Classroom management expert Christoph Eichhorn has some tips for encouraging your students to better follow mask and handwashing rules during the Covid-19 pandemic

A photo of a highschool student in a face mask using hand sanitizer

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Using a positive approach makes following the rules on hygiene more attractive for students

In classrooms the world over teachers are facing the Herculean task of getting their students to follow the newly introduced rules on hygiene. This is in large part due to the fact that these rules (like all rules in general) are not attractive to many pupils. Even the word ‘rule’ can trigger resistance – or what experts call ‘reactance’. Using a positive approach aims to make following the hygiene rules more attractive for students. Try these strategies in your school to encourage pupils to comply with new measures such as mask wearing and handwashing.

1. Reduce reactance

A school may have the rule ‘You must not spit on the floor.’ When a rule like this causes a pupil to spit when they otherwise would not, this is reactance. In terms of coronavirus, we now have rules such as ‘You must wear a mask on the school grounds.’ And, of course, some pupils continue to defy such rules. One school asked me to speak with some of their students who did so, and many expressed sentiments along the lines of ‘they want to tell us what to do, and we don’t like it’; reactance prompted them to actively defy this rule, which they, of course, were not aware of.

To reduce reactance among your students, you could:

  • choose a term other than rules; the school mentioned above went for ‘fairness code’. (More on this below.)
  • ask students to discuss why following the rules is sensible and reasonable, for example what advantages they get out of it. You can compare this to following rules in the science lab. Record the most important points somewhere prominent, such as a poster in the classroom.
  • include students in the compiling of such rules.
  • reward following the rules and make it a positive experience. (More on this below.)

2. Choose a different term

As touched on above, it’s clear that some pupils, particularly more aggressive pupils, see the term ‘hygiene rules’ as a challenge. An easy way to combat this is to replace the word ‘rule’ with another term that has more positive connotations for students. Using such terms in conversations about hygiene rules can foster a positive emotional connection. 

Terms chosen by schools I have been working with include ‘outwitting corona’ or ‘getting rid of Covid together’ (the word ‘together’ was added on the initiative of the teacher). You can ask your students to come up with their own term and vote on it. To help students get started, suggest phrases you think students will receive positively. You could do this collectively with colleagues at a staff meeting.

Taking this further, one school started a school-wide competition to design an ‘outwitting corona’ T-shirt. The five best designs received a prize and were printed and many students now wear these shirts. In another school, students developed a ‘Getting rid of Covid’ webpage where they explained how they were outsmarting the virus at school.

3. Reward rule following

This is about making compliance an attractive prospect for students. One simple way to do this is to conclude all activities or talks about hygiene rules with everyone receiving a reward such as a sweet or a merit. I know of one class who enjoyed a five-minute dance break (they were responsible for all music choice, choreography and technology) and another who had a ‘video of the week’ break (again, just five minutes and pre-approved by the teacher).

Rather than singling out students who are failing to follow the rules, use the classroom management intervention ‘narrating positive behaviour’ – give praise and recognition to those who are doing it right. A useful tool here is starting a sentence with ‘most of you’: ‘Most of you are doing XY very well’.

Another strategy is ‘enabling success’. This is not just important in terms of grades, but also in terms of recognition and attention from other students. Encourage students to praise each other when they notice each other following the rules. You can do this explicitly with this activity:

Example activity

Use form time to talk about hygiene rules. Some schools have called it ‘Our getting better and better meeting’ or ‘Corona master course’.

  1. Students discuss what they are already doing well, and what they have noticed their classmates doing well. You can introduce ‘Observation certificates’ for students to note down their observations (who they noticed doing well, at what time, and what they did) and share these with the class. Ensure that each student is recognised.
  2. Enter the discussion more actively by asking students who have not yet received a certificate what they think they can do to get one, ensuring to include a positive observation about their behaviour.
  3. In subsequent form times, ask students to make positive observations about any students who have not yet received a certificate.
  4. Next, ask students to discuss what they can improve on and how they can support each other in doing this.
  5. End the discussion with a positive activity such as a reward.

This activity also has positive consequences for parents as students will often proudly show them their certificate at home. This helps parents see that the school is taking hygiene seriously.

4. Turn failure into a learning opportunity

Discussing how to avoid failures is growing in popularity. Finland even has a National day of failure. This practice is also helpful in encouraging students to follow hygiene rules by reminding them that failure is entirely normal and that it is a good learning opportunity.

When talking with students, be a role model and discuss your own failure to follow the rules. For example, if you forgot to put your mask on when you walked in to the supermarket, describe the scenario and how you felt. Follow up by saying you started thinking about what you could do in the future to do better and ask students to share their ideas.

Then emphasise what you learned from the experience and ask students about their experiences, for example: ‘I have now stuck a note on my mirror to remind me. Do any of you do that already?’ In classes where pupils are particularly critical of the rules, a member of the SLT or governors can describe their own experiences with forgetting the rules and what they learned from it.

You can also discuss with them, either as a class or in small groups, what failures or slip-ups they have experienced and what they can learn from them – perhaps starting with non-corona-related examples such as crossing the road, playing football or writing a text message, and building up to school-related ones to do with uniform or not completing their homework.

Example activity

In small groups, ask students ‘What are the positives that come out of admitting our mistakes?’ Get students to post their answers on a large board and pull out the most salient points into a summarising sentence. For example, ‘It’s important that we all follow the hygiene rules, but sometimes we will forget. If this happens, I will think about how I can do better in the future. Unfortunately, mistakes happen sometimes, but admitting them helps us to improve.’

These principles can be applied beyond hygiene rules, for example when talking with students about safety in the lab too. I hope some of these strategies will assist you in encouraging your students to follow the rules more closely.