I believe that people inherently want to do the right thing. This absolutely includes our students (although it sometimes might not seem like it). Most people like to know where they stand. We all like to know what is acceptable and what will get us into trouble. Students often test teachers in order to explore these boundaries. There is nothing worse than having a teacher leaping out to enforce rules and regulations that students were only dimly aware of.
Your students already know the rules
If your classroom’s rules are fair and clear, most students will be following them within a couple of months, if not before. I teach middle (and sometimes high) school. The students I teach have attended school for many years. They already know how to behave in a classroom. When I was their age, there was nothing worse than the first week of term when every single teacher’s first lesson was about their behavior expectations. I try to take a different approach. My first lesson is a real lesson, I teach them something. Then I decide if I need to tackle poor behavior or if they are already on track.
Seriously, they already know the rules!
Most of my colleagues ask students which rules they would like for their classroom. I have not done this since my first year of teaching when a 12 year old said “Miss, you’re the teacher. You tell us,” and would not accept my appeals that I wanted the class to have ownership. Anyway, the rules I would be asking them to ‘write’ are the standard “Listen to others, be respectful, be prepared for lessons” etc etc.
Beware the floating voters
Instead, choose five things that you want to see in your classroom, five things you want your students to do every lesson. And recognize them for it. Your major behavioral problems are not coming so much from the minority of children with behavioral special needs (although, of course those students are challenging), but from the floating voters. The children who need to see which way the wind is blowing before they act. If those children see that you appreciate their good behavior, they are much less likely to act up.
Consistency is not as big a deal as everyone says (sorry)
But, and this is a bit rebellious of me, don’t worry about consistency that much. Rewards are much more powerful when they are a bit unpredictable. Yes, students want you to be consistent and I’m not suggesting you should be actively unfair. But it is okay to forget to reward certain behaviors once in a while. Just as long as you get around to it the next time.
The ultimate goal is to be intrinsically motivated
You do not want to create adults who only do things because they will be praised or get 5 minutes of free time. You want adults who self-regulate their behavior because it is the right thing to do. Slowly start to wean your students off of extrinsic rewards towards the end of the year. See if they continue this positive behavior. If your students are doing the right thing without external motivation, then the rewards have served their purpose.