Welcome to post number five in the back-to-school starter series! I can’t wait to jump into today’s topic: Co-Creating Class Expectations. But, if you’re looking to start from the beginning, check out my thoughts on setting up a classroom.
Congratulations! The finish line is in sight! You’ve set up your physical space. You’ve mapped out effective routines. Your supplies and materials are prepped for when the time is right. Now, it is time to welcome your students and create class expectations. Together.
I truly believe that co-creating class expectations is one of the most powerful back-to-school tools. It elicits buy-in and builds community by establishing two things simultaneously:
- Feelings of ownership and belonging
Let’s get down to business. I’ll walk you through my whole process of co-creating classroom expectations and the WHY behind each step. We’ll start with the basics and then get more in-depth. Ready?
What are Classroom Expectations?
Implicit and explicit social agreements are part of all communities. We learn those written and unwritten rules in a variety of ways. However, communities function smoothly with transparent expectations supporting all community members.
Class expectations are the agreements our students (and teachers) follow to support a safe, productive environment. You might also know them as “rules.” When creating class expectations, I aim to support students in four ways:
- Emotional Safety
- Physical Safety
- Respectful use of resources and space
- Academic Productivity
As teachers, the most immediate need presented by our students is physical safety. The fewer ice packs and trips to the nurse needed throughout the day, the better.
But, physical safety isn’t just protecting kids from scrapes and bruises. In fact, those are part of physical learning. Instead, a physically safe environment means one without the risk of intentional physical harm by anyone or anything.
Class expectations that support physical safety look like this:
- Ensuring that students have their body’s needs met.
- For example, eating at appropriate times or having time to get water. During the pandemic, this meant (and still means) adhering to distance protocols and mask-wearing mandates.
- Protecting students’ individual body boundaries.
- This means creating expectations around consent. For example, many students dislike physical touch, including hugs, so expectations that address consent are crucial.
- Guidance for safe body choices.
- Running is an excellent way to release energy, but, like a lot of body movements, can cause a lot of unnecessary harm (and panic) to the community when done in the classroom. Agreements around how we use our bodies in small or crowded spaces can help students recognize those issues.
Like physical safety, I believe emotional safety is an immediate need. Emotional safety encourages students to attend school daily, regardless of academic challenges. Likewise, emotional safety ensures that students can truly be their best selves and, when trouble arises, they have support to work through tough emotions.
Pause for a moment. What does emotional safety mean to you? Did your mind jump to positivity as emotional safety? While creating a positive environment is important, we want to avoid the toxic positivity trap.
All emotions are valid and part of a healthy environment. Rather, emotional safety means you can express your needs freely.
Class expectations that support emotional safety look like:
- Agreements around meeting individual needs
- Respectful language
- Language around growth mindset practices
- Conflict resolution structures and systems
- Support systems for emotional regulation
- Expectations around listening and sharing within groups
Overall, it is important for students to know that when they have a big (or little) negative emotion, there is a system to support them.
Classroom + Material Care
Care of the environment and materials is also part of being in a healthy community. Learning to care for the classroom community relates to taking care of community resources later. These class expectations directly connect to teaching empathy for the environment!
Class expectations around careful use of classroom resources look like this:
- Using materials (including books, writing utensils, art supplies, etc.) as intended
- Cleaning up and putting away materials after use
- Asking to use materials or classroom space before doing so, especially if it impacts other community members
Class Expectations Around Productivity
You might be wondering: Why did Jillian save productivity for last? Isn’t that just as important?
Yes, academics are a huge part of classroom learning. However, academic productivity is a moot point without physical and emotional safety.
However, this is what I look for from my students during work times:
- Active listening
- Focusing on their work
- Using kind words while working with a partner
- Trying their best
- Asking for help
Ultimately, I want to be explicit about my work expectations. However, I know students achieve much more when emotional and physical class expectations are met.
When you choose to co-create your classroom expectations, you are choosing to build trust and empower your students from the very beginning.
Imposing predetermined, teacher-written rules on students can cause heightened anxiety around doing something wrong. Asking for input sends the message that you believe in the students’ experience and expertise to create a safe classroom for everyone.
And, when people feel ownership over space, they feel a sense of power and being heard. Hence, they tend to also take more responsibility for their actions within a set of community rules. Outcome: intrinsic motivation to stick to the agreements.
When to Create Class Expectations
Co-creation of class expectations happens within the first week of school. In my responsive classroom training, I learned to lay the groundwork for classroom community and agreements on the first day. Then, on day two you begin the co-creation process.
Why don’t I just get started on the first day of school?
Imagine immediately entering a new space, with some familiar faces and some new ones. Then, you’re asked to create the rules for behaving and interacting with these people. Not only does it feel nearly impossible, but it also jumps from building the community to designing it without knowing the people within it.
Instead, the first day of school is a great time to model routines, build relationships amongst your students, and read many books to highlight school experiences.
Getting Started: Hopes + Dreams
I always begin with activities that bring students’ unique experiences and personal goals to the surface.
We begin by examining our INDIVIDUAL hopes and dreams for the year. Essentially, this is brainstorming individual goals. Hopes and dreams can be academic, community-oriented, or interpersonal. Many students focus on very concrete goals, such as multiplication fact fluency or making a new friend. While others think more abstractly, such as generally growing as a student.
While specific and concrete hopes and dreams are slightly easier to support through class expectations, the most important thing is that students have a clear mental picture of their hopes and dreams for the year. This will help them when collaborating on how to support those visions.
Next, we brainstorm ways to support each other. We typically do this in small groups, where students tend to feel safer at the beginning of the year.
This might be enough for one day!
Reflecting on Ideas as a Whole Group
After small groups, my students come back together as a whole group. This is when we start to write down all of our ideas. And I mean, all of them. The list will get long (hopefully very long!) Trust me, that is going to help you later.
Next, we discuss. Our long list of ideas becomes the content for our conversation around class expectations.
Consolidate into Categories
How do we shrink it down? Create categories.
Our next step: think of 4-6 big categories that fit our ideas. This can be a very abstract, difficult concept for young minds. So, it helps to scaffold this conservation with open-ended questions. For example:
- How can we support these goals?
- Which supports go together?
Students will slowly point out and compare different ideas. Ideally, they will notice the similarities. This process might take a while. That’s okay! Let students debate, add and subtract support over time.
Note: I like to circle supports that go together with different colors. That helps us keep track of categories visually. And, don’t be afraid of creating multiple editions of the same list! It is an excellent introduction to revising and editing text 🙂
Keep it Simple
Your set of class expectations should be simple and applicable. That means a wide variety of behaviors and expectations fall under each category.
For example, a common class expectation is to keep a calm, safe body.
This class agreement applies to so many situations in the classroom. It emphasizes how students should sit while working or in meetings. It supports calm transitions with many bodies moving from one place to another. And it can even be applied to conflict resolution around how we use our bodies in arguments.
Rephrasing The Inevitable “Negative”
Word choice matters. And when creating your classroom agreements, it is important to reframe student ideas into positive language.
It is inevitable: at least one student will phrase expectations in a negative tone. For example, “Don’t run.”
I normalize the reframing of negative language. After each suggestion (positive or negative), I rephrase it aloud so everyone can hear it again. Often, I use the exact words. However, when students say something negatively, I rephrase it in positive language. That means if a student says “Don’t Run,” I will reframe it to the group as “Walk.”
Here are some other examples of positive language in class expectations:
- Keep a calm, safe body
- Focus on your work
- Help others
- Use kind words
- Clean up your space
- Show that you’re listening
Visualize Class Expectations
Words have power. But, we can’t expect words to really mean the same thing and have the same impact on every student. For example, “Pay attention to the speaker” will look and feel very different depending on the child.
That’s why I ask that students follow all expectations by answering three questions:
What does it look like?
What does it sound like?
What does it feel like?
For example, a student might suggest that we treat materials with care. What does that look like? It looks like putting materials back when they are taken out. It feels like using materials gently and as they were taught.
The end result: Students learn what and how to follow a classroom expectation, and we are all on the same page.
Help Generating Class Expectations
Some years… we hit a wall. I’ve already heard about the difficulties this year. Some of you have asked: What if my students have trouble generating ideas? I’ve been there, and it can be so tricky! Here’s what I do when this happens:
Collaborative Ways to Spark Ideas
A whole group discussion is always part of the co-creation process. However, sometimes I need more. When that happens, I try to incorporate multiple forms of collaboration. Speaking up in a whole group can be intimidating for students in the early days of the school year. And, some kids need different ways of organizing thoughts before sharing. These are some activities we do in partnerships and small (3 or 4 kids) groups:
- Create a whole class Looks Like/Sounds Like Chart
- Writing ideas on multiple colored stickies
- Create student Mind Maps
Additionally, I pivot when large groups aren’t working for my students quite yet. Instead, I print our big list of ideas onto smaller sheets and ask students to work in small groups and create 4-6 categories. Then, we return as a group to share and create our final list of class expectations.
Read alouds support in many ways. First, they can “bring the silly” and highlight why we need to create certain class expectations. Second, they model unwanted behavior and invite students to problem solve.
Many of my top back-to-school read alouds mix a little of both! Specifically, they highlight the troubles that can occur when returning to school and making new friends.
However, If Everybody Did, is my number one book to spark class expectations conversation and build understanding around their importance in our community. Seriously, it reaches all students who push back against the classroom expectations. With laughter, it highlights the importance of community agreements and the WHY behind their existence.
Repeat, Repeat, Reflect
Modeling + Practice
Just like classroom routines, class expectations will need modeling and practice. However, unlike routines, expectations are not always easy to model. They are more generalized and applicable to many situations.
Enter: in the moment specific commentary.
In the first six weeks of school (and beyond), I make sure to give shout-outs to students meeting our classroom expectations. When I see a student demonstrating community-oriented behavior, I do two things:
- I name what I saw.
- I name the category/agreement it falls under.
- Josh put away all of the markers (what I saw). That is an excellent example of treating our classroom resources with care (the expectation the student is meeting).
- Snehal kept trying during a challenging math lesson (what I saw). That is an excellent example of doing your best work (the expectation the student is meeting).
Note: I try to avoid rewarding behavior that meets expectations. If behaviors are complimented sometimes but not always, students become driven by the possibility of a reward and frustrated when they don’t receive praise. Instead, I want to emphasize how behaviors fit into OUR co-created expectations and why this is important to our community as a whole.
The Importance of Reflection
Student reflection is even more powerful than my acknowledgment of behavior. That is why my class reflects on meeting class expectations during our end-of-day meeting, also known as Closing Circle.
We keep this practice simple. Students have the opportunity to share one way in which our community stuck to the agreements that day.
This is when I emphasize, one more time, the power of positive language. You want to leave the day on a positive note. That’s going to impact how your students arrive the next day. You and your students can find an AUTHENTIC positive on the roughest, toughest days. I promise.
What do you say when a kid blurts out something negative? Pause for a moment. Remind the student that we are looking for positives. I often say, “There are class expectations we are still working on meeting. Now is a time to reflect on which expectations we did meet.”
Likewise, reflections do not have to be about the whole group. Individuals and small groups also meet class expectations! When you and your students struggle to think positively, think small instead. “Neri put away all of the crayons, that is a great example of caring for our classroom resources.”
I hope this post helps you build a strong community that lasts all year long. However, here’s my final caveat. The co-creation of class expectations doesn’t just happen at the beginning of the year. Some years, you need to repeat the process two or three times from August to June. That’s okay! Ultimately, it is all about supporting your students and creating a safe, empowering environment. Let me know how it goes!