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Classroom Rules and Rewards for Elementary Students

This year, the return to school has never looked more different. There’s a host of new classroom management concerns for schools regardless of whether they are returning full time, remaining virtual, or something in between. Regardless of what your classroom will look like this year, following tried-and-true practices will help your students stay calm and academic-minded even through turbulent times. Here are some tips for establishing rules and rewards for your elementary school classroom.

Establishing Classroom Rules for Elementary Students

Some teachers believe in having a list of rules for several different scenarios (e.g., one set of rules for the classroom, one for lunchtime, one for special areas). Other teachers prefer having one or two rules that they apply broadly depending on the situation. Moreover, some teachers prefer making the rules in advance, while others like to invite students into the process.

There are merits to all of these methods, but regardless of which you use, it’s helpful to think through classroom rules in advance. To get your gears turning, we’ve created a free poster with 10 simple rules for an elementary classroom. You can use these rules as a starting point to create your own, or you can print them out and hang them in your classroom as a 18×24” or 8.5×11” poster.

Here’s how these rules might apply in the elementary classroom, plus a few extra to consider for the virtual classroom:

  1. Everyone has the right to learn. This is true whether students are remote or physically in the classroom. If a student is being disruptive, he or she is depriving others of their right to learn.
  2. Everyone deserves respect—both teachers AND students. Let’s face it: It’s easier to be disrespectful when you’re behind a keyboard than when you’re face to face. If you hold students accountable to be respectful in words, tone, and attitude, especially when communicating online, you’ll be giving them SEL skills to last a lifetime.
  3. Keep your hands and feet to yourself. This rule certainly applies to poking and fighting, but during the pandemic, it might be a good reminder for social distancing: If you’re close enough to reach out and touch your neighbor, you’re too close.
  4. When someone else is talking, listen. COVID-19 arrangements might make this rule more challenging than usual as students are sitting far apart or meeting online, making it more difficult to pay attention and keep track of who is speaking. Define whose turn it is to speak clearly and often to help students succeed with this rule, and remind online students to remain muted unless it’s their turn to speak.
  5. No matter what, keep trying. A growth mindset is essential for learning. When “keep trying” is one of your class rules, that means students can’t say things like, “I’ll never get this” or “I’m just not good at this subject.”
  6. Always keep your eye on your own work. If your students aren’t sitting near each other, this rule might be easy to enforce, but if you’re practicing remote learning, it might be more difficult. Either way, it’s valuable to teach your students that they’re ultimately harming themselves if they don’t do their own work, even if that means making mistakes.
  7. The gadgets can wait until class is over. Multitasking is a myth. The earlier you can convince students that they can’t pay attention to you and look at their iPad at the same time, the better off they’ll be in life.
  8. Raise your hand to talk or leave your seat. As with listening, students won’t have as many cues as usual to tell whose turn it is to speak. Especially if you have students learning remotely, establish what virtual hand-raising looks like and when it’s appropriate to walk away from the screen during a lesson.
  9. Before you speak, ask yourself “Is it kind?” Our thoughts are not filtered, but that doesn’t mean our words should be the same way. Like being respectful, teaching your students to think of how the other person will receive their words is an invaluable skill for their present and future relationships.
  10. The custodian’s job is to keep the school, not clean up after you. This is another rule that takes on new meaning during the pandemic. Students need to be extra mindful of washing their hands, cleaning up after themselves, and keeping their coughs and sneezes contained.

Additional Rules for the Virtual Classroom

If some or all of your students are learning online, here are a couple of additional rules you might want to consider for your virtual classroom:

  • Treat technology with respect. More than ever, students will be using school-issued laptops and tablets, and for young children, this is a huge responsibility. Although you won’t be around to enforce how they treat equipment most of the time, it won’t hurt to remind them the proper way to carry, handle, and clean technology.
  • Log in to class on time and prepared. Especially for a virtual class, it’s important students prepare before your meeting begins. If class starts at 9, they need to start gathering materials, getting to a quiet place, and logging in at least 10 or 15 minutes in advance.
  • When the camera’s on, you’re in class. Especially if you meet live, this rule covers myriad issues, including: remembering others can see you (e.g., don’t make funny faces or gestures), dressing appropriately, eliminating background noise and distractions (e.g., toys, pets, TV), and staying online until dismissed.

How to Handle Consequences

No matter how much thought you put into your rules or how well you explain them, it’s inevitable that students will break them. Scholastic offers three approaches to handling consequences in an impactful way:

  • You break it, you fix it. Sometimes it’s easier to assign unrelated consequences to an action (e.g., send a note home when a student throws supplies on the floor out of anger). However, whenever possible, the consequence should involve repairing whatever the student broke. This principle applies to emotional mistakes as well as physical ones. If one student hurts another’s feelings, he or she should apologize and, if appropriate, do something to make the situation right again.
  • Take away privileges temporarily. Similar to the point above, students should learn that they have privileges only when they use them appropriately. If students don’t use school supplies or recess time correctly, it’s best to remove that privilege for a short time so they understand the correlation between behaving well and enjoying privileges.

  • Take a time-out or break. Self-control is tough for kids. (Heck, slap a plate of cookies on the table and it’s tough for us too.) Sometimes students can get so caught up in the emotions of the moment that it’s hard to remember classroom rules and standards. Although “time-out” has a punitive connotation, it doesn’t have to be a “punishment” in your classroom. Rather, you can present it as an opportunity to regain one’s cool and composure without shame before rejoining the class.

Establishing Classroom Rewards for Elementary Students

Even young students should know to follow rules and act with kindness without expectation of rewards. But that’s not to say that motivators don’t have a place in the elementary classroom.

Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Jen McCalley uses “Birdie Bucks” for both academic and behavioral achievements. For example, students earn one Birdie Buck when they turn in homework on time, follow directions, don’t get time-out all day, or try their best on a task. Then at the end of the week, students can use their bucks to buy prizes from the Birdie Store. This practice not only helps them see that good behavior brings good things into their lives, but also teaches them delayed gratification as they work and save toward getting prizes they want.

If you don’t want to keep up with an in-class currency or class store of prizes, that’s okay. Reward systems can take on many forms, but effective ones have many of the same principles in common. According to a paper by Robert H. Horner and Scott A. Spaulding, the following are best practices to keep in mind for creating classroom rewards:

  1. Reward “behavior,” not people. Make sure students understand that they receive rewards because of specific behaviors, not because they’re a “good kid” or the teacher’s “favorite.”
  2. Include the learner in identification of possible rewards. Rewards aren’t actually rewards if students don’t desire them; make sure the rewards will incentivize students to want to earn them.
  3. Use small rewards frequently, rather than large rewards infrequently. If you withhold rewards until the end of the year or even the end of the month, students might lose motivation or even forget about them.
  4. Embed rewards in the activity/behavior you want to encourage. Similar to what we’ve discussed already, consequences (whether positive or negative) should ideally relate to the behavior so students can more easily connect their behavior to the outcome.
  5. Ensure that rewards closely follow the behavior you want to encourage. In other words, reward good behaviors as soon as you see them (or soon after) to help cement the connection between what students do and what they earn.
  6. Use rewards that are natural to the context, appropriate to the developmental age of the learner and easy to administer. If your reward system is difficult to understand or implement, both you and your students will quickly become frustrated and ultimately not use it. Make life easy on yourself and simple for your students to understand.
  7. Use many different kinds of rewards rather than relying on one strategy or pattern. Again, you don’t have to have a class store of prizes. Other possible rewards might include one-on-one attention from you, a highly favored classroom activity (e.g., computer time), or special privileges (e.g., an extra trip to the gym or library).
  8. Use rewards more often than negative consequences. It can sometimes feel like you only have time to correct poor behaviors, but positive motivation has been shown to be more effective in the long run.
  9. Avoid delivering rewards (even inadvertently) for problem behavior. As you well know, students can sometimes act out to get attention, even if it’s negative. Make sure not to appease poor behavior with rewards so students know there’s a strong connection between behaving well and getting what they want.

Rules and Rewards in a Post-COVID-19 World

It’s anyone’s guess what teaching will be like as schools implement COVID-19 precautions. Although it’s easy to get caught up in fear of the unknown, it’s equally important to remember that as a teacher, you know what’s right for your students, whether they’re in the room with you or not. You know your curriculum, you know how to manage a classroom, and you know how to push students to be the best they can be. As long as you apply what you know to this new world, we’re confident you and your students will have an awesome year.

If you’re looking for more in-depth classroom management strategies, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses.

  • Supporting Students With Disruptive Behavior Disorders: Sometimes students with disruptive behavior disorders (DBDs) are the ones who need you the most. Learn research-based strategies and interventions to prevent and manage behaviors associated with DBDs. Give your students the support they need while maintaining a productive and positive learning environment.
  • Curbing Disruptive Behavior: It only takes one student to derail an entire lesson or even an entire school year. Learn preventative techniques for stopping behavior issues before they start, and create practical intervention strategies to keep your class on track when disruptive behavior does occur.
  • Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports for Successful Classrooms: Has classroom management become an endless chore that minimizes teaching time and student engagement? Learn preventative and responsive strategies for addressing off-task behaviors so you can decrease disruptions, increase instructional time, and improve academic and social outcomes.
  • Classroom Management Strategies for an Organized Classroom: Classroom management encompasses all teacher interactions with students, the classroom environment, rules and procedures, instructional strategies, and developing engaging work. Explore the latest research and best practices to help you create an atmosphere of mutual respect, positive interactions, and on-task, self-controlled learning.

In addition to these, we offer more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for educators’ salary advancement or recertification needs.

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