Who Cares About Classroom Norms?

Human Needs and Community Healing

By Eric Fishman

Illustrator: Olivia Wise

It was March, that gray and slushy month in New England, what feels like the longest month of the school year. Crammed into a small corner room — in life before the pandemic — my 4th- and 5th-grade math class was struggling. 

Alex sat hunched over his desk, head on his arms. He had already been anxious about the difficulty of the math problems, and then Shaun made a comment (celebrating how “easy” the work was) that Alex interpreted as an insult. Alex shut down and refused to work or even talk to me.   

Meanwhile, Shaun and Kai had gotten into an argument about the soccer game that had just concluded at recess. Sophie joined in to voice her opinion. And Liz looked up hopelessly from her work, shooting them an angry glare. Every time I intervened, the class would focus in for a while, but then we would — seemingly inevitably — devolve to another frustrated impasse. 

I was looking for something to help us restart as a community, and I began to reflect on our classroom norms, which hung lifeless and limp on an anchor chart by the whiteboard at the front of the room. 

The Homogeneity of Classroom Norms
In my six years as an educator, I’ve led “classroom norms” discussions with many different classes: from 11th-grade chemistry students in a Philadelphia charter school, to graduate students training to be teachers, to 3rd-grade students at a private school in suburban Boston. In this particular situation, my 4th- and 5th-grade math students were middle and upper class, in a private school with about half white students and half students of color. 

Despite significant differences in age, race, and class between these groups, students everywhere seemed to give similar answers when asked to suggest classroom norms. “Only one person talking at a time.” “Focus on your work.” “Use kind words.” Although students were sometimes eager to share their thoughts during our conversations about norms, few students seemed invested in upholding our “class constitutions” once we had signed them. The process flattened the varied cultural topographies of the groups, erasing what could have been significant differences in values and needs, and the resulting agreements did not succeed in anchoring communities to the classroom. Many students treated them as a required ritual that had no personal implications.

We’re all trained from a young age in the “right answers” to the classroom norms discussion. We know which rules we are supposed to regurgitate. I’ve tried a variety of strategies to add nuance to these discussions: from visualization exercises (“imagine a really positive classroom community that you’ve been a part of . . .”), to written or artistic reflections on the features of supportive communities, to using the U.S. Constitution as an (imperfect) example of a community agreement. No matter what strategies I used, though, the “culture of schooling” seemed to lift up the same rules.

We’re all trained from a young age in the “right answers” to the classroom norms discussion. We know which rules we are supposed to regurgitate.

Whose values are centered by this “culture of schooling”? In the United States, these sets of explicit and implicit expectations were put in place by the people in charge of schools and school systems: middle- and upper-class white people. The phrase “classroom norms” is no accident; the rules my students were suggesting reflected the priorities of a system designed to maintain the boundaries between behaviors — and people — who the system considers “normal” and those it considers “abnormal.” Classroom norms are too often part of a culture that trains upper and middle class white children into anesthetized conformity with unjust systems of power, even as it excludes the beliefs, values, and practices of other stakeholders — such as communities of color, Indigenous communities, queer communities, people with disabilities, and working class communities. 

Student Needs, Human Needs
Let’s return to my dreary and anxious math class. In this school, math block brought together students from different homeroom classes, and we had created a class constitution specifically for our math class at the beginning of the year. I kept referring back to it, to no avail. “Remember article four of our constitution!” I would implore, and students would roll their eyes. It was clear they didn’t feel our community agreement was a document that concerned each of them intimately. They had signed it because we all made it, but it was no longer speaking — or had never spoken — to them on a deeper, heart-centered level.

My students seemed trapped in their bubbles of suffering. Shaun, Kai, and Sophie all struggled with anxiety; Alex and Kai had related learning disabilities; multiple students had strong sensory needs such as auditory hypersensitivity. Instead of bonding the group together, these similar struggles were manifesting in ways that pitted the students against each other. I knew they were emotionally intelligent, sensitive kids. We had the makings of a mutually supportive community. But something prevented them from being able to help each other in the ways they needed. 

I started to wonder how classroom norms could be used as a tool of connection and healing. I reached out to educator Lisa Nam, and she showed me the “inventory of needs” developed by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Nam had been experimenting with adapting their practices for her classroom, including using the “inventory” as a way for students to reflect on met and unmet needs and generate classroom norms that would feel more meaningful. She suggested I try out this reflection with my math class. The “inventory” contains a list of several dozen human needs, arranged into categories: connection, physical well-being, honesty, play, peace, autonomy, and meaning. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive or universal, but it’s a good place to start. I edited the list to make sure all of the words were developmentally appropriate. For example, I removed “sexual expression” from the list. There are also many synonyms or near synonyms in the list, such as “efficacy” and “effectiveness,” which I condensed so it would feel less overwhelming.

The next day, I led the class through a guided reflection based on the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s practices and Nam’s classroom adaptation. 

“Who has felt like they have a need that isn’t being met right now in math class?” I asked.

Everyone raised their hand.

“I’ve been feeling that way too. Today we’re going to be reflecting on what needs each of us is feeling right now in our lives in general, and consider how we might be able to support each other in meeting these needs — at least in math class.” I informed them that although we would use these reflections to create a new community agreement, no one would see their individual reflections except for me.

I passed out highlighters in two colors and asked students to take time to reflect on their lives at the moment — both at school and at home. What needs were being met for them? Which were not being met? I had them identify between three and five of each on the needs inventory that I had modified. Next, they each chose one need that was not being met and I had them write a reflection based on the following prompts:

“A need that is not being met for me right now is ___ because . . .”

“In math class, a way Mr. Eric or other students would help me meet this need would be . . .”

“This would help to meet my need because . . .” 

I circulated as they worked, as the students needed a variety of levels of structure and guidance in order to successfully complete the reflection. The difficulty — but also the beauty — of this particular structure is that it encourages students to consider the root causes of what they want. I supported students in moving past surface-level complaints (such as “I don’t like it when so-and-so criticizes me”) to figure out the underlying need (perhaps “respect” or “belonging”). Once students identified the need, a variety of different requests become available — instead of the single fix that may have occurred to them at first. If a student identified “respect” as a need, for example, the not-as-helpful request “don’t criticize me” might become a request to “celebrate when I do something well” or “use a different way to deliver constructive feedback” or “if you don’t like something, talk with me about it after class instead of in front of everyone.” 

From Needs to Community Agreements
For some students, connecting their needs from their lives as a whole to the specifics of math class was challenging, and the activity brought up larger struggles. Shaun, for example, reflected on how his need for rest was not being met, and how his anxiety was preventing him from sleeping. He found me at recess the next day to tell me more. “I dream that I’m a gladiator in the ring, fighting, fighting . . . I wake up so tired.” His vulnerable revelation led to larger conversations with his parents outside of the classroom, about considering ways we could all help support Shaun, as well as finding him additional mental health supports. 

On her reflection, Sophie shared that her need for harmony was not being met in class, and that the conflicts between other students were emotionally disruptive for her, even when she wasn’t directly involved. In a later conversation with me, Sophie said, “I always feel like I need to keep the peace when something comes up!”

Alex shared that his need for respect wasn’t being met, and that he needed me and the other students to demonstrate that they trusted him. Later, he told me that he felt like other students were always misinterpreting his comments. “Anytime I say anything, people think it’s an insult, even when it’s not!” He also shared that he needed me to demonstrate that I trusted him to be able to work through the math problems at his own pace.  

As I read through their responses, I noted that students had identified a variety of needs that weren’t being met. However, three major categories emerged: cooperation, purpose, and respect. Students had made specific requests of each other and of me: from maintaining a quiet, peaceful space, to trusting each other’s good intentions. The next day, I shared the results of the reflections (anonymously) with the class. 

“As I read through your reflections, I saw some patterns. Many of you focused on similar needs, or made similar requests of the group. Let’s think about how we can organize these into a new classroom agreement.”

I uncovered a two-column table on a piece of chart paper. One column was labeled “needs,” and the other “requests.” In the needs column, I had written “cooperation,” “purpose,” and “respect.” 

“These are the three main categories of needs people were feeling in this class,” I said. “I’ll share some of the requests people made of the group for each of these needs, and we can work together to phrase them in ways we can all understand and can uphold.”

“As I read through your reflections, I saw some patterns. Many of you focused on similar needs, or made similar requests of the group. Let’s think about how we can organize these into a new classroom agreement.”

“The first need students felt wasn’t being met was a need for cooperation,” I told the class. “Multiple students reflected that the level of conflict in the classroom was making it difficult to concentrate on learning. One request was that we ‘keep the peace.’ Are there other ways we might phrase this, or other related requests we could make?” 

“A thing that feels important about this to me is having a more quiet space when we’re working independently,” shared Liz. A couple other students nodded.

I wrote both of these requests on the chart paper, and we continued down the list until we had a complete document. 

“This might need to change over the course of the semester,” I noted at the end of the discussion. “Let’s check back in a few weeks to see if our needs are different, and if we want to modify our agreement to show that. But until then, let’s see if we can gently remind each other when these needs and requests come up in class.”

This was by no means a perfect fix for our classroom community. But it did instigate a significant shift in the language students used with each other. One day shortly after our needs discussion, Kai was tapping his pencil loudly on the desk. Shaun, given his sensory needs, previously may have had a volatile response to this, which might have led Kai to retort or shut down. Instead, Shaun said calmly, “That’s not meeting my need for purpose, because I can’t concentrate.” A surprised Kai looked up and said “Oh,” and stopped. 

Another time, Sophie, Alex, and Liz were working in a small group on a problem, and I noticed that Sophie kept cutting Alex off when he was sharing. “Sophie, I’m noticing that Alex’s need for respect might not be being met right now when you’re talking before he’s finished,” I observed. Sophie glanced over at Alex in concern, and apologized.

Future Paths
There are adaptations to this model that I will make next time. First, I might consider having the students analyze the responses themselves (with identifying information removed), sorting the needs into categories, and looking for patterns. This could help them have more ownership of the final document.

The other major change I will make would be to fit this conversation into a larger discussion about human needs, school, and society. How were the needs we were discussing being met or inhibited by other structures in the school? By systems of support and systems of oppression present in society as a whole? We were fortunate, for example, to be in a school where students had small and differentiated math classes. In addition, the parents of my students had economic privilege, affording access to mental health care and academic supports outside of the classroom. Identifying supports that are already present can help cultivate gratitude and resilience. 

One possibility for how to place this conversation into a larger framework would be to apply a “human needs analysis” to historical stories of oppression and resistance. For example, when studying the violent history of forced assimilation in Native residential boarding schools, students could explore what human needs were being taken away by these schools, and what needs students and communities were able to reclaim for themselves through acts of resistance. 

Of course, the practices I’m describing, and the practices developed by the Center for Nonviolent Communication more broadly, are one of many possible approaches that could help students build transformative community. Restorative justice, in particular, offers a compatible lens. And any one discussion, or handful of discussions — no matter how well facilitated — cannot create lasting community. However, needs-based framing does offer a useful perspective from which to view our work as educators. 

If the goal of “traditional” class constitutions is to help students consider the impact of their actions on the functioning of the classroom as a whole, using needs-based reflections can lead students toward a different form of accountability: supporting each other’s fundamental needs as people. Needs framing can also help students (and adults) gain insight into their own emotional landscapes. 

I’ve found that since doing this activity, I’ve made more space in the classroom for students to develop needs-based connections. One simple shift was changing the question I asked for our weekly group celebration meeting. Instead of asking, “Who did something great this week that you’d like to shout out?” I asked, “Who gave you support this week, and how did they help you meet a need?” Another small change was in the way I gave students feedback. For instance, I might celebrate a student by saying, “I noticed how you really met your need for support today by asking your partner to help you when you struggled with a problem.”

Terrifying, Beautiful Connections
All of this happened long before the pandemic. Asking “what do you need?” has always been an act of resistance within neoliberal school systems that devalue the human needs of individual students and teachers. But this question feels even more essential now. My hypocritical school district claims to be looking out for our needs, while simultaneously trying to force us to return to school buildings amidst the most dangerous conditions since the beginning of the pandemic. Clearly, support is not going to come from those in power; we’ll have to find it within our classrooms and schools. As my class and I try to reach across screens and faulty internet connections, I find myself drawn to a stanza by Lynn Ungar: 

Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)

The connections have been brought to the surface. But needs-based reflections help us name the connections, strengthen them, and repair them when they crack. What would it mean for our classrooms, our schools, and our societies if we were to support students in developing these radical forms of communication?

The Center for Nonviolent Communication. Needs Inventory. (2005). Retrieved from cnvc.org/training/resource/needs-inventory.

Ungar, Lynn. 2020. “Pandemic.” Retrieved from jewishjournal.com/spiritual/poetry/312324/poem-pandemic.

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Eric Fishman (ejp.fishman@gmail.com) currently teaches 5th and 6th grade at the Mission Hill School, a Boston public pilot school. He is also an editor of Young Radish, a magazine of poetry and art by kids and teens. 

Illustrator Olivia Wise’s work can be seen at oliviawisestudio.com.