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Teaching Safety Rules

Teaching children how to be safe is an important part of your job. Designing effective rules can be an important step in helping keep children safe. In this lesson you will learn about why rules are important, the characteristics of effective rules for preschool children, and strategies for teaching rules to young children.

  • Identify what makes a rule effective for preschool children.
  • Distinguish between a rule and an expectation.
  • Create effective rules for a preschool classroom.
  • Explain how to teach rules to preschool children.



Speed Limit - 25MPH

Rules are the guidelines that help all of us know how to act in different situations. Sometimes the rules are clearly stated. They might even be posted in writing:

  • Keep your seatbelt fastened at all times on the airplane.
  • You must be 18 years old to vote.
  • You must drive 25 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood.
Children are accompanied by an adult in an elevator

Other times, the rules are not clearly stated or posted. As adults, we have come to know what is expected of us:

  • Wait in line quietly at the grocery store checkout.
  • Face the front in an elevator.
  • Say, “Hi” when someone greets you.

These behaviors are examples of showing respect or being friendly. No one specifically taught us that it is respectful to face the front and give others personal space on an elevator, but we have come to know this.

Prop up gardening equipment, like rakes, instead of leaving them lying in the grass.

Still other times, we have learned ways of behaving that keep ourselves or others safe. It may not seem like anyone has to tell us to do these things. When you think back to childhood, though, it is likely someone reminded you to do these or similar things:

  • Walk when carrying hot coffee.
  • Prop up gardening equipment, like rakes, instead of leaving them lying in the grass.
  • Turn skillet handles so they don’t stick out where people might bump them.

Our parents or caregivers may have taught us these behaviors. We have picked up on what others do and model their behaviors. Young children are just beginning to learn what it means to be in large groups and public places. They are also just beginning to learn that their behavior affects others. Preschool children live in the here and now; they do not plan their actions or think about consequences the way adults do. It is our job as adults to teach children how to keep themselves and others safe. Teaching children a small number of safety rules is an important part of your job as a preschool teacher.


Effective Rules or Expectations

Rules are just one part of a larger plan for keeping children safe. Remember that rules work side-by-side with other parts of good early childhood teaching: a well-designed environment, appropriate learning activities, and nurturing relationships. Rules are guidelines or reminders about what it means to be a member of the classroom community. Effective rules for preschoolers reflect what we know about how young children learn (Fox, Jack, & Broyles, 2005):

  • Rules should be short and clear. Preschoolers understand short sentences best. A common example is “Use walking feet.” Can you see how this is easier to understand than a sentence like, “When we are in the classroom, you should always walk so you stay safe.”?
  • Rules should be stated positively. Preschoolers have a hard time connecting their behavior to “not to” or “don’t” statements. Therefore, rules should be stated as what children should do (use gentle touches) rather than what they should not do (don’t hit).
  • Rules should be limited in number. Preschoolers can only hold a small number of items in their memory. It is best to teach only three to five rules.
  • Rules should be posted along with pictures. Preschool children are only beginning to learn that print has meaning. Use pictures or drawings to help children understand what rules mean.
Poster: Be Safe, Be Respectful

There are two types of guidelines for classroom behavior: expectations and rules. Expectations are general characteristics or ways you would like children to behave. Examples might include:

  • Be respectful.
  • Be safe.
  • Be friendly.
  • Respect others.
  • Respect the environment.
Staff created and display this poster about playground rules at their program.

Rules help define exactly what expectations mean. Rules are our way of communicating to children what it means to “be respectful.” Examples of rules are:

  • Use walking feet.
  • Clean up toys when you finish with them.
  • Use gentle hands.
  • Follow directions.

As a teacher, you can develop expectations, rules, or both. Remember, though, young children are still developing their cognitive skills. It’s important to keep the rules or expectations short and simple. Do not be afraid to use complex vocabulary like “respectful.” If you teach what it means to be respectful, children will understand it — and you will have broadened their vocabulary in a positive way!

You have many choices in how you design your classroom rules or expectations:

  • You may write the rules and introduce them to the children.
  • You can write the rules together with the children.
  • You can use a set of rules your program or center has agreed upon.

rules posters

Regardless of how you decide on your classroom rules, be sure they meet the guidelines for effective rules described in this lesson. Children sometimes suggest rules that don’t meet the guidelines. For example, children may suggest the rule “Don’t climb the fence on the playground” or “Don’t bite.” You can be prepared for these suggestions and help the children reframe these in positive ways. You could say, “Good, that’s right, we don’t climb the fence. What should we do instead?” You can guide them towards rules like “Keep your feet on the ground” or “Only climb ladders and stairs.”


When Teaching Rules


The first way we help children learn is by being strong role models. We should make our rules come to life every day in our classrooms. You can model respect, safety, teamwork, and many other behaviors throughout the day.

How many times have you seen an adult raise his or her voice to tell children to quiet down? Take a minute to think about the message a child receives in that scenario. Make sure your rules apply to everyone: children and adults. Make a point of thinking out loud about the rules. As you clean up a spill on the floor, you might say, “I want to be safe and responsible. I’m going to clean this spill before someone slips.” All of the adults in the room can get involved. Practice solving problems together in front of the children. Can you think of other times you can model the rules for children?


A well-designed environment prevents safety problems. Your rules should be a part of the environment. Post rules where you are likely to need them: the large group area, the playground, the hallway. When your rules are posted for children to see, you can refer to them quickly and easily. Children can remind themselves and others of the rules, as well. Post your rules at eye level for the children. Be sure to include pictures or drawings of the rules. You can use clip art, hand drawings, or photos of the children.

Remind and Reinforce

Once you have developed effective rules on your own or with the class, it is important to remember to use them! Posting rules, even with a picture, is not enough. We have to actively teach young children how and when to follow the rules. Here are some ideas for teaching the children how to follow the rules:

  • Class discussions. Talk about why we have rules. Talk about situations when the rules help us. Ask children to generate examples.
  • Act it out. Let children role play the rules. Have them show each other how to be gentle, what walking feet look like, etc. Also remember it can be fun to act out non-examples of the rules (when it can be done safely). If “inside voices” is one of your rules, let children demonstrate what “outside voices” sound like. This will help them contrast the two volumes.
  • Play games. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning has several examples of ways preschool teachers can help children remember and practice the rules. Watch the Stop/Go video (Video 5 in Module 1 at for ideas.
  • Refer to the rules when children use challenging behavior. This will help you stay positive with children and redirect them to an appropriate behavior.
  • Read scripted stories about the rules and classroom safety (for example, “I Can Stay Safe” from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning;


Sometimes we get in the bad habit of telling children what not to do. Read and review the Rules Activity. Take a look at the classroom rules. Rewrite them so they are stated positively. Then compare your ideas to the suggested responses.


Use the Developing Rules activity to develop rules for your own classroom. If you already have rules, use it to decide whether they are strong rules for preschool children. Review this form and discuss the materials with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


An expectation is a general description of the characteristics and behaviors you would like children to have. Expectations usually apply to every setting a child may be in. Examples are “Be respectful,” “Be kind,” or “Be a good friend.”
A rule is a specific way of behaving in a certain setting. Examples are “Use walking feet,” “Use inside voices,” “Share with your friends.”


Which of the following is an example of an effective rule for preschool children?
True or False? Seven rules is a good number of rules to teach preschool children.
Ms. Leeza, a preschool teacher, sees a child climbing up the slide. They have a rule about sliding down the slide. What should Leeza say to redirect the child back to the rule?
References & Resources

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. 

Fox, L., Jack, S., & Broyles, L. (2005). Program-wide positive behavior support: Supporting young children’s social-emotional development and addressing challenging behavior. Tampa, Florida: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute. 

Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. 

Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention.