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Going beyond the rules — for the common good

Schools have traditionally used a rule-consequence approach to manage student behavior. Is it time to rethink this model?

7 min read


Going beyond the rules -- for the common good


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Although most people are following the guidelines recommended for stemming the spread of the coronavirus, the few who refuse to comply run the risk of spreading it further.  Medical experts and government officials continue to ask — and in some cases plead — with adults to restrict their movements, wear masks and maintain social distancing. Given the gravity of this threat, why do many people ignore and defy these recommendations?

There are many reasons for this resistance, but perhaps one has to do with some of the educational practices used with students who are now adult citizens.

Schools have traditionally used a rule-consequence approach to managing behavior. Perhaps this has inadvertently contributed to students thinking more about themselves and less about others. Maybe it’s time to reconsider this approach and adopt a norm-based one.

Rule-consequence Approach

Laws and rules serve several purposes. They are public statements indicating clear parameters of what cannot be done. They are designed to keep certain actions within reasonable limits. They are necessary but not sufficient in protecting us and ensuring our well being.

Good rules, ironically, are dependent upon the majority of people already not breaking them. Ineffective rules try to impose limits on behaviors that most people tend to do. In that case, there are too many violators to successfully police or control. Typically when rules are broken too frequently the response is to increase the penalties for doing so. This adjustment usually doesn’t work because people figure out ways to avoid getting caught while continuing to violate the law.

Simply switching from negative to positive consequences doesn’t fundamentally change the dynamics of a rule-consequence approach. When students are consistently rewarded for learning or acting responsibly, they develop a transactional (“Do this to get that”) view of life. They attend more to the reward and less to the content of the task or the purpose of the rule.

A rule-consequence approach affects students by making them more self-centered and less concerned about others. With negative consequences hanging over their heads, students worry about what will happen to “me.” When rewards are dangled in front of them, students think about what I will get if I meet expectations.

If our students experience a rule-consequence environment during their 12+ years in school, the “me” mindset does not easily transition to a “we” mindset once they enter the adult world.

Norm-based Approach

Norms are very different from rules. They are governed by values that people have internalized. They have a much greater influence on behavior than rules. When a critical mass of people consistently acts in a certain way, the rest follow along — they establish a norm. Wise and effective leaders facilitate norm setting through leading by example; they influence rather than control. They serve rather than dictate. They educate instead of police.

Sometimes people follow norms without being aware of it. Environments do not typically broadcast norms with signs like “be friendly or courteous.” For example, in a fancy restaurant when the lights are dimmed, people naturally adjust their behavior and speak in low voices. Compare that behavior to what you would see in a fast food restaurant or a bar. Another example: Walk into an environment that is littered and you are more likely to drop something on the ground. Norms by their nature are social; everyone benefits from positive ones.

If educators create and sustain an environment where mistreatment and disrespect are never justified — this applies to adults as well as students — then respectful words and actions will become the norm that students follow.

Impact on Schools

What do these distinctions have to do with how we interact with students? Just about everything. Students are influenced by the silent messages broadcast in their school environments. These messages tell them who they are and whether or not they belong or rank in their school. Sadly, most students internalize these messages and the identities projected onto them.

A good example of the difference between laws and norms are two road signs designed to keep people driving at a safe speed.

One sign typically reads, “FINES DOUBLED IN WORK AREAS.” This sign projects the following identity onto the people who see it: You are someone who needs the threat of losing a lot of money in order to be responsible.

The other sign is posted by residents in a neighborhood: “Drive Like Your Children Live Here.” This sign projects the identity on people that they care about children. They need a little nudge or reminder when they are driving. In residential neighborhoods the typical speed limit might be 30 mph but safe driving requires greater vigilance.

Educators need to ask some hard questions about the current practice of the rule-consequence approach. Do they want students to follow rules primarily out of fear of getting caught or gaining some material reward in competition with peers? Or, do they want students to do what is right based on their awareness of the common good and the well being of others? What type of citizens do they want to raise?

I am convinced that if schools were starting from scratch, most educators would prefer a norm-based approach for influencing students’ behavior. But since schools are not starting from scratch, we need to know the barriers standing in the way of changing the approach.

Educators have inherited a school structure that has been in place since they were students; it is very difficult for them to imagine any other way of doing things. Many in authority are afraid of losing control for fear that chaos will erupt on their campuses. There is a lack of trust about students that reflects a negative assumption about human nature: Students must first be controlled in order to learn. Lastly, educators have little time to reflect upon many of the assumptions and values underlying school practices.

So what’s the answer? How do we eliminate the barriers? Here are some recommendations:

  • Rules and norms can co-exist. Students and staff should be given time to reflect upon how they differ and how they affect people’s words and actions.

  • Explicitly connect positive social norms to what it means to be a responsible citizen in any environment including school. 

  • Involve students at an early age to think about what type of school or classroom they want to have and how everyone should be treated.

  • Make it clear that everyone sometimes forgets rules and norms. It is the educator’s job and the community’s responsibility to help people remember them and adjust their behavior.

  • Provided that educators understand that consequences alone don’t teach, they can still be used as back-up tools in certain instances. 

  • Have frequent and regular times to check in with students on how they are doing in treating others with respect.

  • Assess students for what skills and knowledge they need to insure that their behavior can be consistent with the values and norms of the school. 

  • Accept the responsibility for helping students acquire that knowledge and those skills.

  • Empower students as agents of change for creating the type of school environment where everyone belongs and is cared for.

If educators need motivation for shifting from a rule-consequence approach to a norm-based approach, they should ask themselves how they would like to be treated by those who lead them. Their answer should point them in the direction that their students would also prefer and that our country needs.

For educators, maybe our current crisis is a good opportunity to re-think current practices and adopt ones that will help students embrace their role as citizens and their responsibility to promote the common good.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of “Peaceful School Bus” (Hazelden), “No Place for Bullying” (Corwin, 2012), “Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities” (Corwin) and the picture book, “Okay Kevin” (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


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