Create A Partnership With Your Students When Designing Your Social Contract


Curwin on breaking rulesBy Richard L. Curwin

All classrooms need a system to define acceptable and nonacceptable behavior and consequences when students cross the line. This system needs to be simple enough to use on a daily basis yet complex enough to cover a wide range of issues. For many years, I have written about, trained schools, and advocated for a system that my coauthor, Allen Mendler, and I have called a “social contract.” My new book, Affirmative Classroom Management, an ASCD Arias publication, discusses how to construct a comprehensive social contract that is fairly easy to implement yet covers most classroom incidents. The four main components of a social contract are values, rules, expectations, and consequences. I’d like to show you how you can include students in your social contract development. With appropriate activity and language modifications, these activities will work with students of all ages.

Values: Values are the beliefs and principles that form the motivation for following rules. Values are too general to be enforced because they are not behavioral. To tell the difference between values and rules, just think of one type of behavior. If you can think of several possibilities to interpret that behavior, then it is most likely a value, not a rule. Some common values include words such as respect, safety, effort, being nice, or caring about others. In many ways, values are more important than rules. To help students adopt values, begin by explaining what your own values are and why they are important to you. Tell or show your students the values you would like to see in the classroom. Ask your students a question like, “What kind of classroom makes you enjoy being here and what helps you learn?” Combine their list with yours. Explain in advance that you cannot accept any value that you cannot live with.

Rules: Rules define what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Good rules are clear, behavioral, and always formally enforced with a consequence. They are always based on values. For example, flight attendants begin each flight with the airline’s value: safety. Obviously, the word safety connotes something too general to be enforced, but it is a highly important value. Then, there is a clear statement of the rules. There are typically three: fasten seat belts, make sure your tray table and seatback are in an upright position, and shut off all electronic devices. Notice that the rules are related to the value safety and are always enforced. You can’t say, “It’s almost fastened” or “My father says I don’t have to.”

Expectations: Expectations are like rules that do not need formal enforcement. “Raise your hand before speaking” is a good example. Students can provide input for rules and expectations simultaneously. Explain how rules differ from values. Use the airline example or similar ideas to demonstrate the differences. Then show what behaviors and  rules are needed for each of your previously stated values. Allow your students to brainstorm rules they want that are connected to their values. Eliminate any rules that are too vague, that cannot be enforced, or that you can’t live with. Once you eliminate those rules you can’t live with and add those you can’t live without, I recommend that you let the students vote on the remaining rules.

Values and rules for you: To truly include students in the process, let them think of a few values, rules, or expectations for you. Tell them in advance that you will accept the two that you believe will best help the class. It can be highly educational if you break one of these rules from time to time and demonstrate the correct way to accept your consequence.

Consequences: I don’t generally recommend student input for  consequences. Consequences are hard to explain because they are not punishments. Even veteran teachers have a hard time understanding the differences. Most student consequences I’ve seen are much too harsh to enforce. One student once said, “Draw a circle on the board and make the offender put his nose in it for an hour.” Of course, if you think your students are able to think of good consequences, give it a try.

When you break a rule, I recommend this consequence for you. Develop a behavior plan. That will set a good example and demonstration for them when they are asked to do one.

I hope these suggestions help you include your students in the process of developing your social contract. If you would like to learn more, join me this summer at the 2014 ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence. You can search for my session (2204/2304) on the conference app or here.

Richard L. Curwin is the author of Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation In Urban Schools; coauthor of Discipline With Dignity, 3rd edition: New Challenges, New Solutions; and the new ASCD Arias book, Affirmative Classroom Management. He is currently the director of the masters program in behavior disorder at David Yellin College.