Tip #21: Power up behaviour scripts with social norms

Behaviour scripts are powerful tools in any calm, effective teacher’s behaviour repertoire. Boosting them with social norms that tap into peer culture will make them almost irresistible to your pupils.

Behaviour scripts and peer power

Behaviour scripts are cornerstones of any calm, effective response to good and bad behaviour in the classroom. The time to craft and learn them is more than worth it when they roll off the tongue in the moments you need them most.

What can be more powerful than that? Peer culture. In a conflict between teacher culture and peer culture, peer culture wins every time (Nuthall, 2007). Peer cultures can make or break classroom cultures and tapping into their power is the key to a harmonious classroom.

What’s a social norm?

A social norms approach offers us the tools to harness this hard-to-reach network. According to Ahmed, Mitchell and Trevit (2018), social norms are ‘explicit or implicit rules that guide, control, exclude and suggest social behaviour in particular contexts’ in addition to ‘a pattern of group behaviour or a common understanding of what should be done or should not be done in order to remain a member of a group.’ (p. 5)

Even if you’ve never heard of them, you’ve felt them. In this Covid-19 world we’re in, they’re implicit in the hard stares people given to people not social distancing or wearing face masks. They’ve been used by the government and marketing campaigns for many years. Social norms have reduced domestic energy consumption up to 4% by providing people with comparisons to their neighbours (BIT, 2015) and they’ve reduced the amount students drink at university (Ahmed et al, 2018).

There are two main types: descriptive norm messages and injunctive norm messages. In a nutshell, descriptive norms describe what most people do and injunctive norms describe most people approve or disapprove of.

Constructing descriptive norms

Descriptive norm messages describe what is typically done and they are associated with successful behaviour change in various studies (Berkowitz, 2005; Schultz et al, 2007). They are simple to incorporate into our behaviour scripts – just highlight the majority of the class that is doing the right thing, paying specific attention to concrete details so other children know exactly what their peers are doing.

For example, a descriptive norm for paying attention to teacher talk may highlight the majority (in bold) who have forward-facing eyes and shoulders and still hands (concrete cues, in italic):

Thank you to the middle tables who are showing me they’re ready because their eyes and shoulders are facing me and their hands are still.

For transitions to independent work, the following descriptive norm highlights individuals as well as the group:

I can see that X’s book is open and their pencil is working furiously. And Y’s too. And the whole of Z’s table. Thank you.

Boomerang effects and injunctive norms

While descriptive norm messages are associated with successful behaviour change, some studies have reported ‘boomerang effects’ (Berkowitz, 2005; Schultz et al, 2007). In one case, the descriptive norm telling students that most only drunk a few drinks in a night reduced heavy drinkers’ drinking, but increased light drinkers’ and teetotallers’ drinking.

Boomerang effects occur as a result of people’s unwillingness to deviate from the norm — even if their behaviour is more desirable than the norm described, people will still strive to be as close as they can to it and may make their behaviour less desirable as a result (Schultz et al, 2007). Fortunately, injunctive norms are an effective antidote and they’re very easy to incorporate.

Constructing injunctive norms

To construct injunctive norms, include a description of what the majority approve or disapprove of (in bold). The ‘paying attention’ descriptive norm becomes:

Thank you to the middle tables who are showing me they’re ready because their eyes and shoulders are facing me and their hands are still. You‘re helping others by being so quick to get on to the next step.

The injunctive norm lets those who are already doing the right thing know that their peers approve of their behaviour. It’s also evident in the improvement to the ‘transition to independent work’ descriptive norm:

I can see that X’s book is open and their pencil is working furiously. And Y’s too. And the whole of Z’s table. Your class are so proud of how hard you’re working.

Social norm behaviour scripts are very simple to create, but remember to stick to these rules of thumb:

  1. Highlight the concrete cues for your target behaviour.
  2. Narrate the majority who show examples of these concrete cues.
  3. Describe the class’ approval.
  4. Craft them way before you need them.
  5. Learn them in front of a mirror.

You can use this ready-made social norm creator here (or here as an editable doc).

Create your own myth

The really juicy part of social norm messages is that they work even when the majority aren’t doing what you want. In my experience, when being introduced to a class where the majority aren’t behaving positively, a few judicious social norm scripts that highlight one or two key individuals quickly get the majority on board.

This post is also available as an infographic.

Do you use behaviour scripts? Do you incorporate social norms into your verbal feedback ? Share your experiences below.


Ahmed SK, Mitchell P and Trevitt J (2018) Social norms approach in secondary schools: literature review. Available at: https://research.acer.edu.au/well_being/9/ [accessed 7 August 2020].

Behavioural Insights Team (2015) EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights. Available at: https://www.bi.team/publications/east-four-simple-ways-to-apply-behavioural-insights/ [accessed 24 April 2020].

Berkowitz AD (2005) ‘An overview of the social norms approach’. In: Lederman L and Stewart L (eds), Changing the Culture of College Drinking. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp.193–214.

Nuthall G (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: Nzcer Press.

Schultz PW, Nolan JM, Cialdini RB, Goldstein NJ and Griskevicius V (2007) ‘The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms’. Psychological Science, 18(5), pp. 429-434.

4 thoughts on “Tip #21: Power up behaviour scripts with social norms

  1. This was a really interesting read. I totally agree that relationships are key. I always used ‘social norms’ to create a positive classroom climate, without really knowing the science behind. That sense of belonging is crucial. When I think back to students who previously displayed ‘extreme behaviours’ and had been removed from previous schools, they were able to become valued members of the classroom.
    In my role now, I often model lessons in classes. Classes that do not have an established sense of community are challenging at times, with individuals working hard to ‘dominate’. Reinforcing ‘social norms’ brings that sense of community to a class, now I know why. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you lovely feedback!

      I’m glad you’ve found it useful and I completely agree that so many research-backed approaches are what good, experienced teachers tend towards without thinking about it. It’s wonderful to hear that you have used a similar approach successfully in modelling lessons. In my previous role, I taught comuting across the whole school in the afternoons (after teaching my own class in the mornings) so had minimal time to build deep relationships with classes. Thankfully, borrowing from the relationships the classes already had meant I could slip into being someone in their side and meant teaching and learning happened quickly. Social norms are very powerful.


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