Developing Norms: the "Secret Sauce" to Support Productive Group Work

Setting group work values first leads to more productive and satisfying meetings
97 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

An effective meeting, or any group activity such as a classroom discussion, requires more than publishing an agenda. To support the purpose of the gathering, and honor its participants, it is important to collaboratively establish norms for group behaviors. They are the "secret sauce" to a productive meeting. There are a variety of protocols that support the norming process, some of which are included in this strategy. All of them, however, adhere to value that the expectations need to be created by the group. Slowing down to review, select, and then implement a norming protocol is a critical, and primary step in organizing for effort.

Implementation Steps

15 minutes


  1. Use this Protocol for Creating Norms from or create your own. Keep in mind that the purpose of the protocol is to insure that everyone have a voice..

  2. Introduce the norming protocol as part of the purpose of the initial meeting, or introduce the norming protocol to the class with a stated purpose for the norms. For example, tell students that the community is thinking through how they should work and speak with each other during partner and small group work.

  3. Share the chosen protocol with the group. Take the time to allow everyone to read it (reason to keep it simple and short) or for you to unpack it collaboratively with the group.

  4. Follow the chosen protocol process to elicit suggestions for norms.

  5. Note all suggestions. Try not to discourage repetitive suggestions.

  6. Organize the norms to eliminate repeated suggestions, and to create clear expectations for specific elements of the work such as speaking, participating, etc.. This can be done by the group if this helps clarify, or if the suggestions are straightforward the group leader can organize independently. It is important to stay true to the group's intended suggestions.

  7. Display and discuss the norms prior to meetings.

For more information about this strategy look at this PDF from the School Reform Initiative on Forming Ground Rules. Try this Rating Group Norms from Thinking Collaborative as a Norm Inventory tool

Establishing Classroom Norms

Norms for group work behaviors transform student discussions because the norms create clear expectations for all members of the group. To create that understanding, as well as buy-in, students should be at the center of the discussion that creates the norms. The teacher can use questions and wonderings to guide the process. Once discussed and established, it is important to display them where all can see, and to proactively return to reviewing the norms prior to group activities.

Implementation steps: 

  1. Set the purpose for the discussion about norms. For example, students will be working in lab groups. I need to establish safety, work responsibilities, discussion norms. To make sure these are useful for more than one purpose, I'm going to break this into two separate discussions, done at different times. Safety is a separate topic. I'll focus on group work and discussion.

  2. Make your own list of what behaviors you want to students to address. This is not intended for student use, it is to help you remember what you want to cover during the student discussion.

  3. Introduce the purpose to students.

  4. Invite students to make suggestions on the ways we support each other to ____. This list needs to be located in a place where all can see, the suggestions students make. Don't edit and try not to discourage students who may be offering repetitive suggestions. You are not only eliciting their ideas, you are encouraging everyone to be a participant.

  5. If needed, use guiding questions and wonderings to get students to dig more deeply. For example, I'm wondering what would be an example of a not helpful suggestion?

  6. With student input, group the ideas into categories. This makes it easier to create a short list of norms.

  7. Rewrite the norms and display/share with students.

  8. Proactively return to these norms prior to group work.

  9. Debrief the norms; initially do so every time. Thereafter, debrief periodically and as needed. Be open to reviewing to revise the norms if needed.

For more information, explore this article on Norms from Classroom Culture. 

Questions to Consider

  1. Are there members of the learning community (children and adults alike) who may have emotional or physical barriers to what the group might define as full participation? If so, how will you insure that their needs are represented fairly and appropriately?

  2. How can you support your learning community to internalize the norms positively?

  3. What activities could you add to the initial norming process, and to the initial attempts to use the norms, that would support participants to be more aware of their own, and their group's, behaviors?

Coach Tips

Cheryl Belknap
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

It is easy, in a time-compressed environment, to want to get something done and over with. Slowing down that process can feel like a waste of time. However, norms are worth the time and effort. They are the group's agreement with one another, and therefore are not imposed on any member of the group. This has a positive impact on group work.

Remember to facilitate the introduction and development of norms, rather than lead it. A facilitator is not pushing an agenda but instead is ensuring that all voices are heard, and that agreements that everyone can abide by are reached.

Tech Tools

Google Docs

  1. Google docs are electronic documents that can be shared within an entire community.

  2. Using a shared Google Doc provides the entire group a readily accessible copy of the norms at all times. If settings are set so that members of the group can add comments, the norms can also be a document that can be returned to as a work in progress, to revise and improve. A Google doc can also be reproduced by each owner, and connected to a personal / group reflection process that is automatic, memorialized, and cumulative over time.

Related Lessons

  1. Explore this lesson It's Not Just Game Play, by 3rd grade teacher Michelle Marcus, to see how students work together to play math games and communicate their mathematical understandings.
  2. Explore this lesson What Are Our Norms for How We Listen?, by 1st grade teacher Amanda Cole, to see how to create and practice norms for student listening.
  3. Explore this lesson Setting the Stage for Collaboration, by 7th grade ELA teacher Julia Withers, to see how to create a set of classroom norms for discussion.
  4. Explore this lesson Working Together: Creating a Contract for Group Work, by 6th grade science teacher Erin Greenwood, to see how students collaboratively create a contract for group work.
  5. Explore this lesson Mirror, Mirror: Using Class Video to Set Norms, by 9th grade ELA teacher Tim Papageorge, to see how to use class video to establish norms.
  6. Explore this lesson What is Math Anyway?, by 3rd grade teacher Michelle Marcus, to see how to create and model procedures of math discussion and journaling.
  7. Explore this lesson Setting the Stage, by 5th grade ELA teacher Teresa Klein, to see how to set and practice the expectations of all parts of a Readers Workshop.

Considerations for Norms in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

Norming is a critical element of creating and supporting efficient, fair, collaborative meetings. It does originate, however, with the idea that there are "shared" ideas of what and how a group should and could interact. Just as we know that our students come to us with their learning and skills in different places, so too do the members of a team or group. Prior to norming, unwrapping our assumptions of what is given and expected in our collaboration allows all members of the community to not only understand how others value and see participation, but also reminds us that the voice of the community is as important as the results of their work. The resources included here should be integrated into the norms process described above, and are particularly recommended for a deeply divided group, a community taking on the important work of tackling the critical topic of systematic racism and how the school can identify those levers, so that the community can then address them.

Implementation steps:

  1. Review Beginning Courageous Conversations about Race. Note the "Four Agreements," as these are the additions that should be added to the norming process. These agreements are summarized in this document, which should be included with the suggested materials to be provided to participants. However, it is important that the leaders all read the full article. Guiding questions for a leadership group discussion are included here, but should be modified to meet the needs of the leadership team. In addition, we strongly recommend that two additional agreements are included:

    • Assume best intentions and take responsibility for impact. This is an important agreement, and needs explaining. It is often the case that a behavior that arises in a difficult or challenging conversation is considered by the group, and its facilitator, as not intended. Can a person be faulted if their intent in saying something hurtful or controversial was a good one? Let's test this relatively common social norm with an analogy (from How "Good Intent" Undermines Diversity and Inclusion). If I step on your foot, does it matter if I meant to? It still hurts. And if your foot is being stepped on, deliberately and without the intent to hurt, does it change how it feels for you?  So when we do not self examine where our "intent" is coming from, we are are not taking ownership for its impact.

    • Avoid detours. When someone shares something that is uncomfortable to discuss, it's tempting to deflect with something else to think about instead of addressing the uncomfortable issue. This stops progress, discourages risk taking and honesty.

  2. Guiding Questions:

    • What is the intent in making a particular point?

    • Are you present and listening?

    • Does this need immediate action?

    • Does this contribute to what we are discussing?

  3. Guiding Statements:

    • Speak your truth. Do so with care for others.

    • Monitor whether you are present, and listening.

    • Be open about emotions. Name yours, and help others to do the same.