Everyone is getting along and working in their groups. All of sudden you hear, “That’s stupid. You’re stupid,” followed by a few expletives and a possible physical altercation. I witnessed these and other incidents of misbehaving in classrooms without clear ground rules.
Our youth have had years of preparation learning the ground rules and proper behavior in a class or group. The standard rules are embedded in their consciousness: one person speaks at a time, no put-downs, non-judgment. It’s no wonder why participants and students have had these rules since nursery school. However, until the rules are acknowledged, put in place, and consistently followed, participants will test boundaries and do as they please.
This blog will answer essential questions pertaining to who, what, why, when, and how to establish ground rules or group agreements.
Why is it important to set ground rules or group agreements?
They are a set of expectations for behavior establishing and maintaining order in a class or group setting.
What is the difference between ground rules and group agreements?
Ground rules can be used with either a class, group programs, or workshops, and are usually predetermined and set-up prior to the start of the class, program or workshop. Group agreements are usually for programs or workshops. Input of the participants is utilized and allow for more buy-in to the class, program, or group. I like to combine the two; I keep in mind what should be included and what the group or class to be involved in what the expectations are for the class or group.
When should group agreements and ground rules be established?
Both ground rules and group agreements should be established and put into practice at the beginning of a group or the school year. This sets the tone and expectations right from the start.
Who should decide what is included in the group agreements?
Allow the participants to set the rules. Ask them what they think should the rules of the group or class should look like. Involving your students can contribute to feeling valued and invested in the class or group, and when they are invested, they are more likely to follow the rules. You may ask, “what if they can’t come up with any rules?” Don’t worry; they have heard class rules so many times that they can recite what is expected of them. Sometimes participants actually create rules that are stricter than I may have selected myself.
What are examples of ground rules or group agreements?
Below is a list of basic agreements to get you started. It should include, but doesn’t need to be limited to; bathroom policies, safety, punctuality, respect, and asking and answering. Have participants clarify the definitions on some of the rules by prompting responses and asking questions.
- Arrive on time – This will permit the group to start on time and will allow for enough time to complete activities. When participants arrive late, the entire group has to wait for someone to catch them up on what they have missed.
- Put away cell phones – Isn’t great to have a really good conversation when it is interrupted by someone answering or taking a phone call? Participants should have the main number for family members to call in case of an emergency. Phones should be put away. You can use a place to put phones at the start of class or group. Also, check your school cellphone policy.
- Bathroom policies – Be clear on what you would like these to be. For example one person at a time. Do they need permission or do they just go when they need to? What system has worked for you in the past?
- Respectful for the space– Clear off tables and desks. The room should look better than when participants arrive. You want them to have a nice clean space to work and learn.
- One person speaks at a time – It is difficult to hear and share information if everyone is speaking at the same time. Agree on how they take turns speaking. Do participants raise hands or do they use a “conch” (an object that they hold, and whoever possesses it speaks)? You can use a softball. Make sure participants toss it underhand or you take the risk of someone being beamed in the head.
- Everyone gets a chance to speak – Everyone should have an opportunity to share. Some participants are more vocal than others. I make it clear from the beginning, which everyone should have a chance to participate. I will not call on someone twice until everyone has had a turn.
- Keep your hands and feet to yourself – No one should get physical.
- Confidentiality – When discussing confidentiality, be clear on what you discuss in the group stays in the group; unless they disclose that they are being harmed or are planning to harm someone else. Remember, as educators, we are mandated reporters and must share this information for safety and legal purposes.
- Show acceptance and sensitivity for differences – Participants in the group come from different cultural, racial, gender, and sexually oriented backgrounds, be aware and sensitive to not use judgmental comments. Use positive language – Stay away from using racial or degrading remarks. Make sure that this is addressed immediately so as to not allow the group think you are giving permission or encouraging this behavior.
- Respect yourself and others – Clarify what this means to the group. Everyone may have a different perception and definition of what respect means. The conversation could include: opinions, choices, behaviors, and expressions. One way to maintain this is to encourage the policy of two put-ups for every put-down – No matter how much you discuss respect, someone will inevitably put down another participant (not always intentioned). So for every put-down, they need to say two put-ups. Put-ups are nice things about the other participant.
- Create a safe space and free of judgment – It is alright to disagree with someone else’s point of view. However, we just don’t put each other down for it. This is a space where participants should feel comfortable to be themselves, and share thoughts, and ideas without any worry of punishment or judgment.
- Sharing stories – If the participants are sharing personal information they should leave specific names out of their stories. They can say, “I know someone who…” Using names aids in the spread of rumors and detracts from the point of the information trying to be communicated.
- Ask for clarification if you don’t understand – When participants are unsure about information and remain unclear it causes miscommunication and leaves you thinking the participant is understanding the directions or what is being discussed. Participants should not be afraid to ask questions if they don’t understand the information provided.
How do you establish group agreements?
You may be thinking, “So, how do I carry out these rules or group agreements? Listed below are some pointers on how to begin to establish group agreements:
- You can either have a discussion with the participants or facilitate activities on expectations.
- Prompt the participants, if they have not included rules that should be included in the list of ground rules.
- Keep ground rules short and easy to understand.
- Rules should include positive language. Instead of “no hitting” you can → keep your hands and feet to yourself.
- Make sure the rules are visible on a poster or chart paper and hang them in your space.
- You may choose to have a printed handout.
- Participants should sign the list in order of agreement with these rules. This also allows you to reflect back on the rules, which they have agreed upon.
- For workshops, there are usually time constraints, so I quickly elicit the basic responses and keep the discussion to a minimum.
Do all agreements have to be the same as listed in this blog?
No, agreements are going to differ based on the subjects or topics you cover and the needs of your population. If you are a Math teacher, you may not have the need to discuss topics that are sensitive in nature, but you never know. A word problem relating to real life could be something that one of your students is dealing with and may bring up some unresolved issues.
How do you enforce group agreements?
- Be consistent, and reiterate ground rules when they misbehave from when they first set and agree upon the rules.
- Challenge participants to stay with the agreements. It was a document they had signed and was mutually agreed upon.
- Model behaviors – demonstrate the behaviors you expect to see from your participants. They will eventually follow your lead.
- Have participants hold each other accountable. If you are consistent in enforcing the agreements from the beginning, the participants will begin to hold each other accountable.
- Provide praise for participants when they are following the agreements.
- Revisit ground rules periodically throughout the group or class. This is great to do after a break as a refresher.
- If the rule doesn’t work, change it. This shouldn’t be the first time it doesn’t work but after a period of time. Have the participants come up with alternative ways to address the problem. Make sure it will work for them and that they can follow.
These rules and group agreements should lay the groundwork for the expectations in the class or group. Adjust them to fit the needs of your youth population.
Do you have other ideas or activities for agreements that have worked for you?
To learn more on how to avoid misbehavior in the class or group setting, check this out!