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Starting the New School Year with Community-building Rules and Guidelines

As we enter into a new school year, many of us are welcoming new students into our classrooms and programs. Because the past year has been so challenging, it is especially important this year to create a safe and welcoming space in which all children feel cared for. There are many ways to build community, and one particularly helpful way can be to invite children to collaborate with you on the creation of rules for your classroom. Working together to set expectations can be a great opportunity to build relationships and to get children engaged in their new learning space.

Include Children in the Process

With preschoolers, establishing classroom rules and guidelines is best done as a group process. This might be done during circle time or morning meeting during one of the first few days of school.  When children assist in creating rules, they are more likely to adhere to them in the classroom, because they feel engaged and invested in the guidelines that were established. Because young children naturally have a strong sense of justice, or right and wrong, they will likely have strong opinions and wonderful ideas about what kinds of rules they want to set for themselves and their peers.

When we allow children to be a part of the rule-making process, we get an understanding of what values are important to them, which fosters a sense of community and belonging. We demonstrate that they are valued, and we show them that they are seen, recognized, and important in the classroom community.  Taking steps early in the year to establish a shared sense of community is especially critical after this past year when many children have been at home and away from child care or group settings.

Use Positive Language

When setting rules for young children to follow, consider using affirmative language rather than words like “can’t” or “don’t”.  Samantha Foley, a Montessori toddler educator explains, “It’s challenging for toddlers to understand the concept of negatives. Often, they miss the ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ at the beginning of the sentence; translating, ‘Don’t climb on the counter!’ into ‘Climb on the counter!’ This leaves our curious, independence-seeking toddlers wondering, ‘Why are they telling me to do exactly what I am doing? And why are they mad at me for it?’ Being specific on what they can do and when makes it easier for your toddler to understand; and they are more likely to learn from the experience and cooperate with the request in the future.”

While Foley is specifically discussing her work with toddlers, this idea applies to all young children, including those in preschool and pre-k. We want to tell children what we want them to do, rather than what not to do. This makes rules more direct and easier to follow, while also helping to maintain a more encouraging atmosphere in the classroom. As you shift to more positive and direct language, you might also observe a decrease in challenging behaviors, as children gain more confidence that they understand what is expected of them.

You might also give some thought to whether or not the word “rules” feels appropriate for your classroom space. Some educators have better luck in directing children’s behavior when they reframe classroom rules in a more collaborative way, by calling them something else, such as  “community guidelines” or “classroom principles.” Using a more positive approach in titling your classroom expectations might help children to feel more encouraged to follow them.

Explain “Why”

Children typically have an easier time understanding rules that make logical sense. Arbitrary rules can be difficult to understand, and hard to remember. When you create rules and guidelines for the children in your classroom, it can be helpful to explain to children why. Let children know why the rules are significant and what kind of positive impact they will have on your classroom.

For example, if you and the children agree to a rule that everyone cleans up their bedding after nap time, you might explain to them why this is important — such as, cleaning up bedding helps to create more room for play in the afternoon! Or, we share clean-up with our friends to ensure that everyone has a chance to play with our favorite things in the classroom.

Communicate with Patience

It’s important to remember that we’re all a little bit out of our routines right now, and so it might take the children in your care some time to adjust to a new space with new guidelines and expectations. When children get distracted or forget the rules, try using positive reminders and encouragement to get them back on track. Here are a few quick tips to help you think about the way that you communicate with the children in your care:

  • Consider your tone. If you are feeling frustrated or raising your voice it will be difficult for children to listen to you. They will likely be more focused on the way that you are speaking than on what you are actually saying. If you are frustrated, take a few seconds to take deep breaths before communicating with children. Ensure that you are using a calm tone.

  • Think about levels. When you are checking in with children, consider your levels. Remember that you are likely much taller than the children that you care for! Move down to their level when communicating rather than talking to them from above.

  • Ask questions. When children get off track, ask questions to remind them what’s next. “What do we do after we wash our hands?” “Where do we line up to go inside?” These questions help remind children what is expected of them, without telling them what to do. Children feel empowered when they know that they have the ability to make the right decisions on their own.

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