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Establishing ground rules with your learners

Ann Gravells, Author and Education Consultant

Establishing ground rules with your learners, whether in a group or a one to one basis will help underpin appropriate behaviour and respect throughout their time with you, and help the sessions run smoothly.

Ground rules are boundaries and rules to help create suitable conditions within which learners (and yourself) can safely work and learn. If they are not set, problems may occur which could disrupt the session.

It’s best to agree the ground rules during the first meeting, perhaps after an icebreaker once everyone is feeling more relaxed. Ground rules should always be discussed and negotiated with your learners rather than forced upon them.

Using an activity to do this will help learners feel included, take ownership of, and hopefully follow them. Some ground rules might be renegotiated or added to throughout the programme; for example, changing the agreed break time.

Others might be non-negotiable: for example, health and safety requirements. These might already be listed in a learner handbook, agreement or learner contract and you would need to ensure all learners have a copy, and know that they are in addition to the ground rules.

When establishing ground rules, you need to have an idea of what will be non-negotiable, and what can be negotiable.

Examples of ground rules

Non-negotiable ground rules:

  • No anti-social behaviour
  • Everyone is to respect the views and beliefs of others
  • The area is to be left tidy

Negotiable ground rules:

  • No eating or drinking during sessions
  • Mobile phones and electronic devices to be switched off
  • Breaks will last a maximum of 20 minutes

You might like to change any negative ground rules into positive ones; for example, no eating or drinking during sessions could become eat and drink outside of the session.

You should be a role model and set a good example for your learners by not breaking any of the ground rules yourself. If you have too many ground rules, learners might become over cautious of what they can and can’t do and this could affect the learning process.

Whatever method you use to establish the ground rules, make sure they are not open to any misinterpretation. Having clear ground rules will help your learners feel comfortable and able to participate.

Ways to establish ground rules

One way is where both you and your learners work together by a process of discussion and negotiation. This enables your learners to recognise what is and is not acceptable, giving them a sense of ownership and responsibility. It also enables learners to begin working together as a group and encourages aspects such as listening, compromise and respect for others.

Alternatively, your learners could write down the rules individually, then discuss in pairs and join into fours to create a poster or a list on flipchart paper. One or two learners could present this to the full group and agreement can then take place.

Another way would be to ask your learners what others have done during previous events they have attended which made learning difficult. They will usually come up with answers like mobile phones ringing and people interrupting others. You can then start creating a list to build upon.

Ways to maintain ground rules

Keeping the ground rules visible throughout the sessions will act as a reminder of what is and is not acceptable, and enable them to be amended or added to as necessary.

Any learners who have commenced the programme late will be able to see them. It’s useful to refer to them at the beginning of the session and when a rule is broken.

For example, if a learner is late, they should be reminded that it is a requirement that all sessions start promptly, otherwise they might not make the effort to arrive on time for subsequent sessions.

If other learners see that you don’t say or do anything, they will feel the ground rules have no value. You could also refer to the them when they are not broken as positive reinforcement of good behaviour.

If a learner breaks a ground rule, you may find their peers reprimand them before you do. At the end of your session you could thank your learners for following the ground rules; this will act as a reminder of their existence.

If you can lead by example, you will help create a culture of mutual compliance which should enable effective teaching, learning and assessment to take place.

Ann Gravells, Author, Creator of Teacher Training Resources and an Education Consultant

This text has been adapted from Gravells A The Award in Education and Training (2014 Revised edition) London Learning Matters SAGE Publications Ltd. Copyright © 2018 Ann Gravells

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