With hundreds of rambunctious children crammed under one roof, it's no wonder that schools are the places where good manners are often forgotten. We asked etiquette experts to share tips for following modern manners in the classroom, cafeteria, playground, and beyond.
While your kids may already be familiar with basic niceties, such as saying "please" or covering their mouth when sneezing, the schoolyard raises the bar on etiquette expectations. Children spend roughly a third of their day at school, so it's important that manners don't fall by the wayside when parents are out of sight. Good manners give a child the confidence to face anything and feel comfortable. They also allow him the opportunity to focus on the situation at hand, whether it's learning something new, listening to the teacher, or socializing with classmates, says Savannah Shaw, etiquette consultant and owner of Savannah Shaw & Associates. Experts agree that well-mannered children grow up to be more liked by their peers and they become better leaders. "Manners are just social behaviors that help us build and strengthen relationships," says Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D, director at Emily Post Institute and coauthor of The Gift of Good Manners. Parents should encourage good manners by instilling core values (such as respect) that drive good manners. Here, we address the morals to instill in your child and the manners he should practice in elementary school to prepare him for the world beyond.
General School Etiquette
In the Classroom
While rules vary depending on the teacher, certain manners stay the same whatever the class setting. These manners extend beyond the fundamentals of saying "please" and "thank you" to others. When interacting with teachers, children should listen attentively, raise their hand before speaking during lessons, make eye contact, and be polite when talking. Kids should also treat their peers well by listening when they speak, respecting personal space and property, and covering their mouths when coughing. Respecting the classroom, a communal space intended to be enjoyed by everyone, is another way to practice good manners; kids can do this by keeping the room tidy, for instance, hanging up their coats and putting books back on the shelf. For all do's, there are equally important don'ts kids should abide by: Don't lie, don't cheat (but do confess if you get caught), don't scream, don't interrupt, don't roll eyes, don't make fun of others for being different (in dress or speech). Regardless of the specific class rules, it's critical for children to follow them out of respect for one another and their teacher.
In the Cafeteria
"Table manners stem from two things," Dr. Post says. "Don't embarrass yourself or gross everyone out." This doesn't mean children have to dine with a full set of flatware in the cafeteria, but they shouldn't talk with their mouth full, either. Just as they do when dining at home or at someone else's house, kids should stay in their seat when eating (instead of running around disturbing others), and they should clean up after themselves by throwing away garbage and recycling cans or bottles. Also, they should not grab food or throw food at others to start a fight, or cut or "back cut" others who are waiting patiently in line for food.
On the Playground
Even when children are playing outside, they can still keep manners in mind. Kids should patiently wait for their turn, whether they're next to hop on the swing or play with the soccer ball. (And, of course, they should be mindful if the next person is waiting.) If your munchkin has a hard time waiting in line (as some adults do), explain the situation in simple terms, Dr. Post recommends: Say, "Some days you're first and some days you're last." Recess is often a free-for-all, which means it's also easy for kids to exclude others. Encourage your child to invite anyone who is playing alone to join her group's game or activity. "Such a small thing can make such a big difference for someone who isn't feeling included," says Aimee Symington, CEO of Finesse Worldwide Inc. and creator of Blunders, a board game on manners. Along the same lines, gossiping and bullying are huge no-nos, because they can harm others. "I tell my kids they need to be the friend they want to have," Dr. Post says. "They'll get that back from other kids as well," she adds.
Policies about technology differ by school district; some students are allowed to bring smartphones and tablets to class while other kids are lucky to have access to a computer lab. But one thing is clear: New technology is blurring the lines when it comes to old-fashioned manners. First and foremost, teach children that "technology is a privilege, not a right," Shaw says. Second, help kids practice self-control. "Don't let kids use electronics in place of spending time with a person," she says. When talking to someone in person, though, kids should not talk while being preoccupied with a gadget; it's bad manners to divide attention. When communicating via technology, kids should never write anything (on the phone, in an email, or on a social-media site) that they wouldn't say to someone's face. "If your child has the ability to use electronics, teach her at a very young age, that whatever she posts can be seen by anyone at any time and can stay out there forever," Symington says.
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How You Can Instill Good Manners
Practice the "Golden Rule" of parenting. As a parent, it's your responsibility to know the rules of the classroom and the school. Regardless of the specific guidelines, help your child practice good manners by setting an example. "Words are good, but they must be backed up with actions," Shaw says. She suggests slowing down -- don't be too busy for showing good manners. Take the time to be a reliable neighbor, don't gossip about others, respect your children's opinions, be present at the dinner table, and leave your smartphone in the other room. "Always be the kind of person you want your child to be," Dr. Post says.
Set clear expectations. State your expectations for good manners clearly, and help your child practice them until a good habit develops. Acknowledge the manners your kid get right, and give gentle reminders on how to improve. "Reinforce good manners until it becomes second nature," Symington says.
Identify problem areas. Have casual conversations with your child to discuss what's happening at school. Ask how certain situations make him and his classmates feel. If you can't get him to confide in you, try chatting during another activity, perhaps when you're playing catch or doing chores. "It's amazing how kids will open up if they feel that they aren't being judged," Shaw says. If your child mentions a fight that broke out on the playground, it might be the perfect opportunity to talk about bullying and being inclusive. And don't be oblivious if your child is the one who needs to improve his manners. When in doubt, check in with the teacher.