Putting Rules into Action

You’ve followed the seven guidelines for making rules, but your children still aren’t taking you or your rules seriously. Where did you go wrong? It could be the way you’re putting the rules into action. Your style in enforcing rules tells children whether they should listen to you or not. If your children are not listening, follow these five steps:

1. Your voice has to sound like you mean what you say. You don’t need to shout or get mad, but on the other hand a casual or mousey tone won’t get you anywhere either. Two other tips are don’t talk to fast and don’t talk too much. It’s better to say less at a moderate pace than gibber on at a break-neck speed.

If you’re not sure of what to do, that’s what you should do–nothing–until you think through your possibilities. Rules stated in a mamby pamby way pose a challenge to children, ending up in a battle of wills.

2. Be consistent. Inconsistency is one of the prime reasons children neglect rules. They learn how many times you’ll let things slide before putting down your foot, what you make a point of checking and what you leave out if you don’t have the time, what gets on your nerves the most, and what they can get away with when you’re in a good mood as opposed to a bad one. If you want children to respect your rules, you need to (a) follow up on what they’re supposed to be doing, (b) avoid negotiating, feeling sorry for them, and giving second chances, and (c) make sure children face their consequences. Remember it’s not the severity of a consequence, but its certainty that carries the impact.

Children do not operate well in unstable environments. They need the predictability of knowing that every time someone hits or kicks another child he gets a time-out. As well, children need the security of knowing you are the bottom line in controlling the classroom. You set the limits of what children can do, and you make sure they stay within those limits. Your limits tell children, “They are safe. They don’t have to be afraid of their impulses. You won’t let you go too far.”

It might be helpful for you to describe children’s limits in terms of three colour zones. Green means “Go ahead, you’re doing the right thing.” Yellow behavior is tolerated under specific circumstances: learning mistakes, stressful life events. Red means “No, period!” Red behaviors threaten the family’s or classes’ health and welfare or physical and financial well-being. It also includes behavior running against the grain of law, ethics, or social acceptance.

Having said all of that, I want to add that 100% consistency is almost an impossible mission. Your acceptance level of children’s misbehaviour is not a mirror image of how consistent you would like to be. It hinges just as much or even more on what’s going on at the time, how much you like the misbehaving children to begin with, where you are, who else is there, your mood and how tired you feel. Once you accept the fact that you’re only human, and going to make mistakes, you won’t feel as guilty when you don’t act toward or think about your children the way you want to.

The same is true for moms and dads. It would be nice if parents agreed all the time on how to raise their kids, but is it possible? The united front may be only a weak facade, which children break through easily. Making a point of seeing eye-to-eye on everything is stressful. It can lead to arguments, followed by feelings of guilt and resentment. If Jane’s best friend drives dad around the bend, it’s his problem. Mom should not step in on matters she does not believe in or care about.

3. Be neutral, matter-of-fact, assertive, and determined. This manner raises less opposition from children, and lets them know you don’t expect them to do anything else but comply. Believe in yourself and don’t let children intimidate you. You are the one calling the shots, not them. Do not nag, coax, criticize, make up excuses, argue, get mad, prove you are right, or try to make children feel bad. Talking and reasoning are weak disciplinary tactics. You can give one reminder, but that’s it. When it’s time to take action, ACT.

In addition, do not say things you do not mean, like “You’ll never set foot in my classroom again unless you stop swearing.” Put your emotions aside, otherwise you may find yourself saying and doing things you regret later on. Take a thinking, not a feeling course of action.

4. Respect children and be considerate of their feelings. Respect is a two-way street. If you genuinely care about children, they’ll genuinely care about you, and what you think about them. Think of your students as friends. Try to make them feel accepted, wanted, and cared about.

Don’t be a dictator. Make suggestions and give choices, rather than issue commands. This gives children some breathing room to make their own decisions. Also, give children the freedom to express their feelings. It’s okay for a child to say, “I hate cleaning the blackboard”–so long as she does it. Remember rules are targeted at children’s behavior, not their thoughts.

5. Focus on children’s behavior, rather than their motives or mood. Asking Ken why he turned his desk upside down may be a waste of time. Kids often don’t know why they do the things they do. It is better to first consequence what the child does, and if you think it’s important, pursue the why later on.

As well, avoid the question, “who started it?” Getting to the bottom of a fight just prolongs the turmoil and puts you in the judge’s seat. And besides, you might make the wrong decision. Stay neutral and give everyone involved in an incident the same consequence, or ask them to cool off for five minutes and ask the group what their consequences should be.

6. Treat all your students equally. Try not to let a child’s problem behaviors take over your relationship with him. Your attitude towards a child sets the scene for how other children perceive him, as well as how he feels about himself.

Thomas Good and Jere Brophy’s book Looking in Classrooms (3rd ed.), 1984 gives you some ideas on evaluating your interactions with children. It looks at your acceptance of children’s feeling, whether you are more likely to praise or criticize a child, and what types of children you like and don’t like.