For Teachers

Classroom Rules That Keep Students’ Attention on Learning

How to establish clear expectations, incentives, and consequences for all students in a classroom that fosters uninterrupted learning.

Children raising their hands in a classroom, following the rules for answering a question
Children raising their hand in class

Each year my fourth-grade class includes children who have trouble staying focused, following directions, and observing rules.

I could use individual interventions to help them improve behavior and school performance, but I prefer to blend these strategies into classroom rules for every student. That way, I don’t have to single out students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning disabilities, who may already feel different. Establishing clear expectations, incentives, and consequences for all students creates a community that fosters real learning.

As much as possible, I anticipate and accommodate the problems of individuals in my class. For example, if I know that attention or language processing deficits make it hard for some kids to copy down spoken instructions, I provide typed assignments for everyone to take home.

Here are some additional techniques that keep my class running smoothly:

  • Class rules. On the first day of school, my students and I hold a meeting to generate a short list of rules. The rules include behaviors that are difficult for children with ADHD, such as “Always raise your hand to ask for help.” We define each rule: What does it mean to “Use materials appropriately”? And we discuss the consequences that follow when rules are broken. Each student is asked to sign the “contract,” which is posted prominently.
  • Straight talk. Many children have problems following directions or making inferences. They need step-by-step instructions and direct communication.
  • Be specific. Some students need help making connections. Telling them at dismissal to put their spelling notebooks and music folders in their backpacks is better than saying, “Pack everything you need.”
  • Break down multiple instructions. Most children need time to comply with one command before hearing the next. A brief checklist on the board also helps.
  • Say what you mean. “Would you open your history books to page 43?” is interpreted by some students as a choice. When I skip “would you,” all books are opened.
  • Public praise. I try to “catch” each of my students doing something positive, and offer praise in front of his peers. I specify what I’m proud of: “I like the way you reminded Catherine how to reduce a fraction.” This draws attention to a student’s strengths, and demonstrates positive behavior to the rest of the class.
  • Token economy. In my class, students earn points for following class rules and lose points for disobeying them. Points can be traded in for a privilege or reward.

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