How To Define Your Classroom Culture With Respect Agreements

Respect agreements are an effective classroom management strategy that create a stronger community culture than top-down rules and consequences. Through the agreement development process, all students are given a voice in the establishment of our classroom norms and are therefore held more easily accountable to adhering to them.

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Because Of The Respect Agreement

Per the euuushhh, by October of last year, the honeymoon phase of the year was ending, and some “behaviors” were starting to pop up. Last week, I started noticing a plethora of broken pencils and colored pencils littering my floor at the end of the day, supplies not quite making it back to the right place on the shelf, and overall rising chatter and silliness.

It was clear to me that we needed to review our classroom norms and expectations. It became even clearer that this was needed when I had to shut down our collaborative questioning activity in one of my classes.

I was sharing this story with a science colleague at another school, and her response was, “but how did they react?” 

I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Didn’t you get any pushback?” she clarified.

And it got me thinking >> no, I didn’t get pushback. I didn’t get sass or disruptive comments, and I didn’t sense any anger directed at me. In fact, the class just quietly took out their notebooks and copied notes for the remaining 15 minutes of class instead. (Yes, not my favorite or the most effective way to learn, but they needed the notes in their interactive notebooks anyway… and it was clear we couldn’t continue the activity I had planned.)

Now, I’ve been in classrooms where that described-above response doesn’t happen — classrooms where enforcing consequences ends in greater disruption and broken relationships; where students do push back, and they push back hard; where conflict on one day spills into the next.

That wasn’t happening this year.

And no, my students aren’t any different than the students I had in those other classrooms. They’re just normal, seventh grade kids.

So what gives?

I’m convinced — it’s all because of our respect agreements.

What Are Respect Agreements?

One of the biggest changes I made this year was using respect agreements to establish our classroom norms as well as consequences instead of coming in with the traditional, top-down approach to rules and expectations. 


Well, respect agreements are effective ways to:

  • define (as a community) the set of behaviors we associated with giving and receiving respect, 
  • create opportunity for student input and therefore cultivate buy-in,
  • promote accountability and acceptance of expectations and consequences,
  • and cultivate a sense that the class is a team or unit, working together for the common goal of learning and growing.

When I had to shut down our questioning activity, I didn’t come at them with scolding and shame. Instead, I directed our attention back to that respect agreement, and we discussed how the behaviors I was seeing in that lesson (granted, not from all students but from many) were not meeting the norms we had established together.

Disrupting others’ learning? Messing with others’ work and supplies? Holding side conversations when someone is speaking? We agreed together that those actions did not show respect, and I couldn’t allow the class to continue an activity in which students were continuously disrespecting each other and myself.

Yes, some students were mad. But here’s the thing — they weren’t mad at me for enforcing a consequence. They were mad at each other. Instead of creating a “teacher versus students” kind of moment, falling back on our respect agreement gave me an opportunity to communicate a message of “reinforcing our community” and a belief that we all deserve to be treated with respect.

And how can they argue with that?

How To Create A Respect Agreement

A respect agreement has four parts — student to student, student to teacher, teacher to student, and all to environment. I also threw in a “consequences” part, so that my students could have input on the consequences of breaking our respect agreement. 

While you can vary the materials you use — maybe it’s a gallery walk with chart paper, maybe it’s sticky notes and a spot on the wall, or maybe students are writing on desks with dry erase markers (that’s what we did!) — the first step is to develop the agreement collectively.

Restorative circles (learn more here) are the recommended way to do this. They promote equity of voice as well as inclusivity. 

But I’ll be honest, I just divided students into small groups and asked for student input. I asked them to consider, “what does it look like/sound like/feel like when [a student] shows respect to [another student]?” (Or student to teacher, teacher to student, and everyone to the environment!) Students shared their responses by writing their ideas with dry erase markers on our science lab tables.

I had just a few rules —

  • we don’t erase others ideas (if we disagree, we can put an “X” next to it, and if we see something we agree with, we can put a STAR beside it)
  • all ideas are valid (at this point, at least!)
students wrote on desk to create our respect agreements

While of course I got some silly responses (which I ignored), my students communicated some really great thought. After class, I compiled all of these into a poster broken into the four quadrants, and we talked about what the class created. We discussed if there was anything we disagreed with, or anything we wanted to add.

(I added, “we don’t disrupt others’ learning!”)

And once we were to a point where all had agreed, we signed and posted the document. The goal here is to ensure that everyone has a chance to voice their thoughts and feelings about these expectations, and to communicate that everyone would be held accountable to it.

Building Consequences Into Your Respect Agreements

While we had established our classroom norms, I knew we also needed to talk about consequences. I wasn’t sure how to approach it, so I shared my respect agreements plan with a colleague who was well-versed in trauma-informed teaching. She suggested I bring students into that discussion.

students wrote on desk to create our respect agreements and consequences

So for consequences, I asked students to share what consequences they feel are appropriate and acceptable. We talked about the idea of consequences as “effects” — they aren’t necessarily punishments but they can be a tool we can use to learn how to do something better. (I’m sure I could have improved the definition, but I realized on-the-fly that students were only thinking of punishments and I was trying to move them away from “put you in the corner and laugh at you” as a consequence. 🤦🏼‍♀️🤪)

So anyway, like with the respect agreement, students recorded these on the desks, and I compiled their thoughts. I then “tiered” these from least-impactful (ex/ polite reminder) to most-impactful (ex/ office referral). And similar to our respect agreement process, we discussed my tiered system and then agreed to the order of events. We also discussed that some behaviors might skip levels (ex/ if you punch your peer, you won’t get a polite reminder). Students signed their names to this small poster as well, committing to hold ourselves to these community norms.

The Impact Of Respect Agreements In My Classroom

So far, so good. When I hear or see things that are in conflict with our respect agreement, it’s easy to refer students back to the commitment they made. When I’ve had to enforce consequences (like seat changes or parent contacts), our student-teacher relationships have remained strong.

There are absolutely still behavior challenges, motivation challenges, and the occasional conflicts that arise, but overall, I feel so happy with my classroom culture and relationships, and I truly believe taking the time at the beginning of the year to use this approach has really made a difference.

For More On Classroom Management And Building Community

Classroom Management: Procedures = Prevention

Three Classroom Management Must-Haves For Science Classes

Strategies To Build Trust And Classroom Community

Classroom Procedures Every Teacher Should Use