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September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

When Children Make Rules

In constructivist classrooms, young children's participation in rule making promotes their moral development.

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  • Keep hands off other people's structures.
  • No knocking people's structures down.
  • Four friends in the block area at one time.
When children care about a classroom problem such as this one and take part in solving it, they are more likely to view the resulting rules as fair. Having made the rules, they are more likely to observe them. Just as important, participating in the process of rule making supports children's growth as moral, self-regulating human beings.
Rules in schools have traditionally been made by teachers and given to children. Today, many teachers see the benefits of allowing children to have a voice in developing classroom rules. But if we are not careful, this involvement can be superficial and meaningless. How can we best involve children in making classroom rules?

Morality and Adult-Child Relationships

We speak from a constructivist point of view, inspired by the research and theory of Jean Piaget. In constructivist education, rule making is part of the general atmosphere of mutual respect, and the goal is children's moral and intellectual development (DeVries & Zan, 1994).
Piaget (1932/1965) identified two types of morality that parallel two types of adult-child relationships: one that promotes optimal moral and intellectual development, and one that retards it. Heteronomous morality consists of conformity to external rules without question. Overly coercive relationships with adults foster this type of morality and can impede children's development of self-regulation. Autonomous morality, by contrast, derives from an internal need to relate to other people in moral ways. Cooperative relationships with adults foster this type of morality and help children develop high levels of self-regulation.
Obviously, children and adults are not equals. However, when the adult respects the child as a person with a right to exercise his or her will, their relationship has a certain psychological equality that promotes autonomy.
Piaget, of course, did not advocate complete freedom, and neither do we. Although constructivist teachers minimize the exercise of adult authority or coercion in relation to children, minimize does not mean eliminate (DeVries, 1999; DeVries & Edmiaston, 1999; DeVries & Kohlberg, 1987/1990). Rather, we strive for a balance that steadily builds the child's regulation of his or her own behavior.

Norms and Rules in Constructivist Classrooms

To investigate how constructivist teachers use external control and how they develop classroom norms and rules, we interviewed the teachers at the Freeburg Early Childhood Program, a laboratory school serving children ages 3–7 in a predominantly low-income neighborhood. The school's aim is to demonstrate constructivist practices.

Norms Established by Teachers

  • Safety and health norms ensure children's well-being. Our teachers articulated these as non-negotiables. Examples include “No hurting others,” “Lie down at rest time,” “Keep shoes on outside,” “No crashing trikes or other vehicles,” and “Don't throw sand.”
  • Moral norms pertain to respect for people and animals. They often relate to fair treatment or distribution of goods. Examples of these are “Take fair turns,” “Talk through a conflict until there is a resolution,” “If you bring a live animal into the classroom, try to make it comfortable,” and “No hurting animals.”
  • Discretionary norms consist of routines and procedures to make the classroom run smoothly and make learning possible. Kathy Morris, the teacher in the 3-year-olds' class, pointed out that young children do not like chaos, and they need adults to figure out routines that work so that events run smoothly. Discretionary norms also include societal norms for politeness and individual responsibility that children need to know. Examples include “Sit with the group at group time,” “Wait until all are seated at lunch before eating,” and “Clean up your place after lunch.”
All teachers have safety and health norms, moral norms, and discretionary norms. These norms are acceptable and necessary uses of external authority in a constructivist classroom. But constructivist teachers carefully evaluate their reasons for norms and attempt to minimize the use of external control as much as possible.

Rules Made by Children

We define rules as formal agreements among teachers and children. Constructivist teachers often conduct discussions of problems that relate to their norms and engage children in making classroom rules that arise from these norms.
When teachers first suggest that children make rules, children often parrot such adult admonitions as “Never talk to strangers” or “Raise your hand and wait to be called on.” This occurs especially when children are unaccustomed to a sociomoral atmosphere in which they feel free to express their honest opinions. Children may view rule making as another exercise in trying to figure out the right answer or say what they think the teacher wants to hear. The rules that they suggest may not reflect a real understanding of the need to treat others in moral ways. When children only mindlessly restate adults' rules, they have not engaged in true rule making.
  • Pick them up safely.
  • Don't push them.
  • Don't squeeze them.
  • Don't put things in their box.
  • Don't punch them.
  • Don't put them on the light bulb.
  • Don't drop them.
  • Don't throw them.
  • Don't pick them up by their wings.
  • Don't color on them.
  • Don't pull their heads off.
Reinvented rules demonstrate children's understanding of the moral norm because they translate the norm into children's own words and provide elaborations that make sense to them. Sometimes the elaborations are novel, dealing with situations that the teacher had not considered discussing. For example, in Beth Van Meeteren's 1st grade classroom, where the norm is to treat others with respect, children made the rule, “When people pass gas, do not laugh, or they will be upset or embarrassed.”
Sometimes children develop entirely original rules. Unlike reinvented rules, invented rules reflect children's power to make decisions in the classroom. For example, Dora Chen's class of 4-year-olds invented a new rule in response to a problem they saw during one of their classroom routines. One day during clean-up, a child saw another child finishing a snack and felt that no one should eat snacks during clean-up time. He told the teacher, who raised the issue at group time. She asked, “What should our rule be?” After a 17-minute discussion in which the children suggested various possibilities, the teacher clarified the choice between “No snack during clean-up: throw it away” or “Finish snack before going outdoors.” The children voted to throw away their unfinished snacks when clean-up started.
The new rule, driven by children's interest and concern, went beyond the teacher's concerns. Although the teacher preferred giving the children more time to finish their snacks, she believed that the children's solution was fair given the one-hour activity time in which to eat snacks.

Guidelines for Exerting External Control

Some people have the misconception that constructivist teachers are permissive and that external control never occurs in constructivist classrooms. In fact, all teachers must exert external control sometimes. From our discussions with teachers and our understanding of research and theory, we have derived four general guidelines for the use of external control.
Provide a general and pervasive context of warmth, cooperation, and community. We draw inspiration for this guideline from the work of Jean Piaget, especially from The Moral Judgment of the Child (1932/1965). Many others, however, have come to this same conclusion starting from different theoretical perspectives (Nelson, 1996; Watson, 2003). In fact, almost all of the recent classroom management programs on the market, with the exception of Assertive Discipline, stress the importance of cooperation and community (Charles, 2002).
Act with the goal of students' self-regulation. A developmental perspective leads us to focus on the long term. We want to contribute to the development of autonomous, self-regulating human beings who can make decisions based on the perspectives of all involved. Therefore, compliance is not our primary goal. Of course, we all wish sometimes that children would be more compliant. But we constantly remind ourselves and one another that developing self-regulation takes time, and we celebrate significant events, such as when an aggressive child actually uses words for the first time to tell another child what he wants instead of slugging him.
Minimize unnecessary external control as much as is possible and practical. Constructivist teachers do use external control; in fact, they use it quite a bit. As Piaget states, “However delicately one may put the matter, there have to be commands and therefore duties” (1932/1965, p. 180). Teachers in constructivist classrooms, however, use external control of children consciously and deliberately, not impulsively or automatically. The teachers with whom we work constantly ask themselves whether the external regulation is absolutely necessary.
  • The classroom arrangement invites rowdy behavior.
  • Children do not know the classroom routine.
  • Too many transitions lead to too much waiting time.
  • Crowding in a part of the classroom leads to conflicts.
  • Group time goes on for too long; children become restless, and some act out.
  • Activities are not sufficiently engaging to appeal to children's purposes, and children become aimless.
  • The classroom does not contain enough materials, and children compete for what is available.
  • Clean-up is poorly organized, and children resist cleaning up after activity time.
  • A mismatch exists between the teacher's expectations and the children's competencies.
  • The teacher attributes a character flaw to a child who misbehaves.
When external control is necessary, use the least amount necessary to secure compliance. Ideally, the constructivist teacher uses external control judiciously to make sure that the child's experience overall is a mixture increasingly in favor of the child's self-regulation. When external regulation becomes necessary, the teacher must preserve the child's dignity and autonomy—for example, by giving the child a choice and thus returning a degree of autonomy as soon as possible.

Meaningful Rule Making

For many years, we have advocated allowing young children to make classroom rules, arguing that such opportunities are part and parcel of a constructivist, democratic classroom. By encouraging children to make classroom rules, the teacher minimizes unnecessary external control and promotes the development of children's moral and intellectual autonomy.
To genuinely think for themselves and exercise autonomy, children must be given the power to make rules and decisions that both elaborate on classroom norms and break new ground. By actively seeking out appropriate opportunities and recognizing them when they arise in the daily life of the classroom, teachers can create classrooms that are fair and democratic.

Charles, C. (2002). Building classroom discipline (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

DeVries, R. (1999). Implications of Piaget's constructivist theory for character education. In M. Williams & E. Schaps (Eds.), Character education. Washington, DC: Character Education Partnership.

DeVries, R., & Edmiaston, R. (1999). Misconceptions about constructivist education. The Constructivist, 13(3), 12–19.

DeVries, R., & Kohlberg, L. (1987/1990). Constructivist early education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children: Creating a constructivist atmosphere in early education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Nelson, J. (1996). Positive discipline. New York: Ballantine Books.

Piaget, J. (1932/1965). The moral judgment of the child. London: Free Press.

Watson, M. (2003). Learning to trust. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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