How To Eliminate The Gray Area From Your Class Rules

Smart Classroom Management: How To Eliminate The Gray Area From Your Class RulesThe gray area occurs when you witness behavior you don’t like.

—But are uncertain whether or not it breaks a class rule.

The problems associated with gray areas are legion and profound.

They . . .

  • cause you to be inconsistent.
  • compel you to question, remind, lecture, etc.
  • increase your stress level.
  • weaken your authority.
  • lead to arguments, resentment, and hurt feelings.
  • encourage more and more misbehavior.

Here at SCM, we receive a lot of questions about gray areas and what to do about them. (Last week’s article, in particular, triggered a new wave.)

The short answer is that you must eliminate them. Because if you don’t, the problems will expand and worsen as time goes on.

Once you eliminate gray areas, however, once you know precisely what behavior does and doesn’t break your class rules, the problems disappear.

Which begs the question:

How do you know? How do you know “precisely?” The wording of rules, no matter how specific, doesn’t always tell you.

When I speak to groups of teachers, or give advice while personal coaching, I’m often asked, “Does it break rule #1 (or #2 or #3, etc.) if a student does ________?”

My answer: “Do you want your students to be able to do that?”

Because—and this is key—it’s your classroom. It’s not how restrictive you are that determines how well behaved your class is. It’s setting your boundaries as you prefer, teaching them explicitly to your students, and then holding to them.

I can offer my opinion, but you have to decide where your line is.

I recommend taking time to visualize what you want from each of your rules. What exactly do they cover? What do they include? Are there any exceptions?

For example:

Are your students allowed to talk as they enter your classroom?

Can they whisper a question to each other during independent work?

Can they stand during group work?

If you’re working with a small group, must they raise their hand?

Can they laugh out loud if you say something funny?

I have my own preferences for these (yes, no, yes, no, of course!), but they may not be the same as yours. And that’s okay. Again, gray area choices have little to do with how well behaved your class is overall.

Not knowing is what causes the problems.

Furthermore, your gray areas may be unique to you depending on where you teach, your grade level, and your subject matter.

The good news is that they’re mere slivers of uncertainty, not giant swaths. The wording of your rules will cover the big, obvious transgressions. Thus, it isn’t difficult to choose what is best for you and your situation.

Once you decide each rule’s narrow definition, then you’re ready to teach them (or reteach them) to your students—who need to be as clear about what is and isn’t okay as you are.

They need to know where that razor-thin boundary line is and what, step by step, happens if they cross it.

The idea is to lay everything out on the table ahead of time so your students know what is expected during every minute of every day. Crossing the line, then, becomes a choice they know full well they’re making.

This is critical to making your classroom management plan work as it should.

Most questions about gray areas come from newer teachers, but not always. I’ve heard from teachers who have struggled for years because of this issue but could never put their finger on why.

For them, being aware of the existence of these cloudy bars of incertitude, and getting rid of them, has been a revelation.

If you have any trouble visualizing your gray areas, then simply begin jotting them down whenever you see them (i.e. whenever you’re unsure a particular behavior breaks a rule).

After a couple of weeks, you should have a solid understanding of what they are, where they are, and more important, whether you want to allow them or not.

Once this is determined, then eliminating them by teaching “this is okay and this is not okay” is easy.

PS – The release of The Classroom Management Way is now 10 days away. It represents 10 years of work and I’m incredibly excited it’s finally here.

I hope you’ll check it out.

Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving articles like this one in your email box every week.

23 thoughts on “How To Eliminate The Gray Area From Your Class Rules”

  1. Thank you for this. While I’ve read other articles and your books where you’ve addressed this, sometimes it’s the wording or the context of a particular article that makes it clear.

    This is one of those articles.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. This is my second year of teaching, first year implementing SCM. Gray area has been a major problem, and your advice is just what I needed to hear. I already have a running list of specific behaviors that break my class rules to be prepared for next year. Thanks again!

  3. Thank you for what you do for educators. Your expertise and wisdom are refreshing! I look forward to reading each Saturday morning!

  4. I’ve been following your advice for a long long time now. I think it’s really excellent, and it helped me form a pretty good classroom management system in my room. I bought your books- including Classroom Management for the Specialist Teacher, but the bottom line is this: in Specialist classes like art, they simply don’t care. Even when they get the worst behavior grades, it doesn’t matter. If it’s not a “testable” subject, they just laugh it off.
    Luckily, I can laugh it off as well. I retire in June.

  5. Wow exactly where many of us are right now as we end this year. Amazing how you keep us on track with your support Thanks

    • Well said, Kevin! I second that.

      This question had been bothering me for quite some time. Much appreciated as always, Michael–what a relief to clear this up!

  6. I am retiring this year after 40 years of teaching special education. I employed your management system this last year and it was one of the best years I’ve had. I’m ordering a copy of your new book for my replacement and giving her a copy of The 11 Habits of a Happy Teacher. It sure made a difference in my world and I hope it will in her’s. Thank you Michael!

    • That’s awesome, Christi, and so kind of you. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it. Congratulations on your retirement and 40-year dedication to students. 🙂

  7. Because of many factors (I share a classroom, my classroom isn’t so big, the desks that I was given), my classroom is set up with rows of desks. Sometimes I want my students to move their desks in a certain way (for centers, to make partners or small groups, or to give more space in the back of the room), but other than that I don’t want my students to move their desks dramatically. Would moving their desks away from the class warrant a consequence? I would think so because it’s not something I want them to do. So my question is: what rule would that fall under and how can I get my students to understand and accept that?

  8. Thank you for what you do. Do you have any advise regarding students who cannot comply–whose misbehavior or misunderstanding of classroom expectations is a manifestation of emotional, developmental or other impairment? When a student whose ability to comply is limited “acts up” in class, how can I be fair and consistent to both them and their classmates?

  9. My difficulty stems from working with co-teachers, and even though we try to keep to the rules set in each classroom, our personalities and teaching styles do vary in some respects. What one teacher finds okay with a rule, doesn’t quite cut it with the other teacher. Of course, you already know the result…confused kids due to inconsistency. Any suggestions?

  10. How does the The Classroom Management Way differ from
    The Classroom Management Secret? I have the second book and have enjoyed reading it, highlighting it, and referring back to it! Thank you for the emails each week! Have a great week!

    • Hi Jennifer,

      The Way is more complete, in depth, and detailed but has similar themes.

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