'My rules' or 'the rules we all follow?'

My rules or the rules we all follow?


'My rules' or 'the rules we all follow?'

Whenever a teacher must apply ‘the rules’, the option to find a way to position themselves on the same side of the rules as the child will always provide a more beneficial outcome. The College of Policing promotes a similar ethic for their officers. 

Sharing this image with children triggers interesting responses which provide the teacher with valuable insight into their perspectives.  Younger children connect the behaviour with the sanction which it triggers. How does the punishment help them understand why something is 'naughty'?   When we explain the purpose of the rule, children are more likely to accept it as reasonable and right, but this is not always shared with them.   

This resource includes two Keystage 2 class activities.  

he said this to him:

“I have a problem you might be able to help me with.”

The boy looked up in surprise.

“Yes! You see the school rules say that if a pupil is chewing gum in class the teacher must give them a detention. I can see you are chewing but you seem like a nice young man - I don’t want to have to give you a punishment.

I’m just going to help that boy over there, and then I’ll come back to you.”

There was no further sign of the chewing gum, nor any need to mention it again. Of course, she could have just said “you’re chewing. If you don’t stop I will give you a detention.”  And perhaps that would have worked just as easily.  There again, perhaps not.

Anyone who has had to deal with an outbreak of gum-chewing in class will know how much fun children can have sticking it behind their teeth or under the tongue, or swallowing it at the last minute, or having a coughing fit to conceal it.  What a wonderful waste of time that can be!

The sub-text of this teacher’s communication conveyed humour, kindness, and the phrase ‘you seem like a nice young man’. A more positive basis for the next interaction than a straightforward challenge would have been.

This image portrays a child’s view of the world (and perhaps that of some parents) not a teachers’ view.   

Research suggests that older children are much more likely to accept rules if the purpose of the rule is seen as reasonable.  Research also suggests that younger children are more likely to see rules as things connecting proscribed behaviours with punishments.   Older children have an understanding that rules make communities safe and functional. Younger children are still forming this understanding and are in awe, and sometimes fear, of the dominant adults in the room.

So children in kindergarten will see rules as something handed down from on high. Tiffany Barnikis gives two good examples of this:

‘if you are being silly you have to go to the white chair and you have to think about what you have done’.

 ‘if you are not listening you have to go in time out … it’s where you have to go off the carpet and sit in a chair and do nothing’.

There is no understanding of what specifically constitutes silly, or why that particular silliness merited a punishment. While the threat of that punishment may discourage the behaviour, it teaches the child nothing about why it needs to be discouraged.  

Perhaps we should have an additional picture showing a kindly teacher holding a book of rules for contrast. It’s almost as if teachers of younger children are obliged to be judge and jury in this way when caring for children at the beginning of their learning journey towards citizenship, responsibility, and the harmonious exercise of personal freedom in a rules-based society.            

While some teenagers may passively and unquestioningly conform to received rules without question, many others choose to accept some rules and oppose others.  As Robert Thornberg says:

“The perception of reasonable meaning behind a rule seems to be – not surprisingly – significant to students’ acceptance of the rule.”

Speak politely, listen to others, and don’t tease are all social rules which are generally understand and supported by children.  

Ask before leaving your chair, walk on the left wide of the corridor, and put your reading book back are activity rules which may be conducive to the public good, but to the individual can seem petty and unnecessary.  

So with older children it’s increasingly important to teach them the rule’s ‘reasonable meaning’. The problem arises when that meaning is in doubt. Etiquette rules for instance. What actual harm does it do if a child picks their nose or dyes their hair purple?  

Safety rules often place a strain on the obedience of the average child because the risk to the individual is often small.  The rule is there to protect the school from the cumulative risk that sooner or later someone might be injured.

Why not try explaining cumulative risk to children in the context of your school rules? It’s an ideal focus for understanding Probability.  

From the start we should be teaching children the meaning of the rules we apply to them, and trying to help the child see rules as something which applies to adults as much as to children.

But there’s two more things we can draw from this image.  

  1. When our reasonable approach doesn’t work, we may revert to the ‘my way or the highway approach’, ‘because I said so’.  That’s OK up to a point – the child might simply not get it yet and time is precious.  But that way risks a build-up of resentment and little has been learned.   It may also sow the seeds of confrontation because there is nowhere to go if the child opts for trying the highway and things escalate.
  2. Some children take much longer to learn self-control and understand social rules - for developmental or family reasons.  Some children enter their teens still seeing rules as something 'handed down' by adults, and are more likely to shrug off the rules as they shrug off the adults in their search for 'independence'. Many children with special needs or emotional problems are very reactive to coercive approaches.

With these children getting on ‘the right side of the rules’, with the child and family, is essential.

Those who have most difficulty with social compliance are the ones who most need the teacher on their side, helping them understand and adapt to rules which enable harmonious collective activity.

There are several ways to categorise rules – this table provides a comprehensive framework which should be accessible to most children. From a child’s point of view there are eight categories of rule.

Relational or people rules

Prohibit behaviour which may cause harm to others and promote pro-social behaviour

‘No bullying’

‘Listen quietly when others speak’

Schoolwork rules

Maintain an efficient and effective work environment

‘Raise your hand if you want to speak’

‘Come prepared for lessons’

Free-time rules

Govern children’s conduct around the school outside of class

‘No football in the small playground’.

Changeover rules

Apply when children are moving around the school eg between lessons

‘Arrive by the second bell’

‘Walk on the left side of the corridor’

Environment rules

Are required to maintain a safe and ambient school environment

‘Don't litter’

‘Leave your desk tidy’.

Safety and health rules.

Prevent harm to the child or others

Don't run in corridors’

‘Now wash your hands’

Personal rules

Taking responsibility for what one says and does, thinking before one acts and doing one’s best.

‘Tell the truth’

‘Stand by what you have said’

Etiquette rules

Acceptable behaviour in social situations,

‘Don't swear’

‘Don’t pick your nose in public’.


Click the link to download the resource


Download the image (jpg)

Discussion activity (pdf) for use in a group setting. Objective: to help children understand that both adults and children need to 'keep the code'.

What do we need rules for anyway?  (pdf) Class brainstorm which draws out the different kinds of rules and why we need them.



Learn more about the method this activity is based on

The relational approach offers professionals a perspective, a philosophy, and a framework for understanding children with social emotional and mental health needs. It offers a new way to look at behaviour and understand what promotes satisfying and sustainable relationships even under adverse conditions. Whilst behaviour management approaches seek to change the behaviour of another, the relational approach seeks to enable the other to change their own behaviour.


Robert Thornberg (2008) School children’s reasoning about school rules, Research Papers in Education, 23:1, 37-52, DOI: 10.1080/02671520701651029

Robert Boostrom (1991) The Nature and Functions of Classroom Rules, Curriculum Inquiry, 21:2, 193-216, DOI: 10.1080/03626784.1991.11075363


Copyright and usage

The content of this article may be used only for non-commercial purposes under the following conditions

.1 Teaching children or training staff in-house

The content must be acknowledged as the work of Dr Adam Abdelnoor

Any resources used should be used unedited or altered in any way.

2. For other non-commercial activities

The content must be acknowledged as the work of Dr Adam Abdelnoor

Any resources used should be used unedited or altered in any way.

Any quotes references or other usage should be attributed to the author and cited as follows: 


Dr Adam Abdelnoor, 2018, The relational approach: user guide and manual (submitted manuscript)