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Setting Norms with Your Students
Judi Fenton

Most teachers have class rules they have written themselves, or have elicited student input and have written in conjunction with their students. Some teachers have had luck with their class rules, many have not. I have found that setting norms with students is a more effective construct.

So, what’s the difference between rules and norms? Rules are structures that are imposed on the group. Norms are meant to serve the group. With norms the teacher asks students to consider how they wish to be treated by others and how they want their class to interact with one another. Norms are more fluid than rules; they can be altered by the group when the norms no longer serve the purpose intended.

A good norm setting protocol can be found in The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice by McDonald, Mohr, Dichter and McDonald (2003). I have found it to be effective with students and adults. Here’s a starting off point:

PROTOCOL FOR SETTING NORMS

Purpose
To establish expectations for behavior and to give “permission” for risk-taking and full participation.

Details
This can take 10 minutes or an hour, depending on how deeply the facilitator and the group want to go. Required supplies: Chart paper and markers.

Steps

  1. Brainstorming: All ideas are listed; facilitator can add own. Allow silence at the beginning.
  2. Discussion: Acknowledge that this is only a brainstormed list, the facilitator invites discussion/questions.
  3. Synthesis: The facilitator helps form norms where there may be some disagreement—“Can we agree to use judgment about use of cell phones?”
  4. Consensus: The group agrees to use these norms and revisit them regularly. They also agree that it is a working list and can be revised at any time.

When setting norms with a class it is important to hear all voices. It might be a good idea to give students time to think and write about how they wish to be treated and what norms they would like to see put in place. Next have the entire class brainstorm. I find this method provides a greater opportunity for participation, even from the shyest students.

Unlike our usual first day rule-making ritual, I find it helpful to wait until the second or third week of school to set norms. Students will have had a chance to experience how the group already interacts and works together. If they have no problem respecting each others’ ideas, the class might not need a norm that addresses this aspect of getting along. If, for example, they notice that some students always answer questions and others never get a chance, they might feel the need to set a norm about not speaking a second time until everyone has had the opportunity to speak a first time.

Setting norms with the class gives teachers the chance to create an inclusive classroom environment through which all student voices are heard and honored. And that’s good for students and teachers alike.

Do you have a comment or question about this article? E-mail Judi.

 

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