From Transformative Classroom Management. By John Shindler. ©2009
Reproduction is unlawful without permission
In this Chapter
· The Big Picture
· Delivering Consequences
· What Constitutes a Successful Implementation
· Step-by-Step Examples
· What if a Student Says “No”
· Why Students Make Excuses
· How to Foster Student Responsibility
· Comparing the Social Contract in the 1- and 2-Style Classrooms
A social contract is only as good as its implementation. The most critical elements in the process of the development and use of a social contract relate to how effectively the teacher: a) fosters an understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between choices and outcomes and b) intentionally and effectively implements the agreed upon consequences within the contract.
IMPLEMENTING THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
Once the social contract has been initially developed, it will be defined largely by how it is implemented in the first few days. Whether it was developed with the involvement of the students or constructed by the teacher alone, the essence of the contract is that it defines the collective good. It says in effect, “we are the contract, and it will work to the degree that all of us as members of the class community buy in and commit to it.” Therefore, it is true democracy, in the sense that its power comes not from the teacher but from the collective commitment of the students to their functioning as a body (Rogers & Frieburg, 1994; Watson & Battistich, 2006). In the early stages of any implementation of the social contract the teacher needs to clearly project the following fundamental concepts, both by word and deed:
1. The contract is about the welfare of its participants, not the wishes of the teacher.
2. I (the teacher) am just a manager/steward/facilitator of the contract, not the police, boss, or judge of good and bad behavior.
3. When contract violations occur I (the teacher) owe it to you (the participants) to hold you accountable for what you have agreed to.
4. You (the participants) do not need to be sorry when you violate the contract, you simply accept your consequence and make an effort to learn from the event.
5. Therefore, I (the teacher) neither will ask for your repentance for what you did, nor do I need to apologize for the discomfort a consequence may involve.
6. I (the teacher) owe it to you (the participants) to implement the contract in a manner that protects and respects your dignity and as a result you (the participants) owe me (the teacher) recognition of the difficulty of my role.
7. It is okay for any member of community to raise a concern for the common good.
Always Keep the Big Picture in Sight
As the teacher, one must continually help each student to recognize that the social contract is just one part of the overall effort to support his/her journey to becoming more self-responsible, disciplined, successful, and an integral part of the classroom community. One way to do this is to help students recognize that consequences occur many times a day, and that the majority of them are naturally occurring and even those initiated by the teacher are primarily positive (see Figure 10.1).
Figure 10.1. Types of Consequences: 4-quadrant matrix depicting types of consequences by the degree to which they are naturally occurring and whether they are intended to promote or limit behavior.
Effect on Student
Origin of Consequence
· Sense of accomplishment
· Unhappy recognitions that a choice has led to an unwanted outcome
· Positive recognitions by the teacher
· Good grades
· More opportunities and choices
· Lost opportunities
· Teacher-delivered consequences
If we allow ourselves to be genuine, enjoy our students and the act of teaching, and invest in the emotional bank account of our students, just being present in our class will be a substantially positive consequence (Osterman, 2000). Moreover, as suggested previously if we make a very intentional effort to use positive recognitions of our students’ efforts, most of the interactions they have with us will be of the positive variety -- they choose to invest in their work (cause/action), we recognize this and give them positive, task-clarifying feedback (effect/consequence). Additionally, it will be useful to support students’ recognition of this cause-and-effect relationship. Therefore, when they make a choice that leads to a significant outcome either positive or negative, we supportively, caringly help them connect the dots between the choice they made and the result. Accordingly, when it is time to approach a student about a violation of their agreement to the social contract, it should be seen as just another means to help them in their growth toward personal responsibility and accountability to their peers.
Many students will be new to participating in a democratic classroom. If students have grown accustomed to classrooms managed by punishments, shaming, mandatory obedience, and/or teacher as “the boss,” it may take them a while to get used to being empowered (Manke, 1997; Woolfolk, Hoy & Weinstein, 2006). Using empowering mantras and language in general that continuously clarifies the roles of the participants is important, especially early on. You may need to remind them that “the class is made only of talented, responsible, self-disciplined students.” And repeat to them on occasion that “I am not the boss or the police in here, I am not going to get mad at you. My job is to hold you accountable for what you’ve all agreed to, and help you to become more self-disciplined and responsible.”
While words are important to help clarify the conceptual framework from which the members of the class are operating, over time the power and effectiveness of the social contract will come from observation of your actions by the students when it comes time to implement consequences already outlined in the contract. Taking into account the nature of social/indirect learning, our actions will speak louder than words when it comes to students’ learning about the integrity of the social contract and what to expect when violations occur.
Consequences exist only as abstractions. It is in how they are implemented that will define whether students experience them as fair and/or opportunities to learn rather than personal and punitive. Curwin and Mendler (1986) suggest that “Sometimes it is more how we say something than what we say. A lousy consequence delivered (effectively) is better than a good consequence delivered in a publicly humiliating manner.” They offer a series of useful steps for implementing a consequence. Keeping each of these practices in mind when it is time to address a behavior that violates the social contract will help ensure that the intervention is effective and does not attack a student’s dignity.
Figure 10.2 Curwin and Mendler’s Nine Steps for Consequence Implementation
1. Always implement a consequence: Be consistent.
2. Simply state the rule and consequence.
3. Be physically close: use the power of proximity
4. Make direct eye contact. *
5. Use a soft voice.
6. Catch the student being good.
7. Don’t embarrass the student in front of the class.
8. Be firm, but anger free when giving the consequence.
9. Don’t accept excuses, bargaining or whining.
*(may be better said as “make personal contact”)
When we examine what promotes either function or dysfunction and movement up or down the effectiveness continuum, applying our social contract consistently shows itself to be essential in our efforts to move up the continuum. The younger the students, the more significant this will be. At the heart of the social contract is the cause-and-effect relationship between choices and consequences. If students make certain choices, the teacher is given the responsibility by the contract to implement a consequence. The locus of control for the contract rests with the students. The purpose for the teacher faithfully executing his role in the contract goes far beyond making sure the student “gets what she deserves.” When the teacher does what is expected, the message is sent that the contract is working. It is not an arbitrary instrument. It is a real and living thing. The message is clear that the contract governs all students, not just those who the teacher feels need to improve behavior. With consistency comes a feeling that there is “rightness,” justice, a security that governs the class.
Recall the social learning model. When the teacher applies the contract inconsistently, students learn that the “implicit” rules in the class include arbitrary teacher subjectivity (Doyle, 2006). They find that what and why consequences are implemented is not so much about the contract as it is about the unpredictable desires of the teacher. The result is a shift in locus of control away from the students to the external agent -- the teacher. Of course, subjectivity and discretion will always be a reality, but when the students see variation in consequence implementation resulting from laziness, favoritism, unpredictable moods, retaliation, weakness, or just careless randomness, they lose some degree of faith in the integrity of the social contract (Doyle, 2006). Eventually most students will understand that there may be a need for exceptions and variation because students have different needs, and to best help the collective the teacher must take each learner’s specific circumstances into account. But no matter how noble the intentions, it will be difficult for many students to interpret differential treatment as anything other than inconsistency.
When you intervene with one student privately your interaction is between that student and you alone. When you intervene with a student publicly, you include an audience and all that that implies. Privacy requires proximity (Curwin & Mendler 1986; Wubbles et al., 2006). When implementing a consequence to one or more students, be physically close to the student(s). Speak in a private tone. It may be useful to bend down to the student’s level so as to reduce your position of dominance. The power of the event will come from the fulfillment of your job in the equation by holding the student accountable, and not in any display of your toughness.
Students learn most lessons indirectly. They infer what will happen to them in a future situation by what they observe happening to another student in the same situation. There is a temptation to use the public dimension of an intervention with one student or group to send a message to the whole class. The logic goes something like this: if the rest of the students in the class see this student receiving a consequence, they will understand that the same fate could be theirs. When it comes to positive consequences this is pretty useful logic. If a student is making a good effort, we recognize it, or if a student needs help, we give them support, or if a student is risking sharing an idea, it can be very empowering to show publicly that we will validate the effort and the risk. But when we use a public context for implementing contract violations, we bring shame and embarrassment into the equation. This can seem inconsequential to us, because the interaction often feels the same from our perspective. But to the student, public penalties hurt and can be experienced as attacks on their dignity (Elias & Schwab, 2006). And even if the public consequence does not produce much negative emotion, the public shaming component shifts the focus of the consequence from a natural and related outgrowth of the social contract to a weapon wielded by the teacher. Possessing the power of this weapon can make us feel influential, but giving in to the “power trip” will undermine our authority, the legitimacy of the social contract, and students’ dignity in the long-term.
Group Contingencies as a Consequence
When a whole group contingency is imminent, individual students will feel an incentive (i.e., peer pressure) to act in a manner that benefits the collective (Robinson & Ricord Griesemer, 2006; Skinner, Cashwell & Dunn, 1996). If all members of a group are put in a position in which something needs to be done (e.g., perform a task, exhibit a behavior, refrain from a behavior) or the entire group will be unable to meet its goal, each member will feel the weight of the whole as they consider their actions.
One typical example of the use of this principle is when a teacher says to the class, “Everyone needs to clean up their desks before anyone can go.” In this situation, the pressure each individual student feels as a result of this arrangement is likely more related to the desires and expectations of their classmates than those of the teacher. The teacher has essentially used the power of the social mechanism, peer pressure, to motivate individual students to behave in a collectively beneficial manner.
Other examples of the deliberate use of peer pressure include:
These types of consequences can have a great deal of power and can be carried out relatively efficiently. As a result, they are attractive for a lot of reasons. We do need to distinguish between times they are working to support our long term goals and times they are creating unwanted outcomes (Skinner, Cashwell & Dunn, 1996).
When are group contingencies a good idea?
When are group contingencies not such a good idea?
For example, if we find that quite a few students in the class did not treat the lesson materials very well (given a clear expectation of how the materials were to be treated beforehand) and we withhold those materials for a couple of days from the whole class, this can be an effective consequence. It demonstrates active follow-through. It also demonstrates a clear a cause-and-effect relationship -- respect the materials and you can use them; don’t and you will have to wait to try again later. But if the penalty is the result of a few of the same students on a repeated basis, an implementation of group consequence becomes much less desirable (Robinson & Ricord Griesemer, 2006; Skinner, Cashwell & Dunn, 1996). The majority of the class feels penalized for the actions of a few and can develop a growing resentment for them and a loss of trust in the teacher’s sense of fairness. The most telling evidence of the fact that our group contingency is being effective is often expressions on students’ faces when you make your request. Is it a sense of urgency and playfulness, or is it discomfort and impatience? If you see resentment emerging as a result of the practice then it will be a better idea to stop doing what we have been doing and try something else. It is usually not worthwhile to trade the emotional quality in the class for more efficiency in most cases.
As we examine the notion of how to best implement consequences, it is important to recognize that problems do not all come in the same size and shape. We might make a distinction among three levels of problem behavior. Figure 10.3 describes these classes of student behavior problem and offers potential logical consequences for each.
Figure 10.3: Levels of Classroom Behavior Problems and Examples of Each
Potential Logical Consequence
A student or class displays a form of dysfunctional behavior that will likely become steadily more problematic is ignored.
Students failing to give another student 100% attention when appropriate.
Stop the class and ask the students to give the student their full attention. Ask the student to start over. (See Ch. 6 related to technical management)
Student actions that violate the classroom rules and/or social contract. Typically rooted in forgetfulness, lack of understanding, or carelessness.
Student carelessly leaves a mess at a work station.
Student is asked to clean up their desk before they can move on the next thing.
Students knowingly reject their commitment to the social contract in words or actions. Typically rooted in defiance, a desire for power, or a cry for help.
Student refuses to clean up their area or deliberately continues to talk when the expectation is to be attentive to the speaker.
Remind students they are not part of the class until they can demonstrate a commitment to the social contract. Student may be required to complete and commit to an individual behavior contract (see Chapter 14)
Students exhibit dysfunctional behavior on a regular basis. Typically rooted in a deeply conditioned pattern of thinking and ego defense.
Student tends to disrupt the work of other group members any time they feel the task is too challenging in an attempt to meet their needs for competence and power, or student exhibits a compulsive need for attention.
Student brought to recognize the pattern (i.e., negative identity pattern) with the teacher’s help. Demonstrate progress and commitment to the social contract, and potentially complete and follow an individual behavioral contract (see Chapter 15)
Students experience a struggle with their behavior and have a biological/organic basis to their lack of self control which may involve a legitimate case of ADHD.
Student struggles to attend for long periods of time and feels a compulsive need to move and talk -- even though they wish they could attend and feel guilty that they cannot.
Student follows the plan laid out in their IEP and personal behavioral contract.
In this chapter we will focus primarily on level Ib types of problems. These are the most common and will involve most of our students at one time or another. In Chapter 15 we will explore level II and III types of problems and how to effectively deal with them.
Curwin and Mendler (1986) offer three pieces of advice when it comes to delivering the message to a student who has violated the contract: 1) simply state the consequence; 2) be firm and anger free; and 3) use a soft voice. On the surface they all appear to be common sense. But the power of these ideas lies primarily in what they instruct us not to do. Since the social contract is fundamentally about each participant’s commitment to an agreement, then adding anything other than facts shifts the focus from the agreement (and locus of control) to the teacher (external agent) and weakens the relationship. Adding a little guilt, shame, or lecturing, or putting the behavior into a generalized context such as “this is the third time you have done this,” or “if you keep doing this…” is not only unhelpful, but detracts from the power of the lesson. Even though it may feel natural and common and our parents and teachers may have used this method, resist the temptation to add anything to the basic message that the student made the choice that violated the agreement, and now must accept the consequence for that choice.
It may be useful to keep in mind what we are trying to accomplish as we move to implement a consequence. First, the event should help strengthen the students’ internal locus of control. That is, the student should feel that their choice is the cause, and the consequence is the logical effect. Second, the student should maintain a sense that they need to be responsible for the group and making different choices in the future is not only possible but good for the entire group. Third, we then walk away having opened the door to the student’s own internal reasoning process. We cannot make them learn a lesson. We cannot tell them they did learn a lesson. But we can do our job and trust the process and the student’s sense of reason to result in healthier choices in the future.
Conversely, we may see signs that behavior will likely not change in the future. First we see a student who is acting highly repentant and projects a shameful affect. When we see a high level of repentance, it is probable that the student will exit the interaction without having learned a lesson that will lead to long-term behavior change. This may be an unfamiliar notion, but as we examine the student’s thinking more closely we see that they are caught up in the “sorry game” instead of thinking of ways to do better next time. Second, the student has difficulty accepting ownership and projects an external locus of control. The student gets overly fixated on a perception of you as unfair, wondering why you are picking on them, and focusing excessively on the personal aspect of the event. It is likely that this student is used to punishments and will translate your clear cause-and-effect consequence language into their being punished. To help these students grow and become better members of the community we need to help them with their cause-and-effect processing, approach them with unconditional positive regard, gently help them understand that our intention is not to make them feel bad and that consequences are not personal, and that we are sincerely and steadfastly behind their efforts to make thoughtful choices.
Elementary Level Case: Interfering with others during a learning activity
Social Contract Agreement: We give our attention to those speaking and keep our hands to ourselves when we are on the carpet. If we need to speak, we raise our hands. The consequence for failing to do so is removal from the activity. If the problem is chronic: an individual behavioral contract.
Student Behavior: A teacher is leading a lesson as the students sit on the carpet. Liko is not listening, and is touching and trying to engage other students near him.
Teacher intervention: For mild cases in which students simply appear to be fidgety or distracted and have lost focus (i.e., level I problems), it may be most efficient and helpful to use a combination of eye contact and a clarifying statement or clarifying question. For example, we may stop (an active consequence), give Liko a second to recognize that he is violating the contract, and then resume our lesson after we get active recognition that the student understands and is ready to be more responsible (e.g., they stop and demonstrate attentive behavior). We may also use a clarifying statement such as “We all need to have our eyes up here right now” or “We are all giving José our undivided attention. José, could you start over, and we will all do a better job of listening this time.” Or we could use a clarifying question such as, “What would it look like if we were all doing a great job of listening right now?” or “Are we all listening like Pumas right now?” Use a positive tone and avoid glaring at the student. As we discussed in Chapter 6, avoid all negative recognitions such as “Liko, I need you stop talking and pay attention.” They may feel occasionally necessary at the beginning of the year, but eliminate them from your language quickly and completely. You will be surprised at how you do not miss them.
Assume this is the beginning of the year, and Liko is still learning how to be a functional part of a group. We may want to give him a break due to what may be a lack of understanding of the expectation (if it is not the beginning of the year, we may want to omit the warnings and move straight to the consequence). If eye contact and clarifications get the result we need, we should then make private and personal contact with the Liko. Subtly, and without drawing the attention of the other students, we need to get close to Liko and help him understand the expectation and the consequences. We might say, “Liko, what is the expectation when we are all on the carpet?” There is no need to include any negative language. Liko may need some help, but at some point we need to hear him correctly state the expectation. Then we need to ask the student what the consequence is (that has been agreed to in the social contract) for failing to be self-responsible during time on the carpet. If the student does not know, we need to remind him (and again, not knowing is a defense that needs to be sincere and in any event cannot be used long). Warnings and reminders send the message, “I will assume that you did not understand what you did, and from now on, after this warning, you will.” If this is the case, we might say to Liko, “So Liko, when I look back here later, what am I going to see?” Liko states the expected behavior. “And what is the consequence, if you aren’t able to show me that you can be a responsible part of the group?” Again, Liko needs to state the consequence. At that point we can smile genuinely at Liko, and then shift our attention back to the group. We do not want to hover, or get caught up in anticipation of what Liko is going to do. We need to be in the moment, and let Liko make his choice.
In most cases, eye contact and clarifying recognitions will do the trick. When that does not work, making personal contact and reminding the student of the expectation will take care of most problems. But we need to provide meaningful and related consequences that fit the severity of the situation. If we look back and see Liko talking to his neighbor, we should not repeat the more subtle consequences such as eye contact. We asked Liko to act responsibly. He told us that he understood and was committed to fulfilling his responsibility. His behavior demonstrated that he made a choice to violate his agreement. Therefore the time for warnings and group consequences has passed and we need to deliver the next level of consequence. In this case, Liko has lost his opportunity to be part of the group. We need to approach Liko, and privately, speaking softly and plainly, we need to tell him in so many words, “Liko, I just observed you talking to your neighbor. What was the consequence that we agreed to when one of us does that?” (Let Liko answer.) “That’s right, so since you chose to talk, I want you to sit by yourself at your seat while we continue here on the carpet. Can you do that? Do you understand why? (Wait for recognition.) And when we are on the carpet tomorrow, you will have another chance to show that you can listen and keep your hands to yourself.”
It is important that in this case that we send the message to the rest of the class, that we put our energy into those that are choosing to be responsible. If students see us putting a great deal of attention into Liko, those who are seeking attention may (usually unconsciously) conclude that misbehaving is a good way to get it. At some point during the transition to the next activity we will want to send the quick private message to Liko, “Thanks for sitting quietly, I know that you will be able to do better next time.”
Social Contract Agreement: In this class we use the pencil sharpener when absolutely necessary, and do not disturb others when we sharpen. The agreed-upon consequence is loss of opportunity to use the sharpener.
During one period,
Teacher Intervention: If we interpret that the expectation is weak and that most students do not assume that there is any problem with using the sharpener multiple times in a period, we may want to take the opportunity to clarify the expectation and remind the class of the consequence. This is may be especially useful at the beginning of the year. A reminder is not a consequence, but we may need to take responsibility this time for a poorly understood expectation.
However, if the
consequence is clear and well understood, we simply need to implement the
consequence. If we feel
Speaking in a soft
tone, we try to help
In this scenario,
it will be important to help
In the development of the social contract, the existence of bargaining can be a healthy thing. As events arise where the students and the teacher recognize that a new expectation, rule, or procedure may be in the best interest of the collective, negotiating revisions to the contract or class expectations can be valuable (Bluestein, 1999). These are pro-active, democratically developed changes.
Nevertheless, it is rarely a good idea to
bargain after the fact with a student who is trying make a deal to avoid a
consequence. For example, either
The more consistent we are, the more clear and related the consequences are, and the more carefully implemented in a way that preserves the students’ dignity and sends the fundamental message that “we know that they are capable of responsible, mature and considerate behavior,” the more we will get an ever-decreasing amount of bargaining, whining and excuses, along with fewer contract violations (Wang & Anderson, 1994). However, the possibility will always exist that a student says “no” to the contract. When the student says no to the contract, they have raised their problem to level II, and our response needs to reflect the level of the problem. As we will discuss in more detail in Chapter 14 when examining conflict resolution and power struggles, the contract cannot maintain its integrity if there are those in the class who deliberately disrespect it. A student has the choice to say “no” to the contract (e.g., a reasonable request from us), but the choice leaves them outside the community until they choose to reaffirm their commitment to the collective by way of behavior and living up to the agreement. We never have to fear a student saying no if we keep in mind that all we can do is offer choices to students and encourage their success. We cannot make students’ choices for them.
PROMOTING STUDENT RESPONSIBILITY
It is difficult to conceive of a more
important aspect of the job of teacher or parent than promoting a sense of
responsibility in young people in our lives. Responsibility is basic to a
psychology of success, being a member of a democratic society, and critical to
achievement in and beyond school (Bluestein, 2005; Elias & Schwab,
2006; Tracy, 2005). Talent and intelligence are
valuable, but more essential to one’s happiness and success in life will be the
degree to which students take responsibility for their thoughts and actions (
At the root of a responsible attitude is acceptance -- acceptance of one’s reality (i.e., what “is”), acceptance that our thoughts will manifest themselves in behavior, and acceptance that we are the authors of our own fate. There is a great temptation to resist what is. Our minds in desire for relief from discomfort become skilled at the practice of denial, making excuses, shifting responsibility, and taking on the role of the victim. If being responsible were easy, we would see more people demonstrate it. But it is difficult and takes a lot of practice and a lot of support from others, especially those entrusted to teach us in our schools.
In an effort to operationalize the broad notion of responsibility, we could begin by breaking it down to its essential factors. The building blocks of responsibility include the following:
· A sense of cause-and-effect. Recognizing what we choose to do will have consequences and what we think will manifest itself in our actions. Like the law of the conservation of energy, there is a natural law that what we think and do matters and will cause effects to come into our experience.
· An internal locus of control. If we see ourselves as the authors of our fate, we have the capacity to be intentional and become what we choose to become. Research in human behavior demonstrates a consistent relationship between one’s level of internal LOC and the degree of personal responsibility one exhibits (Chubb, Fertman & Ross; Adolescence, 1997; Elias & Schwab 2006).
· Social Frame. The working social frame defined by the relationship between freedom and responsibility is essential to any functioning social environment (e.g., class, family, team, group, etc.), and is fundamental to promoting responsibility. It sets out a clear agreement that when the young person demonstrates a sufficient level of responsibility, they have earned more rights and freedoms, and when they do not demonstrate it, they must wait until they do show the necessary responsibility to earn those freedoms.
· The law of responsibility. Tracy (2005) defines the law of responsibility in four parts; 1) You are completely responsible for everything you are and for everything you become and achieve; 2) You are always free to choose what you think and what you do; 3) Responsibility begins with your taking full and complete control over the content of your conscious mind; 4) No one is coming to the rescue. He states that one’s degree of achievement will be directly related to the degree that one accepts responsibility for all outcomes within their power--most importantly their thinking.
· Making choices and learning from the consequences of those choices. Most of this learning occurs naturally, but it can, as we discussed in this chapter, also include consequences that are manufactured within a situation, such as a classroom with a social contract (Doyle, 2006).
· Being in the moment -- responsible thinking is not rooted in the past or what may be in the future. It is grounded in WIN, or “what’s important now.”
Conversely, those factors that could be considered “responsibility destroyers” include the following:
· An attitude of blame -- when we blame, we inherently fixate on the past and on an external cause.
· A victim mindset -- when our thinking goes to “poor me,” we lose not only a clear sense of cause-and-effect with regard to the past, but in essence toss the law of responsibility out the window. We make the psychological trade in which we give up power and an opportunity for growth to get (temporary) pain relief.
· Making excuses -- when we make excuses we essentially externalize the cause-and-effect of the situation (Butler & Wittenbaum, 2000).
· An external locus of control -- as discussed, basic to a psychology of failure is the externalizing of the cause of one’s fate or “fatalism.” The external LOC views life as a series of accidents, and there is nothing that we can do or could have done. As we look closer at this mindset, we see an effort to avoid guilt and ownership (Butler & Wittenbaum, 2000; Wang & Anderson,1994).
Why Do Students Make Excuses and What Can We Do to Encourage Fewer of Them
If we deal with many students, we find that some are constantly making excuses and others almost never make excuses. The student’s age, gender, ethnicity, or learning style seem to make no difference when it comes to excuse making. So why do students make excuses? There are three primary reasons (Butler & Wittenbaum, 2000; Wang & Anderson, 1994). First, avoidance of guilt and an attempt to protect one’s self image. Second, in situations in which there is a perceived benefit within the context and/or a desire to manage the impressions of others. Third, it can be a practical response to achieving a desired result -- i.e., an excuse would potentially improve a desired outcome. Let’s examine these reasons, followed by ideas on how to lessen the need for students to make excuses for each of the three areas.
Reason 1: Protecting one’s self image and feelings of guilt. When the student feels that if they admit to themselves that they did the act (e.g., forgot their work, said the hurtful words, made the mistake, etc.) and they do not see themselves as the kind of person that would do something like that, they experience inner conflict (e.g., cognitive dissonance) (Butler & Wittenbaum 2000). In other words, “Only a dumb, irresponsible, or bad person would have done that, and I am not any of those.”
What can we do to support more healthy and responsible thinking? An environment that promotes a success psychology will reduce the students’ inclination to make excuses on all levels. In this case, creating an environment in which making mistakes is acceptable will go a long way. Moreover, as we focus more on process and mastery rather than a fixed view of ability, it will help students see choices as opportunities to learn rather than events that define who they are. In a success psychology environment, the students learn to live and learn and increasingly adopt an attitude of self-acceptance and progressively release an attitude stuck in a process of ego management and shame.
Reason 2: The context encourages it. If the social environment is hostile and students are put down for making mistakes or blamed for things that they do, they will learn that excuses are a valuable tool for protecting one’s reputation and ego (Wang & Anderson,1994).
What can we do to support less excuse making and blame in the classroom? Create a “blame free zone” classroom. Encourage all students to take responsibility for everything for which they are even remotely accountable. Do not accept victim language from any student. Do not ask for excuses or put students in situations in which they must save face. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the most powerful lessons we can teach our students about responsible thoughts and action will come from modeling them.
Reason 3: An excuse would help secure a desirable outcome. When we say to the late student “So, Alton, why are you late?” or “This better be good,” we are telling them that if they have a good excuse then it will work as a substitute for being on time, or whatever the expectation was in the situation. When we ask for excuses, we encourage students to make them.
What can we do to promote fewer student excuses and more responsible behavior? First, simply don’t ask for excuses. Instead, build in ways in which students are held accountable. For example, give the students three bathroom passes or homework passes or late passes at the beginning of the year. Let them use them as needed. Watch the students become very responsible about when they need to go to the bathroom. When we build in room for mistakes and forgetfulness proactively, we put the locus of control in the hands of the students. When we act as the judge of good and bad excuses, we take the locus of control away. When we ask for excuses we train our students not only to be irresponsible, but encourage the skill of lying their way out of trouble. Let students know that you are interested in what is going on in their lives, but that an excuse is not going to improve their situation. You trust them and believe in them, and therefore trust that they can problem-solve their way out of trouble or be mature enough to learn from what they did. We like our students so much we are going to give them the great gift of being responsible. We can be empathetic, and genuinely concerned, and even share stories of our own life lessons, but the emotional connection that we make with them is not a game. We are neither getting “played” by them, nor are we taking joy in their “finally getting what they deserve” for being so careless or irresponsible. We are staying in the moment, being present to them, and on some level recognizing that this is a transformational event in which they have been given the gift of another step on their journey toward personal responsibility.
A social contract is an effective tool within both the 1-Style and 2-Style approach. Used within the context of either style it will lead to an ever-decreasing number of contract violations and ever-increasing sense of ease and fairness on the part of the students. However, it will operate somewhat differently in each case. At the beginning of the year, both styles will need to rely heavily on demonstrating consistency and follow-through. While the teacher attempting a 1-Style approach must make a greater commitment to student involvement in the development process, teachers in both cases will need to take a strong leadership role early. Over time, the teacher using a 2-Style approach will be defined by the degree to which he/she shows consistency and fairness in implementing the contract. In the 1-Style classroom the teacher must make a greater effort to help students internalize the purpose underlying the contract and its principles (Watson & Battistich 2006). The ownership of the contract is shifted to the members of the class society as a collective and away from the teacher as authority (Rogers & Frieberg, 1994). The locus of control for the contract (e.g., responsible, healthy, considerate behavior) in the 2-Style classroom will primarily rest with the teacher. Throughout the term the students will see the teacher as the agent who keeps the class functioning effectively. The locus of control in the 1-Style classroom will shift over time to the students (Baker, et al.1997; Rogers & Frieberg, 1994).
Why not test the boundaries of the contract? The primary reason that a student in a 2-Style classroom thinks “why not?” is related to the teacher -- the student does not want to elicit a consequence. Eventually, the main reason that a student in a 1-Style classroom thinks “why not?” is that they would be neglecting their commitment to their classmates and diluting their own personal growth. While students in the 2-Style class will feel secure in the judgment that their teacher has the ability to maintain a functioning classroom, they will remain limited in their democratic participation skills and moral development as compared to the students in the 1-Style classroom. Moreover, as the students in the 1-Style classroom learn to take ownership for their classroom social contract, the foundation is being set for their development as a community. We will explore the idea of “community” and creating a 1-Style classroom in more detail in Chapter 15.
Our social contract can be an instrument of coercion or empowerment depending upon how we implement it. The better we are able to keep in mind the focus on the contract rather than ourselves, the more successful we will be. In the next chapter, we will examine the relationship between management and instructional choices. Effective instruction can make our social contract feel like a covert safety net, whereas ineffective instructional practices will act to keep our social contract continuously tested and keep us thinking about discipline rather than teaching.
1. What are your feelings at this stage in your reading regarding whether a 1- or 2-Style class is more for you? What are your criteria for making your decision?
2. What are three things that would like to change in your management plan or your current practice as a result of your latest reading and reflection?
In the following exercise, you will take part in a role play involving a student who violates the social contract and the teacher who must implement a consequence. If you are part of a class, it will be useful to divide the scenarios up among six groups. If you are not in a class, you may want to find a small group to help you with one of the role play scenarios, or write out your script on paper.
Directions: As a group, your task is to create a life-like role play between a teacher and one or more students. You are free to use whatever rationale you choose to inform your thinking, but when in doubt try to base your intervention on the principles outlined in the chapter. Your task is to develop two situations: one where the behavior is dealt with ineffectively, and the other in which the behavior is dealt with as effectively as you would consider possible. Take your job seriously. You may want to script your role-play. Have fun with each, but you will likely find that the “what not to do” scene is more fun. Go for it! And before you begin the role-play, it may help your audience if you provide them with a bit of background as to what has happened up until the point of your play in your hypothetical classroom.
Situation A: One table of students keeps talking to one another while you are trying to present material. What do you do?
Situation B: A reliable source tells you that at recess one student hit another student, and there was no action taken by the recess supervisor (they never saw it). The students are just returning to the class. What do you do?
Situation C: You have your students sitting in pods of four. At one table one of the more fidgety students is pestering one of the other students at the table (e.g., taking things off her desk, staring at her paper, etc.). You have warned them to stop but the pestering has not lessened. What do you do?
Situation D: You are asking your class deeper-level questions to help them process a lesson you are teaching. One of your students is acting particularly silly, raising a hand and offering flippant and irresponsibly incorrect answers. What do you do?
Situation E: One of the students has just loudly discovered that their special pen is missing from their desk. Another one of your students has in the past taken things, but has always explained why it was just a misunderstanding. You saw this student playing with the pen earlier before recess. What do you do?
Situation F: You are giving a test. You see one of your students copying answers from a neighbor. It is obvious that they are trying to cheat. You have a rule against cheating in your class. What do you do?
Situation G: As you are lecturing, three girls in the class begin to pass a make-up set among one another, and use it when you are not looking. What do you do?
Situation H: As you are teaching, a handful of students find themselves being pulled into a negative interaction. It starts small with a minor put-down, but soon grows as each student escalates the conflict with greater and more significant put downs.
Option 1: As a class, discuss what you think is effective or ineffective about each role play.
Option 2: Develop your scenario in writing, and share it with someone else for feedback.
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