How To Set Classroom Expectations for Any Grade

It’s a standard first-day-of-school activity: covering the expectations for students in your classroom. But just how do you decide what those expectations should be? What’s the difference between expectations vs. rules? Here’s what you need to know.

Are classroom expectations the same as classroom rules?

Not really, although some people use the terms interchangeably. Here are some of the differences of classroom rules vs. expectations:

  • Expectations are broader (“Respect each other”) while rules get into nitty-gritty specifics (“No hitting or name-calling”).
  • Rules often entail things students aren’t allowed to do (“Don’t talk while the teacher is talking”) while expectations lay out what they should do (“Participate appropriately”).
  • Expectations encourage students to take responsibility for their own behavior by providing general guidelines. Rules provide clear boundaries and consequences for breaking them.

Should my classroom have rules or expectations?

Both rules and expectations have their purposes in the classroom. Think of it like driving a car. There are some specific rules you have to follow to keep everyone safe, like stopping at red lights or using your turn signal to let others know you’ll be slowing down and making a change in direction. Then, there are general courtesy expectations, like waving to thank someone for letting you in or turning off your high beams when a car is coming from the opposite direction. These rules and expectations both serve a purpose, and both have value.

Classroom Rules

Wear required safety equipment properly at all times.
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Rules are especially important when safety is a concern, such as in science labs or online. Rather than just telling kids “Be safe,” we provide specific rules like “Tie back long hair” or “Don’t share your passwords with anyone.” Use rules when it’s vital that students do or don’t do something to keep themselves, others, or school property safe.

Learn more about classroom rules:

Classroom Expectations

classroom rules poster treat everyone with kindness

Expectations, however, are more about general behavior and how students choose to conduct themselves. Say you have an expectation that students will “Respect school property.” If you face discipline issues like defacing a locker or spitting out gum on the playground, you can point to that expectation without needing specific rules for each and every situation. Here’s a set of free printable classroom expectations to try, plus get more examples below.

Tip: Make your rules and expectations purposeful, and limit them to those that will truly make a difference. Here are some classroom rules you might want to avoid.

10 Meaningful Classroom Expectations

Setting expectations enhances social-emotional learning by giving students guidelines to follow as they make choices about their behavior. It’s up to you to decide what works best for your teaching style and student population. Some teachers choose to keep things very simple, using the Three Rs (Respect, Responsibility, and Readiness) or 5 Ps (Polite, Prepared, Productive, Positive, and Prompt). Others provide a more detailed list.

Here are some of the most common classroom expectations and what they include. Choose the ones that make the most sense to you as you establish expectations for your classes.

Respect Others and Their Property

This is a big one, and some teachers feel it covers pretty much everything kids need to know. Expectations around respect include (but certainly aren’t limited to):

  • Keep your hands to yourself and your eyes on your own work.
  • Allow others to explain their opinions, and accept they may be different from your own.
  • Maintain school property properly, including furniture, devices, bathrooms, etc.
  • Ask permission before borrowing something, and don’t take what isn’t yours.
  • Honor others’ right to privacy, both in person and online.
  • Don’t behave in ways that threaten the safety of yourself or others.

Keep Everyone Safe

We all have a responsibility to make our learning environment safe for everyone. Encourage kids to speak up if they see a broken item or unsafe situation. Make sure students know who to talk to if they need to report issues like bullying or prohibited items (like drugs or weapons). Create a safe environment for reporting concerns about others’ behavior or health (such as threats of self-harm).

Be Kind and Inclusive

This is another major classroom expectation that includes a lot of basics: No name-calling or insults. Respect different points of view. Include everyone in group activities and discussions. Avoid offensive or hurtful language. Be polite in your language and behavior. Don’t tease or make fun of others.

Take Responsibility for Your Actions

Everyone gets to make their own choices in life, but they also have to accept the consequences that come with those choices. Expectations around responsibility include: Don’t lie about or try to cover up a problem. Be honest in your interactions with teachers and students. If you did something wrong, admit it and figure out how to make it right. Believe others when they tell you your words or behavior are hurtful. Apologize when you hurt someone else’s feelings, even if you didn’t mean to.

Be Ready To Learn

This one is all about making time in the classroom effective and worthwhile for teachers and students. Make sure students know you expect them to: Show up on time with necessary classroom materials. Complete your assignments, and stay on top of what’s coming next. Try to leave other issues outside the classroom door so you can focus on actively learning during class.

Listen Attentively

Listening is a key social-emotional learning skill and also an important classroom expectation. Don’t interrupt, don’t talk when others are talking, pay attention in class … all of these fall under attentive listening. It’s a simple expectation, but it creates a classroom full of active learners who pay attention to what teachers and fellow students have to say.

Participate in the Learning Process

Learning is something you DO, not something that’s done to you! Share that you expect students to join in class discussions, while also letting others have their say. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. Listen when your teacher is talking, and make notes as needed. Follow the instructions for activities and assignments. Stay on task and don’t distract others. Make your best effort, and ask for help when you need it.

Learn From Mistakes

Make your classroom a place where growth mindsets are welcome and encouraged. Expectations include: Say “I can’t do this … yet,” instead of just giving up. Talk to your teacher about low grades and how you can help them improve. Don’t criticize mistakes; respect them as a vital part of the learning process. Never make fun of others for errors or low grades. Actively look for ways to improve every day.

Stay Positive

Be optimistic and open to new ideas, and encourage students to do the same: Approach new concepts and skills with an open mind. Help others find ways to succeed. Be welcoming and friendly to teachers and fellow classmates. Look for productive resolutions to conflicts. Avoid negative talk, to yourself and others. Root for others to succeed, and celebrate their successes big and small.

Believe in Yourself and Others

People don’t rise to the level of stated expectations—they fulfill what we already believe about them. Here’s an interesting fact to share with your students: A Harvard study found that having a boss who respects and believes in you actually makes you better at your job. This applies to the classroom too. Teachers and students who show confidence in others can actually help everyone do better in class.

How To Set Classroom Expectations

Explain both your expectations and the reasons behind them right from the start. When kids know why you expect them to do (or not do) something, they’re often more likely to comply. Ask students to give you examples of what the expectations mean, or what it looks like when they’re not met. You can even have them write and act out short skits showing the expectations in action.

One popular first-day-of-school activity is having your students help you create a set of expectations. Students brainstorm what makes a classroom safe, comfortable, and effective. Then they use those ideas to write classroom expectations together. Ultimately, this process achieves a real sense of ownership and buy-in, setting the stage for collaborative learning all year long.

Post your expectations prominently in your classroom. Take a few moments to review them from time to time, especially after long school vacations when kids need to reset themselves into learning mode. And always be sure to live by your own expectations, since setting an example is one of the best ways to guide good behavior.

How do you set classroom expectations and rules? Come share your ideas and ask for advice in the We Are Teachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, read these Brilliant Classroom Management Strategies and Techniques.

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