Social Thinking Articles


How is Teaching Hidden Rules Different From Teaching About Expected/Unexpected Behavior?

hidden rules expected unexpected

© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Hidden rules and expected/unexpected behaviors are core Social Thinking Vocabulary concepts and we often get questions about teaching these concepts, similar to this one:

I am a teacher trying to teach a lesson about hidden rules but am not sure how they are different from expected and unexpected behaviors?

It’s a great question, so let’s start with hidden rules and some definitions.

What are hidden rules (or hidden expectations) and why do we teach about this?

We use the words “hidden rules” to explain that there are social expectations that teachers, parents, and peers don’t talk about, but that we are all expected to follow based on what’s happening around us (the situation/context). And, since all things social are not exactly black and white, more recently I have begun to call these “hidden expectations” rather than “hidden rules”, since so many of our students interpret “rules” in an always-the-same/never changes manner.

Hidden expectations apply to all different types of situations and contexts. Think about it: no matter where we find ourselves, when we are around other people there is a set of hidden expectations we all share.

So we start with describing that hidden expectations exist, and then we help our kids learn to figure what they may be. For our elementary age students, we can use our book, You are a Social Detective as a starting point to teach them how they can use their eyes, ears and brain to begin to figure out the hidden rules. Students usually enjoy the process of learning to notice the situation and then look for different social cues to figure out the hidden expectations. This is true as long as adults don’t use this information to blame students for doing behavior that is considered unexpected in the situation.

As you help your students explore the hidden expectations, it will be important to make this a non-blaming lesson. Your goal is helping students develop better social detective or social spy skills. You’re not teaching about hidden expectations to try and get kids to simply behave! After all, most adults do unexpected things on a regular basis, too. They may eat food they know they shouldn’t, drive past the speed limit on purpose, or stay up too late at night.

Connecting Hidden Expectations to Expected/Unexpected Behaviors

Part of figuring out the hidden expectations is to figure out what may be “expected” and “unexpected” within the situation being explored. All social behavior is guided by what’s happening around us. That means the context or situation are clues that help us figure out how to behave.

As you teach students to notice hidden expectations, you can also teach about the behaviors we expect from each other to help keep people calm and comfortable when working, playing or just sharing space together.

If our behaviors in a situation help others feel comfortable or happy around us, we say those are expected behaviors for the situation (and often these are the same as the hidden expectations). Behaviors produced in a situation that make others feel uncomfortable, stressed or unhappy are those that fail to meet the hidden expectations. They are unexpected behaviors that adults may refer to as “naughty”, “annoying”, etc. Unexpected behaviors can lead to a student getting into trouble with the teacher, peers or other adults, or to others having odd thoughts about the student.

To summarize, first acknowledge that hidden expectations exist in all social situations. Then add a tool! One way to figure out the expected behaviors is to categorize behavior into:

  1. Expected behavior: behavior that keeps others feeling calm in that situation
  2. Unexpected behavior: behavior that others may find stressful or makes another person(s) uncomfortable in that situation.

Here’s an example to illustrate these concepts.

Hidden Expectations for the situation: Individual Work Time in Class


Expected Behaviors

Unexpected Behaviors

Quiet voice

Talking out loud to others

Only school related work on desk

Looking at a comic book brought from home

Working on the assignment

Telling other students what they should be doing

Asking for help as needed

Getting up from desk and wandering around the room when not sure what to do

There are endless situations that can be explored at school, home and in the community to help individuals learn to figure out the hidden expectations. Practice this with your students by exploring some of the following situations:

  • Getting ready for bed
  • Doing homework
  • Sharing a TV or computer with other members of their family
  • Shopping in a grocery store
  • Working in a group with other students
  • Having a classroom discussion
  • Lining up to go outside
  • Joining a group on the playground
  • Using a climbing structure
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Asking for help in class

We All Affect Each Other When Sharing Space or Interacting

Next you can teach that groups of people, large and small, feel the most comfortable working or playing with another person who is following the hidden expectations. When we’re in the presence of others, what we do impacts how others may feel and think about us. This can also impact how people treat us and in turn, how we feel about ourselves and those around us.

Through Social Thinking we describe this as the Social Emotional Chain Reaction. In any situation….

  • Hidden expectations can be figured out by exploring the expected and unexpected behaviors for that situation
  • Other people have thoughts and feelings about the behaviors a person does in a situation
  • Based on how they think or feel about the behavior, they have different types of reactions or responses
  • How people react and respond to us impacts how we feel about them as well as how we possibly feel about ourselves!

(Learn more about this in our free article, “Social Behavior Mapping.” We also describe this in more detail in two of our books: Thinking About You Thinking About Me and Social Behavior Mapping.)

Finally, make sure you also teach that knowing the hidden expectations or hidden rules does not make it easy to always meet these expectations. Our brain and body gets distracted and at times we can all struggle to do what the group is doing. Teachers can encourage students to try and follow the hidden expectations because doing so creates a better learning situation for everyone involved (teacher and students). However, this is not always possible. Some students simply do not have the social learning abilities to do what’s expected and other students may struggle on certain days because of other problems they’re having. In cases such as these, it’s important for adults to modify their expectations for the student. It’s fine for adults to allow alternative expected behaviors as these accommodations are inclusive, sending the message that every person in the social situation should work to adapt their behavior as much as they are able. This is different than holding the expectation that our students must adapt their behavior to match the behavior of students whose brains made social learning so much easier for them!

We can all continue to learn how to understand the social world around us and keep working at developing further social self-awareness. This helps us learn to better self-monitor our own behavior with the ultimate goal of increasing self-control of our behavior, step by step.

The best way to encourage expected behavior is to pay attention to students when they are producing them, rather than focus your attention only on their unexpected behaviors! Consider making this an active part of your teaching as you work through this set of lessons.

Best of luck! Michelle

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