Growing up, I was a rule follower to the core. I still have tendencies to follow the “rules”. In fact, just typing in the title of my post today made me cringe a little!
Rules are important to maintain order in society; I get that. But in my experience as a kindergarten teacher, I’ve seen the gaps in my rules and consequences procedures.
Think back to your school experiences. Weren’t there rules posted on the wall in most of your classrooms? Maybe something like this…
1. I will raise my hand before speaking.
2. I will take care of school property.
3. I will not talk when the teacher is talking.
4. I will not run in the hall.
5. I will not run in the classroom.
6. (The alpha rule of all rules…say it with me) I will keep hands, feet, an all objects to myself at all times.
Do you know why I know these rules so well? They were posted in my classroom for several years! And do you know how many times I regurgitated these rules to my kindergarten students daily, especially numbers 1, 4, 5, and 6? And do you know how many notes I wrote home telling parents that their child was having trouble following the rules at school?
After writing the same note for about the hundredth time, I started to ask myself, Is the problem the kids, or is it me? Or is it the rules?
Now, I’m not of the belief that kids are innocent in their behaviors. I’m not of the belief that kids don’t need to take responsibility for their actions. I’m also not of the belief that unpleasant behavior doesn’t need to be addressed. I do believe that my job is to teach my students how to behave, though, especially if they haven’t been taught how to behave at home. And the rules weren’t helping me to teach my students how to behave. They were only helping me to “catch” my students being bad. I realized it was time for a change.
I turned to a book that was given to me by my school system as a first year teacher. The First Days of School: How To Be An Effective Teacher by Harry Wong is a book that I would recommend to any teacher, no matter how many years of experience are under their belt. I reread the book and then tailored the information inside to fit my personality, my grade level, and my particular classroom of kids.
And the results were wonderful. Not really because of me, but because my kids thrived on their new daily routine.
In the years since I implemented my new “no rules” system, I feel like my kids have enjoyed themselves more, have been kinder, and have been managed way more effectively. I have enjoyed my days more and I have felt like an effective teacher.
I truly think that if your classroom is not managed, you will be unable to teach to your fullest potential. So here’s what I do (of course this may not fit your needs, but I encourage you to find a plan that does).
First of all, my post title today is a bit misleading, because I do have one rule, although it’s more of a statement. I love to tell my kids on the first day of school that we just have one rule in my room, and that they will always remember it, even if they’re just five years old. My rule is Be Nice. That’s it. Be Nice.
It takes care of everything.
Being nice means having nice hands, nice feet, and nice words. On the first day of school, I read a story about kindness, niceness, being friends, etc. There are many wonderful books out there, but I usually read Kevin Henkes’s Chrysanthemum. Then I show my kids a beautiful construction paper heart that I’ve made beforehand. The kids exclaim over my beautiful heart and then gasp in horror as I crumple it up and give it a good rip.
“Why’d you do that for? Nooo!”
I look at them with all of the sadness I can muster, and I tell them that this is what happened to Chrysanthemum’s heart when her friends at school weren’t nice to her. And this is what happens to our hearts when our friends don’t have nice hands, nice feet, or nice words. I ask the kids what they should do if they crumple someone’s heart by not being nice. Of course they respond by offering to apologize and be nice from now on.
So I try to fix the heart. I smooth it out the best I can, but we all soon realize…it’s very hard to fix a wrinkled heart.
The heart idea is not a new idea. I think I first got it from our wonderful school counselor. Some teachers add a poem to the heart that goes along the lines of “Before you act, think and be smart. It’s hard to fix a wrinkled heart.”
So we add the sad little wrinkled heart to our poster that says I CAN BE NICE as a reminder that we never want to be responsible for wrinkling a friend’s heart.
This is one of the most important and precious lessons that my kids are involved in all year. And it’s not precious because of me, by any means. It’s precious because they are so sincere in their stance that they don’t want to wrinkle anyone’s heart. It is intrinsic motivation for them to be nice.
From there, we spend several days and even weeks talking about what nice hands, feet, and words look and sound like. The most common answers from kids year after year are below.
- Nice hands don’t hit.
- Nice hands don’t pinch.
- Nice hands don’t push.
- Nice hands don’t throw food.
- Nice hands don’t scribble.
- Nice hands don’t turn the lights off in the bathroom. 🙂
- Nice feet don’t run in the hall.
- Nice feet don’t kick.
- Nice feet keep their shoes on.
- Nice words don’t scream.
- Nice words don’t yell.
- Nice words don’t cuss. (This is always their favorite.)
- Nice words don’t make fun of friends.
Do you notice all the “don’t” phrases? It’s become apparent to me that kids are obsessed with “don’t do this”. I try to remind them that we are thinking of what nice hands, feet, and words look like, not what they don’t look like. Sometimes we change our phrases to things like below.
- Nice words are quiet when Mrs. Givens is talking.
- Nice words are sweet to our friends.
- Nice feet walk in a line.
- Nice feet walk inside and run outside.
- Nice hands raise in the air when you have something to say.
- Nice hands take care of things at school.
There are some items that we keep, though. They always want to keep the “cussing” one, I think because they get to use the word cuss, I don’t know. They always keep the bathroom light one, too. 🙂
I try very hard to keep my ideas locked in my brain and let the kids find their way to the ideas listed above…and they always do. This way, the ownership of being nice is transferred into their hands. They have come up with ways to be nice and I think this makes them more likely to actually follow these ways.
Once we have established that we all want to be nice, my ideas from Harry Wong’s book come into play. In The First Days of School: How To Be An Effective Teacher, Wong talks about the importance of routines and procedures, along with consistency.
This is a pivotal key to classroom management.
I sat down and made a list of the times in the school day when my frustration level was at its highest, when my kids seemed to get in trouble the most. These times of day may be different to different teachers, but the ones that stood out to me the most were:
- Unpacking and packing up (and all the kindergarten teachers said Amen!)
- Missing or broken pencils/crayons
There are other times that I made procedures for, like lining up, leaving the work table to come to the rug, putting papers away, etc. My day is one big list of routines and procedures but the three above were the ones I wanted to address first after reading the book.
So for unpacking, I actually took a camera and took a picture of someone unzipping a backpack, a picture of someone taking out the communication folder, one of someone putting the folder in the proper basket, and a picture of someone putting their backpack away. I mounted the pictures on the wall in 1, 2, 3 order and went over the pictures extensively with my students the day before our new routine started. The next day, it worked beautifully. I did the same thing with my packing up procedure and I still use this process today. If someone ever has a problem with packing up or unpacking, I first refer them to our pictures as a reminder. If they still have trouble with the routine, I have them practice for a few minutes during play stations.
It also used to bug me to no end to stand silently in the hall in a line while two or three students at a time went to the restroom. By the time the whole class had gone, we’d been out in the hall for about five to ten minutes, several kids had gotten in trouble for talking or pushing in line, and it never failed that someone had to go about five minutes later once we were settled back in the room. So I started a new “Restroom” procedure. First, I made sure students were aware of all of the times they had to “try”. Times like “morning activities”, when we are unpacking, eating breakfast, doing quiet activities, etc., are times when students must “try” to go to the restroom. Other times include returning from recess, right before PE, and rest time, when I send them individually. During these times, I am always either at the door welcoming students or in the hallway walking back and forth between four assigned restrooms to make sure students are having nice hands and nice feet. If a student has to go to the restroom at a time other than the “have to try” times, he or she gives me a silent signal and I nod yes or no. We have saved so much time with this procedure.
The third procedure I implemented was the “If my crayon or pencil is broken or lost” procedure (what an original name, I know). I simply have a huge box of last year’s old crayons. If someone’s crayon is lost, they don’t yell out, they just walk to the box and get what they need. If someone finds a crayon on the floor, they ask a few friends if the crayon belongs to them. If no one claims it, the crayon goes in the huge box. Same with pencils. We have one basket. If a pencil is broken or lost, the student goes and swaps it out. I sharpen the broken ones each afternoon.
There are many more procedures that make up our day, but these three have made the biggest difference in my classroom. I also have a daily picture schedule that includes our whole day’s routine posted on the wall. But here’s the key to the schedule: you have to follow it. I know that things will come up that are not in your control, but following the routine is the best thing that I have done for my classroom management system. Even on days that I don’t feel one hundred percent, even when I’ve had bad mornings, I follow the routine. And I feel better and my kids become calmer. When they question me about lunchtime, or PE, or a special activity, I simply say “You need to check the schedule.” And I move on.
*Special note: there are always times in kindergarten when a student will have trouble following a particular routine, whether from lack of exposure or because of a behavior issue. This calls for practice. To read what I do about practicing, natural consequences, and reinforcement, click here: I’m Through With Time Out and Pulling Cards
So why did I get rid of rules? Because when I started using routines, procedures, and the practice of being nice, I didn’t have time for rules. We were too busy working, learning, and enjoying ourselves!
I’d love to hear what kind of routines you have throughout your day. I’d also love to hear about what books you read to promote a positive classroom community, like Kevin Henkes Chrysanthemum. Let us know in the comments below!
Wong, H. (2009). The First Days of School: How To Be An Effective Teacher. Harry K. Wong Publications.
Henkes, K. (1991). Chrysanthemum. Greenwillow Books.