6 Ways to Art-Up Your Classroom Rules

The classroom rules are rarely approached as an opportunity for creativity. Introducing the rules is the moment for sober reflections on safety and stern discussions of consequences. When I first started teaching, I was told not to smile for the first six weeks. But then I left the traditional classroom for an arts and literacy program that only gave me 40 hours with each class for the full year, so I couldn’t waste 12 of my precious hours being a stern sourpuss. I didn’t want to waste a single hour. So I made my rules introduction fun.

My management didn’t suffer. Instead, I learned anew what we’re told all along – it’s about consistency, consistency, consistency. My authority doesn’t come from being intimidating as much as from the inviolable core belief that I am in charge, and that my students can and will accept that. The introduction is important, but making it an active, engaging experience doesn’t have to send your class into fits of chaos. Instead, it gives the students an immediate opportunity to practice some real responsibility, and gives me an opportunity to demonstrate just how serious I am about safety and expectations.

With that said, some of these are more beginner-friendly than others. If you’re a beginning teacher and just learning your management style, you do probably want to err conservatively. In order from easiest to hardest (imho – feel free to disagree in the comments) here are 6 ways to make your rules discussion a little more lively.

Visual Art

The Gist: Allow students to explore visually what it means to be naughty or nice.

The Details: Read-aloud Miss Nelson Is Missing by James Marshall and Harry Allard, or your favorite book that also demonstrates bad behavior. Discuss how everyone in the story has both a “good” side and a wicked side. Have students draw two pictures of themselves, one behaving badly (making a face, throwing something, etc.), and one “being good.” You can stop there with the double self-portrait, maybe having students write a sentence or paragraph about their work.

If you want to take the art another step forward, you can have them cut out both pictures, and group the cutouts together on a bulletin board to make an easy mural. I would group all the “behaving badly” pictures on one side of the board, spaced a little chaotically to represent the disorder created when not everyone is abiding by the rules. On the “good behavior” side, I would line up the pictures more carefully into neat rows or circles or whatever grouping you want. You can still showcase student writing  – have them write a sentence describing their pictures’ behavior on each side of the mural; if they write it on an index card, you can stick them on the mural itself. If your mural space isn’t big enough to squeeze in the artwork and the writing, you can tack up the index cards around the edge of the board. If you want to show which index card goes with which student picture, tack a bright piece of yarn between them. If you have a management board that involves moving student names from the “good standing” side to the “I’m calling your parents” side, you could also use these cutouts to decorate that board.

Something like this, only more awesome because you'll have more student work and won't be doing this with a baby in one hand.
Something like this, only more awesome because you’ll have more student work and won’t be doing this with a baby in one hand.

The Management: For my first visual art assignment of the year, I always, always, always keep it simple. Crayons or colored pencils, markers if they’ve been really impressing me with good behavior already. And I tell them that our choices in art mediums are dependent on their ability to use them responsibly. (“Rule Number 4: Know what things are for, so you can use ’em more” – see my rules under “Music” at the bottom. As in, markers are for paper, not for your arm. Show me you can use markers responsibly, so that I know you’re ready to graduate to watercolors, etc.)

Movement 1

The Gist: Add simple motions to your call-to-attention.

The Details: This is a variation on the popular “Give Me Five” or “Stop, Look, and Listen” methods for calling attention. In both cases, there is a series of actions you want children to perform quickly and quietly so that you can have their full attention for a moment or two. Traditionally these actions are actually subtractions of action; the children are active when you begin the call, and they gradually calm and focus different parts of their body. All very well and good. But adding a few simple gestures for each step could be slightly more fun, and might even help an extra fidgety young person transition a little better. The object is to calm and focus, so I’m not talking about anything wild here.

For example, in “Give Me Five,” the students are asked to focus on eyes (looking), ears (listening), mouth (closed), hands (still), feet (quiet). My suggested gestures:

  1. Eyes. Point to eyes, then point to teacher, your gaze following your finger.
  2. Ears. Touch earlobes to signal listening.
  3. Mouth. Finger pressed to lips.
  4. Hands. Brought together in “prayer” pose in front of body.
  5. Feet. Lift briefly onto balls of feet and float lightly back down, feeling your heel root into the floor. Demonstrate this standing and sitting, so that they can do it from wherever they are without confusion.

Like this:

The Management: High expectations and consistency. Make sure that students know there is only one right way to do the motions. Praise and censure accordingly.

Movement 2

The Gist: Freeze Dance is a surprisingly effective management tool.

The Details: In Freeze Dance, if you’ve never played, the children dance in place while the music is playing (I use a tambourine, but you can also do it with another instrument or any electronic music player), and when the music stops they have to freeze in their pose immediately. You can do it with them standing behind their desks or on the rug. Students who do not freeze immediately must sit out for the rest of that set. Each set only lasts a minute or so, so you can usually do a few sets, and everyone gets a good long turn. If the class is especially ancy, I’ll let them dance for a while before stopping and calling anyone out so they can work off some of that energy.

The Management: This doesn’t sound like a management game, but I’ve found it to be a very effective way to establish my expectations for behavior. I believe a few reasons contribute to this:

(1) It’s fun, so everyone is motivated to participate, and they have immediate gratification for performing well.

(2) It gives me an opportunity to be very strict very early. The smallest twitch, and you’re out. When they’re “out,” they must sit quietly with their hands folded, or they can’t be invited back for the next round. I explain this is a safety issue.

(3) It’s short, and I always do multiple rounds, so any consequence (having to sit out) is very short-lived and results in very few hurt feelings. Plus, in the first round, I usually manage to eliminate at least half the class, so no one feels particularly singled out. By the third round, they’re much savvier, fewer of them have to sit, and they’re taking the game rules very seriously.

Drama 1

The Gist: Use tableaux to help students practice appropriate behavior.

The Details: I WISH SO HARD that this was my idea, but I found it on Twitter yesterday, and it’s brilliant:

If you’ve never done a tableau, it’s a living “snapshot.” So you have students move into a learning-positive pose and freeze there. You can have the whole class do it at once, or have different groups perform their tableaux for each other. Tableaux are also great for listening and reading comprehension and a number of other things, but we’ll get to that in future posts.

The Management: Pretty simple. Model the pose that you want, and as students are performing their tableau, talk about what they’re doing right. If one student is having trouble staying focused, often a gentle word in praise of his or her neighbor will be enough to draw that student back.

Drama 2

The Gist: Have students rehearse positive interactions, especially regarding difficult situations.

The Details: This is a more in-depth lesson about behavior and ethics, for those who want or require a more substantial introduction to appropriate behavior and community participation. Children learn best by example, and sometimes they lack positive examples of interpersonal behavior. Acting gives them a chance to “rehearse” positive behaviors that might be new to them, making it easier for them to call on these skills when they encounter a situation that requires them.

Read-aloud your favorite or most easily available book on bullying. The two that I see most frequently recommended (although I’d love to hear if you have another favorite, list it in the comments!) are The Recess Queen, by Alexis O’Neill and The Juice Box Bully by Bob Sornson and Maria Dismondy. Both books involve students taking an active role in problem solving, rather than relying solely on teacher intervention.

Discuss the book and the positive actions taken by characters in the story. Make a list of troubling behavior that your students might encounter in another student. (Name calling, invading space, stealing pencils or other small items, pushing, yelling, etc.). Make a second list of positive behaviors (offering to be friends, sharing, inviting someone to join you), and especially positive behaviors that might directly address the negative behaviors in the first list (saying “I don’t think that’s fair,” etc.).

Then pair students up to write a dialogue for two characters, and have them use the lists to choose a problem behavior and act out a solution scenario. Then they can act it out in front of the class. This gives students a chance to think through these scenarios before they happen, practice acting positively in a safe situation, and see their peers also practicing positive behaviors. If they’re uncomfortable acting, or they just need more scaffolding, you can also have them draw a picture (or two or three) depicting the sequence of action and put the character’s lines in speech bubbles. Instead of acting, they can share about their pictures and read the dialogue.

The Management: All your normal partner-work rules should apply, and if this is your first partner work of the year, you may need to go over that first, as part of the discussion on positive behaviors. When it’s time for “performance,” or share-out, make sure you go over being a good audience, including your policy on clapping.


The Gist: Set the rules to music.

The Details: After opening with a short read-aloud and conversation about why it’s important to have rules in school (see my previous post for a list of titles), I introduce my classroom rules with this counting-backward, repeat-after-me song. It’s easier if I just sing it for you. I apologize for not having a crowd of small people making this cuter, but you’ll get the idea.

When we’re in the classroom, classroom, classroom
(When we’re in the classroom, classroom, classroom)

When we’re in the classroom, these are the rules.
(When we’re in the classroom, these are the rules)

Rule Number 6:
(Rule Number 6)

Working very quietly is the trick.
(Working very quietly is the trick)

Rule Number 5:
(Rule Number 5)

Follow the directions if you want to jump and jive.
(Follow the directions if you want to jump and jive)

Rule Number 4:
(Rule Number 4)

Know what things are for, so you can use ’em more.
(Know what things are for, so you can use ’em more)

Rule Number 3:
(Rule Number 3)

Listen very, very, very, very, VERY carefully.
(Listen very, very, very, very VERY carefully)

Rule Number 2:
(Rule Number 2)

Keep your hands, and your feet, and your stuff close to you.
(Keep your hands and your feet and your stuff close to you)

Rule Number 1:
(Rule Number 1)

Remember to smile and have fun, fun, fun.
(Remember to smile and have fun, fun, fun.

The Management: There are a few keys to making sure students can achieve this activity in a way that sets a strict but joyful tone.

  1. Placement. The song and motions can be done at desks or on the rug, seated or standing. Read the room. If everyone seems to do fine sitting at their desks, then I like to do things on the rug. If, however, there are one or more students having difficulty controlling their limbs, then we will need some more space and constraints so that everyone can succeed, so I do the song at their desks because it naturally spaces them out.
  2. High expectations. As with academics, so with art. Set the standard high from the first moment – whether you’re doing the song sitting or standing, rug or desks, decide on an “readiness pose” and Do. Not Start. Until. Everyone. Is. Ready. Point out a few students who are exemplars. If they stumble on a line when we’re singing, we stop and do that one over again. It doesn’t have to be a big deal – “That was a little sloppy, let’s do that one again” – just don’t let it slide.

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