The start of the year is intimidating. Whether you are a first year teacher or a tenth year teacher, there is a lot of pressure on those first few weeks of the school year. You want to clarify your expectations. You want to be firm but fun. You want to outline your rules but not be boring. This is tricky in any classroom but in a room full of students who have a wide range of needs – low receptive language, nonverbal, extreme behaviors, trouble with changes, etc. etc. etc. – saying it’s a challenge may just be an understatement.

Don’t get overwhelmed. Use the same strategies and interventions that work in the rest of your classroom to show explain your class rules. Use visuals. Use consistent and immediate feedback. Identify what you want to see. Teach each step. And make it easy to be good!

Use Visuals

Even if your students have verbal abilities, visuals are essential for clarifying expectations. Some of our students are tricky – even though they have high expressive language, they may not have high receptive language (ie. they may be able to talk a lot but may not be able to understand everything you are saying to them). Visuals are also imperative for your nonverbal students. Use a method they can understand when explaining something as important as class rules. I love visual classroom rules like this one to the left.

This is part of my Behavior Plan Flow Charts and Tools. Perfect for teaching replacement behaviors from day one!


Can I state rules in the negative?

I don’t think there needs to be hard and fast “no negative” rules rule. Sometimes you need to say what not to do in order to be concrete but that also needs to be paired with what to do (the positive rule).

Use Consistent and Immediate Feedback

Let’s get back to those good ole’ principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. Manipulate the consequences in your classroom. I don’t mean consequences in the old school your mom yelling at your 16 year old self as your drive away in her car past curfew “There will be consequences for this.”  I mean consequences as what happens after the behavior. What behavior you ask? Any and all. You see something good; provide a consequence. Provide praise, an edible, a token. Use what is reinforcing to that student not what should be reinforcing to that student. Praise is not a reinforcer for all kids. That’s okay.  You see something bad; provide a punishing consequence. Check out these posts for attention behaviors and escape behaviors for intervention ideas.

Identify What you Want to See

Your students need to see a concrete representation of the appropriate behavior you want to see. Whether that’s you modeling the response, you identifying when the student is engaging in the good behaviors, or you facilitating role playing exercises with your students. No matter how you do it – make sure your students can see exactly what the behavior looks like.

Teach Each Step

Maybe your students are not able to engage in the response you are looking for. You need to break down the response into little baby steps and then scale way back. Teach each step until each one is mastered. For example – if you want your student to enter the room and take off their coat and turn in their homework; try teaching each piece of this behavior chain. First teach the student how to enter the room correctly. Once they can do that on their own and correctly, teach hanging up their coat. Then finally teach turning in the homework. This may be a long process but it will be more successful in the end than trying to tackle that whole task at once.

Make it Easy

Keep in mind that more important than what your visual rules look like needs to be your schedule of reinforcement. You can have the most clearly defined visual rules or best social story ever – but that alone will accomplish nothing. You need to make sure that whatever is reinforcing the ‘bad’ behavior (attention, escape from work) is eliminated or lessened (because we can’t always eliminate it) and the good behavior that you want him to be doing results in consistent and high magnitude reinforcement. The reinforcement should be the same type that the bad behavior resulted in. Ie. if the student is taking his clothes off to get attention from teachers on the bus – him saying hi or handing a visual over should also result in teacher attention. And the attention given when he does the appropriate behavior should be way better (more frequent and high magnitude) than the inappropriate response. So even though yes – you will have to give attention to make sure he puts his clothes back on – you can at least minimize the quality of that attention (no eye contact, no verbal reprimands, etc.) Basically – you want to make the appropriate response easier for the student to get the reinforcer he wants over the inappropriate response! Which behavior would you rather do? The easy one that gets you a lot of what you want or the hard one that doesn’t? I thought so…