Be appropriate

As a teach educator, Dr. Stork met a teacher some years ago who had replaced a long list of Don’t-oriented proscriptions with a single rule, “Be appropriate.” He began, as many well-meaning teachers do, with a short list of obvious Don’ts. But it turns out the most recalcitrant of his students were budding lawyers, confidently pointing out how their idiosyncratic missteps were not specifically addressed in the rules and therefore not subject to sanctions. Adding more, specific rules to the list created the unintended consequence of turning students’ attention to the search for loopholes. The list of Don’ts subsequently got longer and longer.

Be appropriate - A good rule for children that works well for adults, too

The original good intentions conveyed thru minimal rules gradually eroded into mistrust as enforcement grew more contentious. Both teacher and students found themselves in the “school game”; oppositionally seeking any advantage to establish dominance. The teacher threatened zero tolerance while students resorted to a litany of excuses and alibis. Fortunately, the good intentions remained and this teacher made a dramatic, strategic reversal. He reduced the list to one rule and stated it in the positive. “Be appropriate.”


This strategy changed the rules of the school game, making it cooperative instead of competitive. That neutralized the lawyers since they no longer had a position to defend. It didn’t eliminate sanctions; but the sanctions now came from the students themselves, not from the teacher.

So, what does it mean to “be appropriate”? There is no one definition, as it is usually contextual. The real purpose of the rule is to stimulate conversation that leads to better understanding. For example, upon seeing an undesirable behavior the teacher inquires, “Tom, is your behavior appropriate?” If Tom replies in the affirmative, the teacher follows up with:
“Can you tell me How it is appropriate in your mind?” Or “Can you see how I or your classmates might interpret it as inappropriate?” If Tom’s response is fair and reasoned (such as a misinterpretation of the teacher’s instructions or faulty assumptions about how his behavior is influencing his classmates), the teacher can restate or clarify, guiding Tom to a preferred behavior.

It is more likely a student will initially resort to an excuse or alibi. In which case the teacher must have a specific reason for wanting the behavior to cease; keeping in mind the only rule now is to “be appropriate.” Appropriateness in most cases relates to physical safety, interpersonal relationships or the learning environment. Then, is the behavior creating a problem for Tom, his classmates, the teacher, or some combination thereof? Reflecting briefly on those considerations allows the teacher to engage a more constructive dialogue with Tom. The goal of that dialogue is to determine an alternative, positive behavior; not just elimination of the problem behavior.

Bottom line, “Stop that! (or else)” is a very short term solution in which teacher plays police officer. Multiple warnings that lead to sanctions or brief removal establish the teacher as police officer and jailer. Removal with an admonition to “Think about what you did!” establishes the teacher as a bully. These are all responses consistent with negative rules and punitive sanctions.
The “Be appropriate” rule with the presumption of dialogue enhances communication by 1) acknowledging that students often do not know how to be appropriate, 2) using guided discovery to help students uncover or create alternative behaviors, and 3) allowing students to participate in determining logical consequences to their behaviors.

This process does not lead to immediate change. Even when students participate in determining alternative behaviors, it takes time and practice to internalize them. But if they have engaged in a dialogue to understand why the alternatives are necessary, and shared in responsibility for determining a solution, they are more motivated to cooperate with the teacher and their peers to make positive changes. 

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