SEL Tip: Start the year with community agreements

Begin by asking students, "What do you need to feel safe, comfortable, and excited to learn?"


The beginning of the school year is the ideal time to start building a positive classroom climate. One of the first things that many of us do is to go over the “classroom rules.” Often this is a list of warnings teachers present to students aimed at keeping order in the classroom – things like “keep your hands and feet to yourself,” “sit in your own spot,” and “raise your hand if you want to speak.” Although these are all valuable guidelines for classroom behavior, we suggest an alternative approach.

In Getting to Know You, Morningside Center’s booklet of classroom activities to start the school year, we offer guidelines for helping the class generate a list of “community agreements.” These differ from “classroom rules” in several ways. Community agreements are co-created with students and include suggestions from students. Community agreements apply to teachers as well as students. Community agreements address the needs of students as well as the needs of teachers. Community agreements include things the class aspires to do, not only things the class wants to avoid doing. 

Creating community agreements can help your class think about how they want to relate to each other (as described in Getting to Know You).  This can lead to agreements such as “one person speaks at a time” and “no put-downs.”
 
You can also ask students to consider what conditions they personally need to focus and do their best learning. You might ask your students, “What do you need to feel safe, comfortable, and excited to learn?” This question may elicit surprising answers like:

  • I need to work alone sometimes.
  • I need to move around sometimes.
  • I need to ask if we can turn off the fluorescent lights because they hurt my eyes.
  • I need to sit on a chair. The rug is not comfortable for me.
  • I need to have fun while we are learning.
  • I need people to be kind to me.
  • I need to know it is okay to make mistakes.

After allowing your students to think about their responses, write each student’s offerings on the board without comment or judgment, alongside your own ideas, which may include those traditionally found on a classroom rules list. Then, as a group, ask the class which of the ideas they can all agree on.
 
With a bit of discussion, you may come up with ways to build in a movement break every now and then, or dim the fluorescent lights in the afternoon when the sun is bright. While these ideas are not what we would normally find on a classroom rules document, they may go a long way in creating a positive classroom climate that lets students do their best work.
 
No matter how many years of teaching experience we bring to the classroom, every year is different. Each class has its own character that is influenced by the individual students within it, their relationships with one another, and the social and emotional skills that they have developed. Starting the year by getting to know your students and their unique set of needs can go a long way in creating a positive classroom climate.