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Making Rules That Work

“No jumping on guitars!”

At age four, my daughter shouted this warning when a preschool visitor started leaping over our guitar. Her spontaneous rule might sound silly, but the foundation for changing difficult behavior is often establishing clear guidelines, sometimes even in the moment.

Discussions with children about agreed-on rules and the consequences for breaking them can transform many problematic situations in satisfying ways. Having clear rules also prevents power struggles. (“I know it’s hard, but it’s the rule.”)

Having a few standard rules is important at home, on the playground, or riding in the car (“No undoing seatbelts”). New rules are often needed when an issue crops up or becomes a habit. For example, “No kissing” isn’t a traditional kindergarten rule at our school, but it sometimes needs to be instituted and talked about – probably in the spring.

To set a new rule, call a discussion about the situation that needs to be remedied. You might say to very young children, “People have been biting each other instead of talking about their feelings when they’re upset.” Our new rule is “No biting,” and if someone bites (or physically hurts) someone, their toys will be taken away or they will lose a privilege.

Positive recognition for following rules is always the key to effectiveness. (“You said you were angry, and you didn’t bite!”) It’s okay to remind children of a rule when it’s being broken, but that’s not the time to discuss the reasons for the guideline. A reset and a consequence need to be implemented with only a few words and matter-of-fact energy.

Children can be allowed to suggest rules (“No taking any of my things without permission”), and doing so gives them practice in setting boundaries.

The best rules are mission-driven – they reflect the core values of the family, the classroom, or the school. The Meher Schools has always highlighted the simple rule of “No put-downs,” stemming from our values of compassion, kindness, and inclusion. Some of our preschool rooms have also instituted a thought-provoking rule, “No hurting someone’s heart,” and the children have enjoyed talking about all the actions that might make someone else feel bad. This could be a helpful practice for us all to explore.


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