Classroom Group Norms Agreements

Our “Back to School Series” continues with more ideas to help engage learners and build a positive environment for learning in your classroom. Now that you have spent some time getting to know your students and helping them get to know each other, relationships within your particular group are taking shape. This could be the perfect time to formally explore and start the process of creating a classroom norms agreements. In her book Tips & Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation Jen Stanchfield explores the process of creating positive group norms.

Defining Group Norms

Group norms are the values and characteristics that exist in every group. They include a code of conduct, acceptable behaviors or customs, habits, and expectations about how things will be done. Group norms influence how group members communicate and work together. Helping the group create behavioral norms regarding comments and judgments during classroom activities and discussions increases the amount of sharing and interaction and enhances the depth of group experience. Combined with reflective practice and regular feedback and evaluation, a group norms agreement can become a meaningful and useful tool for the group. Remember that these norms will change and need to be clarified throughout the group process.

Establishing Group Norms is a Process

When a group intentionally works together to agree on clarifying and establishing norms that all members can endorse, the group becomes stronger, more effective, and more aware of its dynamics and behavior. The process of establishing the norms can be an ongoing, team-building activity. Educators (and students) are often stymied by the idea of a boring contract or list of rules. This barrier is lifted when one thinks of this activity not as “housekeeping,” but as an interesting and engaging activity that can involve different mediums. By presenting the group norms agreement task in different ways—combining list making, artwork, using props, and discussion—it becomes a richer, more significant, and memorable experience.

When learners are given the opportunity to take part in this process, most choose to adopt it and take it very seriously. A teacher or group leader can help a group define norms in many ways. I usually start this ongoing group process with simple list making and discussion. As the group develops, artwork and symbols become effective.

Some Great Ideas to Start This Process

• One simple way to initiate a discussion on norms is to have the group brainstorm a list with two columns. Ask them to decide what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable when sharing and working together as a group. Write the acceptable behaviors in the “In” column and the unacceptable behaviors in the “Out” column. Or, label your columns “Us”/“Not Us.” It is effective to revisit these norms in a different way.

• Have the group create a symbol representing their group or classroom and fill the symbol with words or pictures of what behaviors they want to see “in” the group. Place what’s “not okay” or what they don’t want to have present in their group outside of the symbol. One of my groups created a symbol like this and later took a second step when we revisited our group norms after a series of sessions together. In that reflection session the group ceremoniously cut away the negative behaviors the group had wanted to keep out, in order to demonstrate that with time and practice we had been successful in focusing on the positive group behaviors, allowing the negatives to fall way.

• Ask the group to create an “action figure”—a comic rendition of an active stick figure—symbolizing their commitment to acting in certain ways. Group members can write things they want to say or that should be talked about near the mouth. They can write the kinds of things they would like to hear from others by the ears, what they hoped to feel and own by the heart, etc. There is no naming of the negative at this point, just positive actions.

• Another variation of using art to represent an agreement was created by Jeanella Bentley, a teacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She had students create a drawing of their school. Inside the school, they wrote and drew what they thought should be part of their group experience. Outside the school they drew a dumpster filled with the negative behaviors they wanted to keep out. Eventually you might come to the point where you could ceremoniously “cut away” the “not okay” behaviors to demonstrate that when we focus on the positive norms, often the negative falls away on its own.

Stanchfield, J. (2007). Tips & Tools for the Art of Experiential Group Facilitation. Bethany, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing.

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