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Ten top tips on setting expectations in the Primary classroom

In our latest blog experienced teacher, trainer, presenter, and author Sue Cowley explores how to effectively set behavioural expectations in the primary classroom with her 10 tips for teachers.

Setting expectations is an essential aspect of managing behaviour in Primary school classrooms. Teachers need to clearly communicate their expectations to students in a way that they can understand and remember. However, this can be a challenging task, especially for new teachers. In this article, we will provide some tips for teachers on how to effectively set expectations in the classroom. By following these tips, teachers can create a positive classroom environment that promotes good behaviour and learning.

1. Think about how you frame them

Frame your expectations in language that the children will understand. Think carefully about how you will explain or model any words that describe generalised concepts, such as ‘respect’, to ensure that the children conceptualise the word in the same way as you do.


2. Say it through out loud ahead of time

You want to create an impression of clarity, right from the start, so practise your ‘first lesson speech’ ahead of time. Ask a friend or colleague to listen to you and to pick up on any potential misunderstandings. This is especially important if you are a new teacher, because you don’t want any ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ to break the flow of what you are saying when you introduce yourself and the setting of expectations to the class.

3. Limit the amount of information given

If you agree a long list of 10 or more expectations with your children, they are unlikely to retain them. Choose a small number – for instance, 3 or 5 – in order to ensure retention. You can always introduce more expectations later, for instance talking through your ground rules, ahead of doing group work for the first time.

4. Think through the classroom management ahead of time

It is quite tricky to hold a whole class discussion, getting children to contribute, while agreeing a clear, concise set of class rules. Think through how you will do this ahead of time, considering how you are going to manage the children’s contributions, keep the discussion on track and limit the number of expectations set.

5. Consider how you want to present the information

Primary teachers use a range of different approaches, for instance a ‘class charter’, which the children sign up to. With younger children, you might get them to write their ‘five rules’ on handprints, one for each finger/thumb. If you are teaching in EYFS, consider how you will gather the information verbally and translate this into your class expectations.

6. Use ‘retrieval practice’ to reinforce your expectations

We know that with learning in the classroom, we cannot just say something once and expect children to retain it. Use the same approach for expectations – constantly asking children to retrieve them by referring to them throughout each day. For instance, spotting when children are doing the right thing or asking who can remember the expectations set.

7. Use targeted praise to reinforce your expectations

Remember: catch the children doing it right! When children do as you have all agreed, do not just heave a sigh of relief, make sure you identify and praise the positive behaviours. Use targeted praise to show children how a behaviour is the ‘right thing to do’ thus reinforcing your expectations through repetition.

8. Manage your reactions

One of the trickiest aspects of behaviour is that we have both an emotional and a rational reaction to it. Aim not to get ‘wound up’ when children are not meeting your expectations. A good way to avoid this is to praise a few children who are doing the right thing, to encourage their peers to copy, before you deal with any inappropriate behaviour.

9. Model what the behaviour does and does not look like

You will be modelling positive, respectful behaviours through all your interactions with the children. Consider also modelling an example of the behaviour not happening, for instance with a TA, talking about what this looks and feels like and how children might better handle it. Take care that you do not model the opposite of what you said your expectation was, for instance through talking over the children when they are not completely silent.

10. Revisit and revise your expectations to suit your needs

Expectations might need to be adapted over time, during the school year. For instance, if you find class noise levels becoming more of an issue, you might want to incorporate this as a new expectation for the children. Never feel like expectations are set in stone – they can always develop and be adapted.

Find out more

Sue Cowley has created a suite of 12 brand new modules for BlueSky Learning, exploring strategies and advice for establishing and managing behaviour in the Primary classroom. The first two modules are available now: ‘Primary Behaviour: Establishing Expectations and Building an Ethos’ and ‘Establishing Expectations and Building Routines in the Primary Setting’. Watch the taster and click through to learn more about these modules.

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Tamsin Denley

Author: Sue Cowley

Sue Cowley is an experienced teacher, trainer, presenter, and author of over 30 books on education and parenting. She has worked in early years settings, primary and secondary schools in the UK and overseas, and provides training and consultation services to teachers and organizations worldwide.

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