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Teaching children ethics. Ask, when is it okay to break the rules?

From an early age, we are taught to follow rules. This obviously is a complex concept to digest as so many of us continue to break the rules (and laws). I believe that schools should have rules, since this provides clear guidelines as to what conduct is expected of the attending students. These should be taken, not only as leadership within the school, but also as part and parcel of the education that is being provided. A student learning to navigate the various school rules is laying the foundations for ethical social conduct in the future, in other words, becoming a law abiding person.

An excellent way of teaching the relevant problem solving skills is by asking a simple question, when is it okay to break the rules? This may seem counterproductive as the purpose is to teach children how to follow rules but think about the following: How can you know when it is okay to break rules, unless you know the rules in question? Furthermore, in certain contexts, it is actually appropriate to “break a rule”, although it might not be termed so bluntly. If watching procedural crime shows has taught me anything, it is that rules are never that simple.

Think of the following examples (possible answers in brackets):

When is it okay to cross the street during a red light? (If a police officer is waving you through.)

When is it okay to speak during a lesson? (If you are working in groups.)

A sign on a lawn says “do not step on the grass”. When is it okay to step on the grass? (When you are mowing the lawn.)

When is it okay to kick? (When you are playing with a ball.)

When is it okay to shout? (When cheering a team.)

When is it okay to make the teacher laugh? (When it does not disturb the class or the teacher, during work time.)

These examples can be extended to specific rules within your school setting. By holding a conversation like this with students, letting them think of answers themselves, you are able to encourage a discussion of the relevant rules, as well as practicing the corresponding problem solving skills (often relating to context). Not only that, you are focusing on the needs of the child by allowing a discussion of when they can seek personal goals despite the rules.

Often a child will break school rules because he/she does not trust that his/her personal needs will be met. Knowing when it is appropriate to “break a rule”, we leave open a door for perceived personal needs to be met. You can shout, just do it when cheering a team. You can talk in class, just do it when working in a team. You can try to make the teacher laugh, just do it during an informal conversation and not during a lesson.

This does not mean that the child in question, knowing this, will, for example, shout more. Often, just knowing how to navigate our environment, thus gaining a sense of control, we will be less prone to testing our boundaries.

Veteran teachers will most probably have noticed a loophole in my approach. And if you have not, then rest assured that one of your students will. If children can have a conversation with teachers about when to break rules then will they not just focus on that? In other words, there is always that one student who will start questioning every rule to the point of disruption.

For this reason it is best to frame the whole, “when is it okay to break the rules(?)” discourse, as a lesson. Introduce the subject as a lesson on rules and then say that you will be discussing when it is okay to break the rules. Make it clear that this is a discussion that you will only be having during the lesson. Any student that wishes to discuss this further can request so at the end of the lesson and a meeting can be scheduled.


If you have found this post enlightening in any way, then you may also enjoy my upcoming first book: Improving Student Behavior. The Success Diary Approach.

Ami Braverman