequence might logically flow from breaking the rule, so they will have no sense of ownership of the rule.  And if they don’t own it, it’s hard to get them to live by it.


Reason #2: OK, let’s say you decide to avoid Reason #1, as described above, by waiting to create the rules collaboratively with students at the beginning of the school year.  Obviously, you know that I think this is a good idea, and it certainly is one way to avoid the pitfalls described in the previous paragraph.

However, you do need to be careful here.  While it is a good idea to create your classroom expectations collaboratively, you need to do so in such a way that students actually have to think about their responsibilities in a classroom setting.  Unfortunately, in most classrooms where teachers ask students what “rules” they think they should have in the classroom, students don’t think.  Instead, they remember.

What I mean by this is that most students simply think back to what rules they have had in previous classrooms and parrot those back to this year’s teacher, who is suddenly inundated with contributions such as “Don’t chew gum!” “Don’t run in the hallway!” and “Don’t be tardy to class!”  Do they really care about these issues?  No, they do not.  Have they broken these very same rules before?  Of course they have!  Are they truly thinking about their responsibilities as participants in a learning community and offering honest guidelines for that behavior?  Certainly not!

This is why simply throwing the floor open to students and asking them to come up with rules and then writing down what they come up with is doomed to failure.  The pathway to success is to have a much deeper discussion about the goals of a classroom and the responsibilities of the people in that classroom and to create 3-5 broad expectations from that discussion.  Most teachers don’t want to invest the time it takes to do it right, and everyone suffers all year as a consequence.


Reason #3: The third reason rules reek is that the “consequences” (read, “punishments”) imposed for breaking the rule almost always deal only with the symptoms of the problem and not with the problem itself.  This is true whether the rule and consequence was developed by the teacher alone prior to the start of school or whether it was developed collaboratively with students at the beginning of the school year

Unfortunately, no one usually makes any attempt to go beyond the surface behavior and the predetermined consequence to think about why the student has chosen this behavior.  Did he/she just forget that the rule existed (and therefore a reminder might be enough)?  Is he/she lacking a key social skill that makes it difficult for that student to follow the rule?  Is something going on at home that has led to this behavior?  If we ask these kinds of questions–if we are conscious when we deal with the issue–often, interesting pathways open up for dealing with the problem at its root rather than simply applying a predetermined consequence as an unconscious, knee-jerk reaction where no one learns anything and the behavior is likely to be repeated.


Reason #4:  I stated above (in Reason #3) that the consequences imposed for breaking a rule almost always deal only with the symptoms of the problem and not with the problem itself at its root.  If we focus only on the symptoms and don’t bother to investigate the real reason for the behavior, we’re working in the dark and our hopes for improving behavior in the long run are a crap shoot.  Since root causes often vary for offenses that look the same when the behavior is committed (the symptoms), having a pre-determined consequence for breaking a particular rule may or may not improve behavior in the long run because it may or may not deal with the root cause.

For example, if the behavior is repeatedly being tardy for first period, the behavior may be due to a number of causes.  If a student is consistently tardy because he or she is simply loitering in the halls and socializing, that’s one thing, and a consequence of having to stay late after school might be an appropriate reminder to the student to better manage his or her time (along with teaching the student some good time-management strategies).

On the other hand, if a student is consistently late for first period because he lives with a single mother who is an alcoholic and therefore is often in no condition in the morning to get her son or daughter to school on time, that’s another thing entirely.  Having a child stay after school will do absolutely nothing to address the issue causing the tardiness.  Looked at in this light, we need to acknowledge that appropriate consequences may vary for the same offense.  This is logical and allows us to act like people who actually care enough for our students to try to find out what’s going on in their lives rather than people who would rather hide behind some rule with a pre-determined consequence that may make no sense in certain situations.  So, hard and fast consequences for breaking rules don’t make sense.


Reason #5:  This reason is simple—you simply can’t have a specific rule and consequence for every situation that could go wrong.  If you try to create a rule to cover all situations, you will end up with so many rules that students can’t possibly keep them all straight, and as a result, they will simply forget most of them most of the time.  This is one reason that expectations are superior to rules and consequences.  A single expectation such as “Be respectful” covers literally hundreds of situations, from name-calling to bullying to staying on task with academic work.  In each of these situations, students can be referred to the overarching expectation that is being violated and be made aware of how their behavior is not living up to the standard and what needs to be done instead.  Three to five expectations can easily take the place of 30 or 40 rules.


Reason #6:  This is one of the most important reasons that rules don’t work.  In a classroom where the teacher has established a number of specific rules and consequences, he or she ends up spending a great deal of time playing “cop and lawyer.”  The more specific you make the rule, the more clear it is to students exactly where you have drawn the line in the sand.  This allows those students inclined to do so to “push your buttons” by putting their toe right up against the line without crossing over it (or just barely crossing over it, and then they want to argue with you that they didn’t cross the line).

For example, let’s say you are a secondary teacher and you have a rule that states “Students should be in class and prepared to begin as soon as the bell rings.”  What do you mean by “prepared to begin”?  Does this mean that they are in their seats?  In their seats with their books out on their desks?  In their seats with their journals open and ready to write to the journal prompt on the board?  If you don’t specify exactly what you mean by this phrase, students will argue with you throughout the year about it.  In other words, the students are in control in such a situation.  And the same goes for any rule—you will find yourself having to make the rule more and more specific over time to try to explain completely what you mean by the rule.

A much better way to go about things is to have a broader expectation such as “Be responsible” that covers a multitude of situations, and this would include being ready to learn when class begins.  You don’t have to argue about it.  You simply talk to the student and ask them what responsible behavior would look like at the beginning of a class period.  Of course, they probably already know that being in their seats and ready to learn at the beginning of class is one manifestation of being a responsible student, but putting the onus on the student to be consciously aware of and reflective about his or her behavior is much better than simply lecturing a student or punishing a student who falls short of a specific rule.


Reason #7:  As I stated above in Reason #6, with rules, a teacher ends up spending all his or her time playing cop and lawyer.  By this, I mean that, the more specifically worded your rules are, the more students tend to argue about interpretations of particular words.  And if you then change the wording to make it even more specific (to try to avoid this argument in the future), you draw the line in the sand more and more clearly.  On the surface, this might seem to be a good thing, but it’s not.  That leads us to reason #7: Since students are aware of exactly where the “line” is, they are in charge of “pushing your buttons.”  They know exactly how far they can go without putting their toes over the line, so they have the power to jerk you around.

For example, let’s use the rule given above: “Students should have all learning materials with them at the beginning of each class period.”  A student may interpret this rule to mean, “Have your textbooks and any homework you need to turn in.”  The teacher, however, may have in mind, in addition to these items, academic notebooks or journals, notes from the previous class, paper to write on, and something to write with.  If a student is reprimanded for not having all of these items or given a consequence, the student may argue that the rule doesn’t specifically say anything about notebooks or paper or pens and pencils.  If the teacher then rewrites to rule to specifically list these items (“Students should have all learning materials, including textbooks, homework, academic notebooks, journals, paper, and writing utensils with them at the beginning of each class period”), the student intent on continually engaging in small power struggles might come to class without paper or a pencil, then, if called on it, quickly borrow the missing materials from another student.  He or she now has all the materials required, and if the teacher wants to hold the student to the letter of the law (“You didn’t have those things with you at the beginning of the period”), he or she comes off as being dictatorial and anal-retentive and risks escalating a tiny issue into something that could spread and ruin classroom community.  To avoid such situations, the answer is not to get more specific with the rule; the answer is to get more general—that is, to get rid of the rule and replace it with a broader expectation.  Then students who do not come prepared for class can be engaged in a productive dialogue focused on their actions and on how their behavior is or is not living up to expectations.


Reason #8:  The eighth reason why rules reek is one many teachers have experienced: As done traditionally, when the teacher applies the pre-determined consequence for a violation of a rule, students are not asked to think about their own behavior or what they could have done differently.  The consequence is just doled out.  This allows the student to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.  How many times have we heard students in the halls talking to their friends, saying something along the lines of, “Do you know what Teacher X gave me?  Two days detention!”  The point is that the student is blaming the teacher for the situation instead of taking responsibility.  In a system where students are asked to reflect on how they are not living up to expectations, this kind of shifting of responsibility is not allowed to happen.


Reason #9:  Our ninth reason for why rules reek is this: When consequences for certain actions are pre-determined, students aren’t asked to think about, generate, and accept appropriate consequences for their behavior.  As a result, students aren’t conscious during the whole process.  They never truly have to think about the rule they violated, how their actions might have affected others, and what kind of consequence might be appropriate to help them remember not to repeat the offense.  Not only do they not accept any responsibility for their actions (reason #8), but they don’t take any ownership of the solution.


Reason #10:  This reason is the most important one of all: In classrooms where there are a lot of rules and consequences, especially when those rules are developed by the school or the teacher with little or no input from students, students don’t learn.  By that I mean that their behavior does not improve over the long term.  This is true because everything becomes a power struggle and a blame game, and every conflict situation is dealt with as a short-term problem rather than a long-term opportunity to learn new, more effective behaviors.


So, there they are: 10 Reasons Rules Reek.  Here’s a quick recap of the whole list:


1.  If you make rules in advance, you don’t even know if the situation will ever come up.

2.  Students don’t feel any ownership of rules unless they have a hand in creating them and do so through an honest process focused on creating the kind of learning community they want to be part of.

3.  Rules and consequences only focus on the symptoms of problems, not on the root causes of the problems, and they keep teachers from investigating what those root causes might be.

4.  Having pre-determined, one-size-fits-all consequences ignores the fact that while outside behavior may look the same between two situations, the reasons behind the behavior may differ and therefore, appropriate consequences may need to differ for the same offense.

5.  You simply can’t have a specific rule and consequence for every situation.  You would end up with a hundred rules, and no one could every remember them all.

6.  With lots of rules and consequences, teachers spend all of their time playing cop and lawyer.

7.  With specific rules, students know exactly where the “line in the sand” is, and they are then put in a position of power where they can (if they choose to) “push your buttons” by getting as close to the line as possible without actually going over it.

8.  With consequences for rule-breaking imposed by the teacher, students rarely take responsibility for their own behavior.

9.  With rules as traditionally done, students don’t have to generate appropriate consequences for their behavior, so they are not conscious participants in the process.

10.  In classrooms where rules and consequences are used to deal with short-term problems, students don’t reflect on their behavior and therefore they don’t learn and become more self-disciplined in the long term.


Using Expectations as a Framework for Long-Term Behavioral Improvement


OK, I’ve laid out for you a number of reasons why I think rules and consequences are detrimental to long-term improvement in student behavior.  Now, let’s take the discussion to the next level.  How can teachers use broad expectations to head off a great deal of problems in the first place, to effectively deal with those problems that do arise in a way that’s thoughtful and keeps the focus on classroom community, and to help students grow in their ability to monitor and improve their own behavior over the long run.

First of all, how can having expectations (that are developed cooperatively by the teacher and students) keep problems from happening in the first place (a proactive benefit)?  Well, it all depends on how those expectations are established in the first place.  At the beginning of this article, I went over this process in a fairly detailed way, so I won’t bore you by repeating all of that.  So just let me summarize.

The first step, in the first few days of school, is to have a discussion about the goals of the class and how those goals can best be achieved.  During this discussion, it is important to capture what such a classroom (where the class’s ability to learn is maximized) would look and sound like.  From this material, the next step is to generalize all of those specifics into 3-5 generalizations that capture the essence of the needed behavior.  These become the class’s expectations.


My ideal list of expectations might be as follows:


  • Be safe
  • Be responsible
  • Be respectful
  • Be supportive


I think that these four statements could adequately cover every possible behavior situation in the classroom.  “Be safe” and “Be responsible” focus on the individual learner.  “Be safe” means to make sure that your physical actions keep you and those around you safe and healthy.  “Be responsible” focuses on your attitudes and actions toward your work and your own behavior.  The other two focus more on the learner’s relationships with others.  “Be respectful” generally plays out in how a student interacts verbally with others—respecting the ideas, opinions, and time of those around them.  And “Be supportive” takes it one step further—not only refraining from disrespecting others’ ideas, opinions, and time, but actively supporting them as learners.  I think that covers the territory.

The next step, as I explained previously, is modeling what each of those general statements means in certain situations.  Students need to see and hear, in specific scenarios, what these general statements mean.  So, for example, in working on “Be respectful,” the teacher may have a student model answering a question in class and have another student interrupt the first student (modeling the “wrong” or disrespectful way to interact).  The teacher could then have the same two students repeat the performance, with the second student showing what good, polite listening looks like, then modeling how to respond and respectfully disagree after letting the first student have her say.  This “wrong way/right way” method of modeling is extremely effective in getting across to students the standards of behavior expected in the class.  By modeling the “wrong” behaviors, students get specific examples of what behavior is “off limits,” and they are then shown exactly how to do it instead (establishing new skills).  The process laid out here can effectively cut behavior problems by 70%–before anyone gets in trouble!

The second way establishing expectations such as the four listed above helps to produce a calm, productive classroom is that they give both teacher and students a framework for dealing with problems when they do arise (reactive benefits).  Let’s say that a student, despite the modeling discussed above, does not do his share of the expected work on a cooperative group assignment.  In the traditional classroom, this student might be lectured or punished (either by receiving a bad grade or some other means) as a way to try to make him aware of his transgression.  But, as anyone who has ever dealt with students knows, lectures are often ignored and punishments are usually resented.  This whole method of dealing with the problem has a negative/punitive feeling to it.

But if expectations were established at the beginning of the year, the approach to this problem looks very different.  First, the teacher asks the student to reflect on his performance in light of the class expectations.  The goal here is to get him to see for himself that his actions were both irresponsible (not doing his own work) and unsupportive of his group (making them do more than their fair share).  One or more of the student’s team members can even be brought into the discussion to bring some peer pressure to bear.  If the student owns his failure to meet expectations, a plan of action for next time can be developed.  Do you see how this approach makes so much more sense?  Instead of the teacher straining the teacher/student relationship by playing the punishing authority role, the teacher actually is allowed to be a teacher (in this case, teaching the student what he needs to learn to be a better teammate—a truly valuable life skill).  After all, the point should be that we don’t want the student to pay, we want to help him learn, and our class expectations are our most important tool for achieving this goal.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that this approach will always work.  Nothing works 100% of the time.  The student may be intent on sabotaging his group’s work or on refusing to do any work of his own, and his reasons may be complex and deep-seated.  In such a case, other measures will need to be taken.  But again, by constantly referring to the class expectations whenever a problem arises, the teacher uses this framework to help students internalize what acceptable behavior looks and sounds like.  With such an approach, over time most students begin to develop more self-awareness about their behavior and become more productive members of the classroom community.


I hope the ideas in this article have been helpful as you reflect about behavior issues and community in your classrooms.  If you have any question on this topic, or any other, feel free to e-mail me at willy.wood@yahoo.com.




Willy Wood serves as President of Open Mind Technologies, Inc., an educational consulting firm.  In addition to doing workshops on the brain and effective teaching practices for teachers both nationally and internationally, he publishes a regular e-newsletter entitled Neuro News.  Willy Wood is the co-author, with Rich Allen, of The Rock ‘N’ Roll Classroom: Using Music to Manage Mood Energy, and Learning.