Why You Shouldn’t Let Your Students Decide The Class Rules

Why You Shouldn't Let Your Students Decide The Class RulesAllowing students to come up with the class rules is a common strategy.

And at first glance, it appears to be a good one.

But dig deeper into the whys and hows of effective classroom management, and you’ll discover it to be a mistake.

The idea behind the strategy is to provide students with a sense of ownership by guiding them through the construction of class rules you already have in mind.

If you trust them with this important part of your classroom structure, the argument goes, they’ll be more likely to buy into your classroom management plan.

They’ll be more likely to feel a sense of responsibility and less likely to dismiss, reject, or complain about rules they themselves came up with.

So what’s not to like?

Well, the problem with the strategy is that it can undermine your leadership presence. It can negatively affect how your students see you and your role as their teacher.

You see, if in any way you communicate that you’re in partnership with your students when determining the direction of your classroom, it will weaken your authority.

They’ll view you not as a confident leader who knows what is best for them and their education, but as an unsure cohort who makes suggestions they can either take or leave. This, in turn, can make enforcing your rules significantly more difficult.

It will increase the likelihood of arguments over what does and doesn’t constitute breaking them. It will cause a reluctance to go to time-out—or an outright refusal—rather than an acceptance of wrongdoing.

Your students will be less likely to take responsibility and more likely to sulk, complain, or blame you for holding them accountable.

The unintended message students receive by taking part in creating the very boundaries of your classroom is that everything is negotiable, which then opens the floodgates to debate on matters that should only be decided by you.

This view of teacher as partner tends to be especially problematic with difficult students, who are quick to fill any void you leave them. Unless you establish yourself as the clear leader from the get-go, they’ll spend the year trying to wrest control from you.

Having a teacher students trust to be at the helm from morning bell to dismissal has a calming effect on the tone and tenor of your classroom. It allows your students to relax, enjoy school, and concentrate on learning.

This isn’t to say that they should never be given the opportunity to make decisions. You can still encourage a sense of ownership by letting your students vote on matters unrelated to the course and direction of your classroom.

Do you want to play this math game or that one?

Do you want to give your presentations before or after lunch?

Do you want to do the lesson inside or outside on the grass?

There are dozens of opportunities to allow students to make decisions that don’t interfere with your role and position as their teacher.

The truth is, you and your students have distinctly different responsibilities. Problems large and small arise when those responsibilities become confused or intertwined.

By presenting your rules as non-negotiable boundaries that you put into place for the express purpose of protecting their right to learn and enjoy school, you establish yourself as a compassionate leader who puts their interests first.

You establish yourself as a leader worth following.

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25 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Let Your Students Decide The Class Rules”

  1. Hi, Michael!
    This is one of the best articles I have read! You have hundreds of fantastic and relevant articles and I have learned so much from what you have written, but this one comes at an extremely important time for teachers getting ready to welcome students back to school. I have heard that it is a good idea to allow the kids to help write rules because it gives them “ownership,” but I have never done so simply because it didn’t make sense to me. You have explained why in such a common sense way! Teachers have legitimate authority for a reason; to protect students and their right to learn. They need our leadership. Period.
    Thank you for your continued commitment to keep us teachers on the right track!

  2. Hi Michael,
    I love your common sense approach to classroom management and I am currently rereading Dream Class in preparation for school. I agree with your rule post. I have had students create the rules and as the year progresses I needed to tell them my rules because it was not effective. However, I do like to have the students think about what kind of classroom they want to come to each day where they can do their best learning. I trace a student on large paper and the students write down what they want in the classroom and what they want out of it in order to feel emotionally and physically safe. We talk about how important it is that they feel good about bring there in order to do their best. They write down things like helping each other, no put downs, and so on. I hang it up and refer to it over the course of the year.What do you think of this idea or does it also fall into something that makes the teacher less of a confident leader?

    • Hi Rebecca,

      It’s you, the environment you create, and your commitment to accountability above all that makes your students feel safe, behave politely, and encouraged to help each other. Respectfully, I don’t think it’s a bad idea in and of itself. It’s just that there are more effective ways of accomplishing the goal you want. If you have further or follow up questions, email me. I’m happy to help.:)


      • Hi Michael,

        Thank you for your insight.

        I never thought that having students help decide the classroom rules would undermine a teachers authority. I always thought the students would respect the teacher for allowing the students to have a voice.

        I use the school’s rules as classroom rules.

        However, for kids who cannot follow the rules (especially the kids with the worst behavior) shouldn’t they negotiate a plan.

        In The Explosive Child, it talks a lot about making a plan with the child (student), an individual plan that they can give feedback on and actually follow through with.

        So overall rules by the teacher but accomodations may be necessary for the success of some. Do you think that is enabling? Or is that a necessary compromise to help some behaviorally challenged students have success?

  3. Michael,
    Another reason I do not permit students to “make rules” is because it is deceitful, and I respect the intelligence of my students. Teachers connive the students into thinking they are making “original” rules when the rules have been the same for generations. I do ask my students to partner with me for cooperation but this is genuine and honest we get more accomplished when we are on the same team.

  4. Hi,
    I’ve been receiving your emails for over a year and after reading the article for this week, I wanted to give you a long overdue and very sincere, “Thank you!” I read each one and do my best to implement your recommendations. On this particular topic, I thought I was alone. I don’t agree with students coming up with the rules, especially when I have clear expectations that students need to understand. I’m glad you have the courage to express your wisdom even when it isn’t popular.

    • You’re welcome, Evelyn! It’s good to hear from you. Glad to know you’re a regular reader.


  5. It’s like when parents want to be friends with their kids. Don’t do it. To have authority over them you actually have to have authority over them.

  6. Hi Michael. I’ve been reading your articles to search for a solution but I’m still at a loss. I have a bully in my class and I have spend time with him out of the room and discussions with the other students to help make him feel like a valued member of our class. He went from sitting with others in break time to joining in with our class and becoming a valued member and friend for the first time in his life. Sadly I was to find out last week that he has been sneakily bullying another boy in my class persistently for about 6 weeks. This only came to light when his parents showed up at the school to demand something be done. I was at a professional development day when all of this happened and I only found out when I arrived at school on Monday morning to be told that the victim has been removed from my class and the bully received 2 lunch time detentions. I usually pride myself on my withitness but the majority of this behavior was done when I was not physically present.
    I am at a loss to know where to go from here. The bully is laughing and having a great time with his friends whilst the victim slinks around. I have had the children write journal entries about bullying and the bully says he has never witnessed bulling nor has he been bullied. He has not taken any responsibly for his actions and I have been directed by administration to look forward. Get over it and move on. I find this very hard as all we seem to have done is ignore the bully and his behaviour because a time and date cannot be affixed to it. Also we have created a more victimised victim as he has been separated from his class mates and cannot look any of us, including me in the eye.
    I am at a loss. If I had have known this was happening I would have addressed it but it was so subtle that I did not see it. I love your idea about class leaders and will take this on board for future situations. But what do I do now?
    I have been advised to keep an eye out for his next victim and prepare them.
    I’ve also been advised that he has been much better this year compared to his past history. Little consolation when he is sitting in the playground without a care in the world and I have lost a truly lovely, hardworking student with no consultation or warning. Please help me if you can.

    • Hi Lynda,

      It sounds like there isn’t anything you can do now in regard to holding him accountable for what has already occurred—as this was already done in your absence. From this moment on, however, and now that you know what he is capable of, it’s within your power to lessen the chances of it happening again (or at least nip it immediately if it does. I recommend this article and the steps it provides: http://www.smartclassroommanagement.com/2011/06/25/bullying-in-the-classroom/


  7. I am a first year fifth grade teacher, and thanks to you Michael, and this life changing article I have been able to implement my rules and consequences successfully!! Other teachers insisted that I let them write the rules, but like you I believe it weakens your authority. The simple act of presenting the rules and consequences and following through with them, not only holds the students accountable for their behavior, but they quickly realize that you are going to reinforce the rules that YOU have established. Thanks a million Michael!

  8. Hi Sir!
    I am a young new English teacher. I have been teaching kids English for some months. Now I’m in a difficult situation. The students don’t respect me. They talk in class, sometimes run around or even fight. I don’t know how to handle this. Of course i don’t feel pleased and the work doesn’t produce good results. Now i found your blog and I’m so happy. There is one question i really want to be answered. That is “Is it too late for me now to fix my students’ attitude? ” I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
    Your faithfully,

  9. This is the scariest, most upsetting article I’ve read. I’ve ALWAYS had my students make the rules with me and they’ve ALWAYS proceeded to form a great community — even when they called me by my first name. Why? Respectful tasks and care and concern. Are you paid by Pearson or something to try to convince teachers to become robots? What a strange, bizarre argument you make.

    • Jenny, I completely agree with you! In my class, we discuss and agree on behaviors that make a great learning environment, and when someone hurts our ability to learn we reference our rules. I wholeheartedly disagree with this article!

    • I’m sure it can work either way – if u have great teaching strategies and management skills working to a set of rules the kids come up with could be as effective as the teacher doing the rules. Mainly because the rules the kids will come up with will, in most cases, tend to cover what the teacher wants anyway. respect, the talking rule, a movement/safety rule, following instructions, the effective ones that cover most things are usually about the same.

  10. THANK YOU! For the past few years, in the beginning of each school year, the leaders in my school system bring this up. The teachers spend a class period to come up with classrules with the students. And, I always felt uncomfortable about it. I didn’t know why. It just didn’t make sense to me. But, I always said to myself, “What would I know? I’m just a lowly teacher. These people are paid big bucks to come up with these researches. etc.” Now, I see that commonsense speaks volumes than research. This is just plain common sense. It’s like the house rules. You’re the parent and tell your child the rules. So why negotiate with your students in the classroom. Thanks!

  11. I enjoyed reading this article, but I’m not convinced. I question the basic assumption that teachers are secretly trying to get students to come up with their predetermined rules. I do believe that the philosophy of giving kids autonomy and having high expectations allows for greater and more meaningful learning and growth. One challenge of being a teacher is that students might not always agree with what you think and they might not arrive at the same conclusions (at least not right away- some conclusions we do want them to make at some point, but it needs to be on their own).
    If we create rules without student input, two things might happen: 1) students will blindly follow or 2) students will question the rule (and rebel). Neither option allows for students to learn and grow. If we need to add a rule later in the year (perhaps in response to an incident or following reflection of daily happenings), we will, and students will have learned a lesson and will buy into the new rule.
    I have no intention of being disrespectful, as it appears that most comments are of the praise-type. I appreciate good discussion and am curious what response Michael and/or other readers have to my ideas. I also acknowledge that classroom management varies from school to school across countries and across the world. I’m writing from the perspective of an inquiry- and concept-based school, where student autonomy is key.

    • One thing that leads to greater student growth is a peaceful, respectful, yet animated classroom. I think the rules Linsin advocates are sort of fundamental to civilised group behaviour. And I’m sure he would advocate a thoroughgoing discussion and teasing out of the implications with lots of modelling and practising of the desired behaviours and the problematic alternatives. I think there is such a thing as objective truth here. Like – respectful behaviours are likelier to create a happier working environment than disrespectful behaviours. Like raising your hand in whole group discussions, or taking turns, or not punching your neighbour, cleaning up, following instructions etc.

      Linsin, in my reading, is not advocating no student input – I mean he wants them to think and wrestle with the ideas and understand. But the ideas themselves are truths that need to be learned and understood, not negotiables that should be endlessly argued about and regularly modified. It is when these truths are understood, appreciated and followed that the freedom for intellectual and emotional growth is most strongly cultivated. If the children come up with some unworkable rules and weeks are spent clumsily coming to the realisation that they need to be changed this may be a small area of growth – at the expense of greater growth in other areas if they avoided the problems caused by having inadequate rules in the first place.

  12. Great read…and so true. Students follow their teachers confidence. The problem with sharing rules is the fact that the students forget that the teacher has a ny authority. .they think they are the teacher.

  13. Dear Michael,
    I find that you have an interesting argument. I agree that rules need to be clear should ultimately come from the teacher, however, with skilful guidance, I feel that the students involvement in writing the rules can also meet that goal. The advantage being that the teacher has still guided the students to the rules they required but the student feels part of the process. This then forms a contract which the students sign and can agree to because they have felt that they had a say In making them. Making the process feel more collaborative also creates a positive tone for the rules and an atmosphere of non-threatening authority surrounding the teacher.

    As an IB primary school, my school insists upon making rules in this way as teachers are seen as both leaders, partners and facilitators for learning. In fact, teachers are reprimanded if they do not make their ‘class essential agreement’ this way.

    What are your views on my school’s enforcement of a collaborative rule making procedure?

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