Creating Norms When Nothing is Normal

Norms are the patterns of behavior defining how we treat each other, ourselves, and our shared spaces. Norms exist in all physical and virtual classrooms. We often create norms at transition points such as the start of the year, term, or quarter. Typically, norms are listed on the walls, are not revisited often, and may be communicated to parents.

Norms exist in all settings. The question is, are they created intentionally or unintentionally? For example, when in school, intentional norms about seating are to assign seats and unintentional norms are when there is no seating assignment, but students sit in the same places each day. Intentional norms are essential and are attached to values. Intentional norms provide routines, agreements, consistency, and a framework for addressing difficult situations.

When reviewed consistently and created with equal contributions of students and teachers, intentional norms provide the guardrails for the classroom. Imagine the norms are the frame around a beautiful picture, with the picture being a reflection of students and teachers working together.

With COVID-19 bringing an entirely new teaching environment, many teachers find themselves reactively creating norms when situations arise. A teacher started her remote class and was frustrated because some of her students were in bed. Telling the students they must all be out of bed at the start of class elicited immediate negative responses. In this case, the teacher created a norm (must be out of bed) without attaching a value (presenting as “ready to learn”) or inviting students into the discussion.

Realizing values and student voice were missing, the teacher reframed the experience asking herself:

  1. What are the classroom values I want the norm to support?
  2. How will I communicate the values to the students?
  3. How will the student’s voice be invited into, and heard, in the discussion?
  4. In what areas am I willing or unwilling to be flexible?
  5. How will I ask students what might be missing?

The teacher started class the next day with “I realize I forgot to have a norms discussion. The value I want our norms to support is showing up ready to learn, and I want us to work together to identify how this looks, feels, and sounds. While flexibility is important, some boundaries are necessary, including limiting outside distractions and listening for learning, rather than debate. Let’s work together to create our norms, given how quickly things are changing; we will revisit our norms during our last class on Friday and will adjust as needed.”

The teacher asked students to be ready to co-construct norms the next day and invited them to share concerns privately if they had critical contributing factors they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with the entire class. COVID-19 and remote learning disproportionately impact students with mental health concerns, physical disabilities, learning differences, lower socioeconomic status, and students who are members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, question/queer) community, and more. These experiences may be challenging to share with the entire class while being mindful of your school’s requirements, so it is essential to create communication streams to allow students to share.

Learning online–and therefore viewing other’s homes–can cause students, parents, and teachers to feel exposed. Addressed thoughtfully, the use of norms can help reduce instances of invasion of privacy. When the teacher invited students to share outside of class one student offered that he was in bed during class because it was the only spot in his room where his classmates could not see that he shared a small room with two siblings, while another shared that her anxiety was elevated with COVID-19, and being in her bed made her feel safer.

When the class met to work on norms, the teacher reminded them of the importance of equity. Without providing any identifying information, she incorporated questions such as, “how might we ensure we are not causing someone to disclose a private part of their lives while also being in class together?” The students and teacher collaborated and decided that to be in bed was allowed as were virtual backgrounds, however, students needed to be sitting up, dressed, and presenting as ready to learn.

Our “classrooms” are different now, calling into question how we create norms when nothing is normal. We might consider that while our settings are different, our need to treat each other with fundamental decency is unchanged. Therefore, we create intentional norms by:

  1. Outlining the goals and benefits of norms.
  2. Connecting all norms to values, noting those classroom practices not connected to values are probably habits rather than norms and may be unnecessary.
  3. Including the student voice, giving think-time, outlining the expectations of the discussion, and allowing personal concerns to be raised outside of the group discussion.
  4. Communicating your boundaries, remembering most of us are frustrated when we believe we are working as a group and the facilitator (in this case, the teacher) has not communicated intended outcomes or “no go” areas before the discussion.
  5. Ensuring you include norms for how the group will respond when the norms are challenged.
  6. Reviewing and revising regularly.
  7. Communicating the norms with students and parents or guardians.

If you are wondering where to start, you might pick one of your classroom values, use the steps above to plan, develop words to use with students, consider the “what if’s” including how you will respond to challenges, and permit yourself to revise as needed. Intentional norms are even more critical as we are all faced with so many new situations, and we are comforted by as much consistency as possible.

More ideas on creating norms

Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.