It is oftentimes assumed that the “rules” of the classroom must be determined solely by the teacher.  He or she decides what constitutes appropriate behavior and the students immediately view themselves as a group of individuals that must be managed by an authority figure. This dynamic can create resistance, resentment, and a feeling of powerlessness.

Rules are oftentimes posted on a wall and enforced without much thought put into whether or not they make sense or are even needed. Ergo, when a student pushes back and refuses to follow them, the teacher doesn’t actually have an explanation beyond, “because it’s the rules.”

The whole point of having rules is to ensure that the classroom is safe, the learning objectives can be met, and a positive experience is shared by all. Given this rationale it makes sense to bring students and learners into the process of determining what kind of behavior is encouraged in order to foster such an environment and for the group to take ownership over enforcing the rules. Since the word, “rule,” conjures up images of the authority based model of setting class norms, the term “group agreement” has been increasingly adopted by classrooms that practices a more community-based approach to establishing the learning norms.

In this interview, peace educator Barbara Wien talks about how she helps the learning community generate group agreements in her classes.

The organization, Youth Workin’ It, provides a good definition of what constitutes a “group agreement” and what makes them different from “rules.”

“Some might consider a group agreement, ‘the rules.’ The key difference between a group agreement and ‘rules’ comes in the creation and enforcement (emphasis original).

“Rules are often top down. They’re usually created and enforced by the person in charge. A group agreement though is created by the entire group. They decide what goes on and discuss why it’s important for the group” (YouthWorkinIt.org).

Youth Workin’ It also has a good lesson plan on how to develop group agreements with learners and the forms the final set of agreements can take – flip chart, individual contracts, etc.

Reflection Question: Group agreements, as defined, are created and supported by the learners themselves, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t occasions where certain “non-negotiable” agreements must be respected. What, if any, non-negotiable agreements do you feel are necessary for the learning environments in which you work? How do you incorporate those non-negotiables into the list of agreements so that everyone understands their importance and adheres to them?

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25 thoughts on “3.2

  1. Some non-negotiables might include: no violence to yourself or others, no racial slurs or any language that can hurt any types of identities in our community. I also definitely like to have community agreements that don’t just start with “No ____”, but rather explain how to act/treat each other rather than just how NOT to act, i.e. “Practice mutual respect”.

    One way to make sure that the non-negotiables make it onto the Community Agreement list is to add it at the end of the brainstorm with the class. If the class has finished adding agreements to the list, I believe that you as the facilitator can always add one or two at the end. You can be transparent about this and mention that you too are a member of the community, and you can also call upon your past experience and say “in the past we have had this agreement and it works really well – what does everyone think about adding this one?”

  2. I allow my students to make there own agreements. Like any normal teen, they sometimes break there own agreements. So when things get out of order, I enforce my non-negotiable agreement that I feel will help build a stronger learning environment. My non-negotiable agreement is simply respect. There are plenty of things that fall under respect like ,NO HAT, NO ELECTRONICS, and DON’T TALK WHILE SOMEONE ELSE IS TALKING. If people live with agreements of respecting oneself and others, it would be a more PEACEFUL classroom and world.

  3. When I think of my future classroom’s non-negotiable rules, I think of: be on time, be respectful of others’ opinions, be present in this class (ie only work on my class work while you are in this class), and be courteous of others. I feel I will slowly add to this list as I go through my teaching programs. I believe that having students making their own classroom rules does have limitations. In other words, this practice works with older students and less with younger students. One practice that I would like to add to my future high school classroom would be that I have a set of rules that are non-negotiable, and let the students add rules to the class that they see fit. This will give students some accountability over their actions in the class while showing that I respect and appreciate their input.

  4. Group Agreements are good as long as the group decides what they are. In a classroom setting and depending on the age, their are some non-negotiables that have to be used. But we are trying to get the buy-in of our students and when they have a say in how that class is ran, your usually have a productive year. Once these agreements are made and voted on by the class you have to stick by them regardless who it applies to.

  5. My learning environment is a beautiful, newly built, two story library media center (commons room that seats 120 on the first level/computer lab, media studio and conference room on the second) which supports the learning of 1700+ students and over 100 teachers. (Note: This past SY we averaged 98 patrons each day just at lunch) Also, we have been fortunate to have a small but growing collection of relevant print resources largely donated by our parent organization and area nonprofits and electronic resources guides I curate. In terms of technology, we have 27 computers in the upstairs lab and 8 in the commons. (Yes, eight. That is not a typo.)
    I said all that to say… “non-negotiables” are essential to creating and maintaining an environment that supports and nurtures the mostly independent research, study and reading needs of this large population. But rather than cram these “rules” down the patrons’ throats, I make it a point at the start of each year to seek their buy-in during orientations (so far I’ve been very successful as I explain the why of each, putting their benefit at the center) and end each year by surveying their approval/concerns with these policies; making adjustments when possible. The policies are also included in the student handbook and posted at the circulation desk.
    Our “non-negotiables” in the commons are: 1) This is a water only environment but please not when using the computers 2) Sign in at the circulation desk upon arrival 3) If patronizing during a class period, show your pass or no class sticker to staff member 4) Use of electronic devices permitted to text, research, or listen to music (headphones required). Step into the hallway to take a call. 5) Respect and support each other’s learning by keeping your voices low and sharing the computers and other resources.
    Flexibility…no but they respect me for not making a big production when they breach our agreement ( I simply apologize for having to ask them to leave, assure them I hold no grudges and invite them to come back the next day) and for not showing favoritism (even I eat only in my office and ask teachers if I can hold their coffee at the desk for them) and the students usually warn a newcomer when they are about to break out that bag of chips. Also, this year’s end of the year survey showed that the 4 top reason students came to the LMC was to complete home/school work, study, research, or find a quiet space. I will definitely include that data during fall orientations.

  6. My non-negotiables in the past have included respect yourself, respect others, respect the environment. While these three can probably encompass quite a lot in terms of how one should act as a member of a class… in practice, depending on the given group of students, those three rules alone can be a little too loosey-goosey…

    I did something this year I thought worked out pretty well, for once: I created 5 or 6 posters with established school rules that I wanted to focus on enforcing in my classroom -one rule per poster, and broke students into just as many small groups. Each group was given one poster for about 3 minutes, and each person in the group was enlisted to contribute one post-it note explaining why we needed that rule, after the allotted time, posters were passed on to the next group, until every group had a chance to meditate on every rule. The post-it notes were arranged around the rules to create a colorful border, and the rule posters were displayed on the wall, after each of my classes contributed their post-it notes to it.

  7. The non-negotiable rule for me is respect- respect for yourself, respect for others, and respect for the classroom and materials. Respect is such a broad rule that almost all other, more specific non-negotiable rules can be linked back to it. This year, I asked my first grade students to help me come up with the rules for the classroom and I listed all of their ideas. Then we reviewed the rules and, together, worked to group similar rules together. I gave these similar rules over-arching titles: “Be Respectful”, “Be Responsible” and “Be Ready”. Our group agreement took the form of three posters with the headings Be Respectful, Be Responsible, and Be Ready. Under each heading were the more specific rules that we had initially listed. This activity helped to foster a stronger community, appreciation for the rules, and understanding of what it means to be respectful and responsible.

    If a community of learners does not suggest a non-negotiable, I would do my best to guide them towards including the non-negotiable in the group agreement. If that does not work, I would suggest the non-negotiable to the group and explain why I think it should be on the group agreement. Hopefully learners would understand my justification for adding the non-negotiable and agree that it should be part of the group agreement.

  8. For my first 2 years of teaching, I made the list of rules, adding to some school wide rules, such as electronic devices need to be away during class. I tried to make it a non-negotiable rule that only one person speaks at a time, whether I’m speaking or a student is speaking. That for me falls under the umbrella of respect. I framed it as “one person, one mike,” and this worked in most of my classes. I stressed that as ESL students, everyone needs a chance to practice speaking. But I didn’t succeed in getting everyone to buy in to this rule. I had one challenging class where several students often chatted while I was teaching or other students were talking. I had a warning system and made consequences that included detention for early offenses, having a student work at a desk right outside the door in the hallway, and making calls to parents and having face-to-face meetings with parents. I focused on making lessons as active as possible as a strategy but it was still really a challenge to manage this class, enough so that if I have a similar experience this coming school year, I may decide that I’m not suited for this age group.

    So I’m willing to try a new approach and use a youth agreement. One reason I’m taking this class is to learn some approaches to classroom management that may help me to create a learning environment where everyone gets an equal chance to be heard.

  9. As others have stated, respect and safety are non-negotiable. With the older students, I allow them to create rules and expectations for themselves, as well as for me. This shows them that I value their opinion, and desire to create a safe environment for them. Once the list is complete, we all sign it. If the non-negotiable is violated, I remind them of the list of expectations they compiled, this holds them very accountable. I believe this technique would be useful to adults as well.

  10. I agree with Annesleigh, I think that the two most important non-negotiables are 1. attendance, and 2. respect for everyone. Respect does mean different things to different people and it also is the word mentioned the most when it come to expectations, norms, and rules in and out of the classroom so it often gets brought up all the time, but may not have enough emphasis when it comes to living out the written rules.

    One way that non-negotiable expectations can be brought up and included in the group norms is by bringing them up in the conversation towards the end of the conversation. A facilitator/teacher can ask the class “what do you think about respect/attendance etc?” and students can share what they think. That way those groups norms are brought up in an inclusive way that doesn’t set the teacher apart and students are able to take some responsibility for those expectations as well.

  11. I agree with Annesleigh, I think that the two most important non-negotiables are 1. attendance, and 2. respect for everyone. Respect does mean different things to different people and it also is the word mentioned the most when it come to expectations, norms, and rules in and out of the classroom so it often gets brought up all the time, but may not have enough emphasis when it comes to living out the written rules.

    One way that non-negotiable expectations can be brought up and included in the group norms is by bringing them up in the conversation towards the end of the conversation. A facilitator/teacher can ask the class “what do you think about respect/attendance etc?” and students can share what they think. That way those groups norms are brought up in an inclusive way that doesn’t set the teacher apart and students are able to take some responsibility for those expectations as well.

  12. As the rest of the class has echoed, I find safety and respect necessary components of group agreements. Respect is a rule that can be very difficult to enforce due to a class moral relativity of who deserves respect. Nevertheless, I do not think that individuals would fail to come to a conclusion of this as a necessary rule. In my experience the phrasing of rules makes all the difference. Many students would naturally state themes similar to respect and as the teacher one could simply elaborate or add to these ideas in creating non-negotiable standards. In a real life situation this means stating, “insert name” said “insert agreement”. From there a teacher could state, “I would like to add to this, “insert explanation/justification”.

    However, if a situation arises in which students do not necessarily want to incorporate the rule then the teacher could ask to do a pilot run to let the class experiment with the new agreements. At this point the teacher should ensure to create a positive environment and steer the class in a manner that illuminates the positive impact the agreement had on the classroom.

  13. Richard Cambridge: The non-negotiable agreement which I feel is necessary for the learning environments in which I work is mutual respect. Since I work primarily with adults, I incorporate this into the list of agreements (Contract) so that everyone understands its importance. Adherence requires a lot of other techniques as quite a bit of “baggage” is brought to the teaching space.

  14. Annsleigh Carter: Two non-negotiable rules, which have already been thoroughly discussed by most of my classmates, are showing respect for each other and attendance. Showing respect seems like a pretty basic rule, but it means different things to different people. I would ask my students to define respect and ask them to list ways that they can show each other respect in the classroom. I would also encourage students to share if they think they are not getting the respect they deserve. Attendance is a rule that might not always make it into a youth group agreement because sometimes students may not always want to attend class. I would add an attendance rule to the agreement, explaining that attendance is important in building a learning community and that I make such a rule with the betterment of the students in mind.

  15. I think there are many non-negotiables that factor into any learning environment. As others said, respect is a big one. I think there are others like being on time, attendance, etc that are important to a growing learning community. One of the frustrations I’ve had with facilitators, leaders, and professors is twofold. First, many of my previous professors/facilitators have outlined the non-negotiables but have not given adequate justification to participants. I think it is important for the facilitator/professor to contextualize every non-negotiable, especially in situations where members are divers (international students, young learners, etc). Second, the professor/facilitator must be willing to abide by the same non-negotiables she/he lays out. Leading by example is very important, but more important is the facilitator/professor’s willingness to participate in the learning community entirely.

  16. I think that the groups of kids I would be working with would know what the basic rules are. Like Marg said in her post, the students have been in school long enough to know what’s expected of them in the classroom. The couple of expectations I would like included in my class agreements are the following: constructive criticism only and have work finished on time. I think the students would generate similar ideas but if not I would include these. In my classes involving creating media these two are very important to the group dynamic. By emphasizing constructive criticism it will help group get along with each other even if there are differences of opinion about each other’s work. Having work ready on time is important because individual work often is for the benefit of the group project. If the work isn’t finished on time the whole group will not be able to move forward. By making the group accountable to each other, very much like in a professional setting, then it will self-regulate rather than me having to lay down the law.

  17. Daniel Knoll – I first thing that I think of when I hear “non-negotiable” agreement are agreements that focus on safety. There are certain things that must happen for a classroom to be safe, especially in emergency situations where students must follow certain rules (such as code red / blue etc). My classmates have already written respect, and while I agree that respect is an essential part of the classroom, the practice of giving and earning respect may change as befits the situation. What’s great about making group agreements as a classroom (at summer camp I use the Youth Workin It lesson plan almost verbatim to create a cabin agreement) is that students do negotiate amongst themselves about how their classroom should look, and by coming up with their own conclusions and definitions of respect and listening, they are much more likely to embrace their agreement. At camp, we had each camper sign the bottom of our agreement, and the visual reminder of their name proved very effective at reminding everyone exactly what they’d agreed to.

  18. I agree with others that respect is an all-encompassing non-negotiable. I think it is often one that students come up with by themselves as it has been heard over and over. I think that Leah is on the right page with having students explore what respect really means and what it looks like. Sometimes words mean little to children and youth and it is good to have examples or do some role-play into what things mean. I also think listening is an important one. Listening to each other and to the teacher should also be included under respect. It is important to listen and to be heard.

  19. The major non-negotiable that always comes to mind is respect – respect for yourself, for your classmates, and for your teacher. I think respect can be an over-arching value that encompasses lots of other non-negotiables. By respecting yourself, you contribute to the learning environment in a positive manner. By respecting others, you form a safe space of trust and understanding. And by respecting the teacher, you acknowledge that education is valuable. I find it easiest to incorporate these non-negotiables by asking for the definition of respect. What does it mean to you? Who deserves respect? How will you show respect? What does it feel like to receive respect? How will our class benefit if everyone is respectful?

  20. In the informal learning environments where I work, the unspoken and non-negotiable agreements I think are necessary are a) kindness and b) helpfulness. From the Girl Scouts perspective, young girls learn best when they have the freedom and required level of trust to make their own decisions, take risks and contribute to a group. I’ve always thought it’s a wonderful combination of individual autonomy and reliance on the group. So in this kind of environment, being a friend to others is non-negotiable; accepting the diversity of others is important not only as a learning objective, but for the general functionality of the group. Whenever I work with groups of kids, I find that if I operate under the assumption that they can all be civil to each other, there are fewer problems.

  21. As Adam has said, this year our school came out of the gate with a lot of initiatives to build consistency among staff and students. The 4 school-wide rules he mentioned (respect self, others, property, right to learn) are an attempt to get everyone on the same page. It’s a step in the right direction, consistency is key. These four tenets also translate into the greater world, which hopefully will get the students to consider what it *looks* like to respect oneself and others, thereby helping them with impulse control and making good decisions from here on out. Asking the students to generate their own examples of what it is and what it isn’t is a good way to put the rules into a language and context most relevant to them.

  22. What we have done with our middle schoolers is similar to Adam’s experience. Our school is a PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports) school and through this we have school-wide expectations, which for us are Be Ready. Be Responsible. Be Respectful. These are non-negotiable for both students and staff and to incorporate these into our group agreements, we spent the first week building classrooms around these expectations. For me, I had conversations with my 7th graders about what our school-wide expectations were and how we could adapt them to our classroom. The first day, I had everyone generate a brainstorm about what “Be Ready” looked like and the 2nd day, everyone got to vote on the most important one.

    What I’ve found is that students will typically create the rules that you had in mind anyway. They’ve been through the process enough times that they understand what they should be doing in the classroom before you even ask. I definitely have seen that with group created norms, students are much more likely to hold themselves and others accountable and it makes the school-wide non-negotiables seem like they were part of what the students created from the beginning.

  23. Over the summer I heard a radio lab program about morality. One of the stories was about a classroom where one of the teacher’s rules was to “do what you know is right.” I think it was a 5th grade classroom and it worked pretty well. I like this because it forces the individual student to decide what is right and internalize the rules.

  24. This is the exact thought I had while reading through this module, and my own thoughts certainly play into our discussion last night about different ages. When I taught fifth grade, it was actually fairly easy to create group agreements because the students responded to prompting and were able to respect one another when talking. When they thought back to preious rules, they were willing to embrace some of the rules and procedures they knew had worked in the past.

    Last fall I attempted the exact same exercise with a group of tenth and eleventh graders. It did not turn out too well. Though they marginally bought into the process, the self-enforcement broke down over the year. Agreements such as “Only one person talks at a time” were abandoned quickly and students generally rebelled against any structures that had been put in place by students or staff. Plus, truancy inhibited a consistant group of students amongst whom to build community.

    What we’ve done in the classroom is create general guiding principles across the school:(1) Respect Yourself, (2) Respect Others, (3) Respect the School, and (4) Respect the Learning Environment. Generally students understand what these mean, and though they did not create them, there is a fair amount of buy-in as students appreciate consistency among their teachers in the school.

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