Classroom Management Strategies: Setting Expectations for Students

Setting expectations is one of the first and most important steps to a successful classroom management regime. If you’re consistently not getting you what you want from your students, ask yourself: Did I clearly communicate what I expected? A lot of time, you’ll find the answer is no. Even though most teachers have already mastered the art of setting expectations early in the year, many of us forget that students need constant, friendly reminders for how to do each and every one of the variety of tasks that you’ve set out for them.

Safe to assume students know they need a pencil for class? Ha! Think your students will automatically know how much glue to use in an interactive notebook? Nope! Been there. One student managed to glue the entire stack of notebooks together! Assume your students know that realize that they should start writing immediately when taking note? A chorus of “wait!” as you change the slide will force you to accept that they didn’t know that one.

How to Set Expectations for Students

In order to remind myself and my students what’s expected in my room, I keep a running document with several “how to” slides which cover every conceivable activity that we could do in the class and what my expectations are for the students during that activity. With a difficult class, I’ll review the expectations for whatever tasks we’ll be doing that day at the beginning of the class, and then again as we transition. If things start to get a bit rowdy, I’ll review expectations in the middle of the task too.

Additionally, there is a reason I call this a live document. Students seem to be infinitely inventive when it comes to finding loopholes in my very carefully crafted list of expectations. For that reason, a student who manages to slip between the cracks will generally earn a grave “touché” from me as I add the latest unacceptable behavior to the appropriate slide. We have a deal. If it wasn’t on the slide yet (and as long as it wasn’t flagrantly offensive) you don’t get in trouble for the first offense. After a new behavior is added to the slide, consequences can be expected without warning if the behavior is repeated.

Here’s a couple slides from my Expectations for Students presentation:

setting expectations for students entering the classroom

I project this slide on the board as students enter the room. Normally, I’ve already begun to create order by keeping them lined up in the hall until the energy feels calm enough for learning to take place. One by one, students who are behaving appropriately are allowed to enter the room. As they walk past me, I gently remind them to take a look at the board as they go to their seats. With proper diligence, I generally have a solid start to my class.

Note: The main downside to this is that you can’t have your bellwork up. I don’t do one. I’m not sure if this makes me a bad teacher, but I always hated them when I used to do them!

setting expectations for students for listening

Once I’ve had a private chat in the hallway with any potential behavior issues and all my students have been allowed to enter the room, I join the students in the classroom. Immediately I jump into positive narration, pointing out students who have their pencils out and have generally followed the “How to Enter the Classroom” procedures correctly. As I praise students, I am also reiterating the expectations for any students who aren’t yet ready to begin.

When everyone has their pencil and appears relatively ready to begin, I change to the next slide in my Expectations Presentation: How to Listen When Someone is Talking. I review the points here or ask a student to read them aloud (selectively choosing someone who was off task). I always point out that I’m the one talking right now, but soon it will be you.

From there, I usually cover the agenda for the day and expectations related to every planned activity.

setting expectations for students for taking notes

On days that we take notes, this is my slide. If students start getting off task in the middle of my presentation, I’ll silently swipe back to this slide. I stand quietly next to the board with this slide projected and wait. This usually gets things back on track as long as we haven’t been taking notes for more than half an hour. Over 30 minutes and you’re in no man’s land. Good luck!

setting expectations for students for art

For the past two years I’ve really taken to using interactive notebooks. One of the major downsides to them, though, is the mess. My students can barely keep a pencil. Interactive notebooks require glue, scissors, and (*gasp*) fine motor skills. Keeping an orderly classroom with glue and microscopic shreds of paper flying everywhere has been one of the greatest challenges of my career.

When I get to this slide of expectations, I usually show pictures of an appropriate “trash pile” in the corner of a desk. Students who manage to keep their area relatively clean are rewarded with stickers and smiley faces.

Download the Ultimate Guide to Classroom Management in Middle School in PDF format here.

Benefits of Setting Expectations for Students

Constantly reviewing expectations may feel a bit redundant, but I can assure you this is my number one go to when I’m trying to help a struggling teacher. If we don’t communicate what we want to our students, we’ll stay in a state of perpetual frustration. Here’s some of the main benefits to consistently reviewing expectations for your students.

1. It cuts down on arguments.

Letting students know exactly what is expected before they try any funny business minimizes the chance that they’ll try to dispute their consequence when it’s handed down. If the entire class has been hearing every day that you keep your hands to yourself as you enter the room for 6 months, when someone comes through and knocks everyone’s stuff into the floor there’s a good chance the students may actually handle classroom management for you. If not, the offender will be in a terrible position to make any valid case for their behavior.

2. It helps you think on the fly.

Reviewing expectations helps you too. We’ve already got enough decisions to make. Cut down your think time when a kid does something ridiculous. The answer to “was that acceptable?” is always going to be “Did I recently review my expectations for appropriate behavior in this area?” If yes, and what they did wasn’t within those expectations, give a consequence.

If no, review the expectations again. Give a verbal warning by saying something like “I guess I may have forgotten to review my expectations for asking questions in class. Next time, I’d like everyone to raise their hand before they speak.” Or maybe concede that you hadn’t thought of this one and add it in. Focus on yourself and your expectations, not the student and their behavior. Talk about what you do want, not what you don’t want. You’ll quickly be seen as a more consistent and fair teacher.

3. It gives students a way to win.

Even our worst students secretly want to be seen as good and valuable by the adults they respect. Many of these children have not yet learned how to get a positive response from those adults. The only reaction they’ve ever managed to elicit has been a negative one. Teaching expectations gives students a cheat sheet for small things they can do to make you proud. Most likely, they’ll give it a shot. If you respond in turn by praising these borderline bad kids, it’s not unlikely that they’ll beam with pride and learn to enjoy the positive attention. They’ll strive to continue meeting expectations. Your feedback loop will turn around and you’ll quickly find That Kid or That Class much, much more pleasant to teach.

I am also turning all the blog posts in this series together in an E-Book. If you feel that this PDF format will be easier to read, or you’d like to donate to my efforts in supporting new and struggling teachers, please:

Download the Ultimate Guide to Classroom Management in Middle School E-Book


Read more blog posts on classroom management.

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setting expectations for students
Laney Lee
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Published by Laney Lee

I'm an American expat in Abu Dhabi seeking new ways to support teachers. I currently teach grade 7 science, run a Teacher Pay Teachers store, and am writing a book on classroom management.

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