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.
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. 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 just need to accept your consequence and make an effort to learn from the event.
5. Therefore, I (the teacher) neither need to 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 some recognition of the difficulty of my role.
7. It is okay for any member of community to raise concerns for the common good.
Always Keep the Big Picture in Sight
As the teacher we need to continually help each student to recognize that the social contract is just one more 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 that is to help students recognize that consequences occur many times a day, and that the majority of them are naturally occurring and even those that are initiated by the teacher are primarily positive.
Figure 13x. Types of Consequences
· 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, as suggested in chapter 8, we make a very intentional effort to use positive recognitions of our student’s efforts, most of their interactions with us will be positive. They choose to invest in their work (cause/action), we recognize them and give them positive, task-clarifying feedback (effect/consequence). Moreover, when the student makes a choice that leads to a significant outcome either positive or negative, we should supportively, caringly help them connect the dots between the choice they made and the result. So when it is time to approach a student with the fact that they have just violated their agreement to the social contract, it is just another means to help them in their growth toward personal responsibility and accountability to their peers.
Many students will be new to being part of a democratic classroom. If student have grow accustomed to classrooms managed by punishments, shaming, a requirement of obedience, and/or a teacher as “the boss,” it may take them a while to get used to being empowered. Using language that continuously clarifies the roles of the participants is important, especially in the early going. You may need to remind them that, “the class is full of only 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.”
However, while words are important in helping clarify the conceptual framework that the members of the class are operating out of, over time the power and effectiveness of the social contract will come from what the student seeing you do when it is time to implement the consequences outlined in the contract. As you recall from our discussion in chapter 7 related to the social learning model, actions speak louder than words when it comes to what the student learn about the integrity of the social contract and what to expect when violations occur.
By definition, 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 public 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 the student’s dignity.
Recalling chapter 3 in which we examined why problems occur, near the top of the list of reasons was a lack of consistency. The younger the students we are teaching, the more significant this will be. At the heart of the social contract is the cause and effect relationship between the choices and consequences. If students make certain choices, then the teacher is given the responsibility by the contract to implement a consequence. The purpose for the teacher faithfully executing their role in the contract goes far beyond making sure the student “gets what they deserve.” When the teacher does what is expected of them, 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 sent that the contract governs all students, not just those that the teacher feels need to improve their behavior. With consistency comes a feeling that there is a “rightness,” a justice, a security that governs the class.
Recalling the social learning model, when the teacher applies the contract inconsistently, students learn that the implicit rules of the (constructed) classroom reality (see chapter 4), include arbitrary teacher subjectivity. And most destructively to the contract, they learn that what and why consequences get implemented is not so much about the contract that was agreed upon, it is about the unpredictable desires of 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, different moods, payback, weakness, or just careless randomness, they lose some degree of faith in the integrity of the social contract. 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 needs to take each learner’s special 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 we intervene with one student privately our interaction is between that student and us alone. When we intervene with a student publicly, we bring in an audience and all that that implies. Privacy requires proximity. When implementing a consequence to one or more students, be physically close to that student. 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 our fulfilling our job in the equation by holding the student accountable, and not in any display of our toughness.
Recalling the social learning model, students can learn lesson indirectly. They can infer what will happen to them in a particular situation by what they observe happening to another student in that 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 is, if the rest of the students in the class see this student getting a consequence, they will learn 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, we take great care 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 end. But to the student, public penalties hurt, and can be experienced as attacks to their dignity. 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.
What about giving public group consequences?
Recalling our discussion in chapter 7, related to the social learning model, when is the use of a whole class consequence a defensible idea? That is, when would we want to withhold an opportunity for all if any student fails to meet their obligation - using the power of peer pressure as leverage.
Answer, when three important conditions are met. First, the consequence should not be aimed at an identifiable victim. For example if we say, “No one leaves until all the paper is picked up,” we are using the power of the collective (i.e., peer pressure) to motivate each individual to do their part. But note that that is different from one particular individual. For example, if we had said “No one leaves until Billy picks up his paper.” Second, when there is no repetitive pattern that emerges, certain students are at a disadvantage, or certain students become the target of hostility from the group as a whole. For example, if we find that quite a few students in the class did not treat the materials used in the lesson very well (given a clear expectation of how the materials were to be treated beforehand), and as a result we decide to 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, a group consequence becomes much less desirable. The majority of the class feels penalized for the actions of a few, and will likely develop a growing resentment for them, and a loss of trust in the teacher’s sense of fairness.
Curwin and Mendler offer 3 pieces of advice when it comes to how to deliver 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 seem like good common sense. But the power of these ideas lies primarily with what they imply not to do. If the social contract is fundamentally about each participant’s commitment to an agreement, then for the teacher to add anything other than delivering the news shifts the focus (and locus of control) from the agreement (where it belongs) to the teacher (the external agent) and weakens the relationship. So adding a little guilt, or shame or a lecture, or putting the behavior into a broader context such as “this is the 3rd 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 did it with us, we need to resist the temptation to add anything to the simple message that the student made the choice that violated their agreement, and now they must accept the consequence for that choice.
It may be useful in the process 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 might be a good place to start. Third, we need to 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, signs that we will not likely see behavior change in the future include the following. First, if we see a student who is acting repentant and projects a shameful affect. It is likely that that student has not learned a lesson. This may be an unfamiliar notion, but as we look closer at the students thinking we see that they are caught up in the “sorry game” instead of thinking of ways to do better next time. Second, if the student has difficulty accepting ownership and projects an external locus of control. We can see this when the student gets overly fixated on how they perceive you as being unfair, why you are picking on them, and focus 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 an unconditional positive regard, gently help them understand that we don’t need them to 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: Bothering others during a learning activity
Social Contract Agreement: We give our attention to those that are speaking and keep our hands to ourselves when we are on the carpet. If we need to speak, we raise our hands. And the consequence for failing to do so is 1) removal from the activity. And if the problem is chronic 2) a behavioral contract.
Student Behavior: As the teacher is leading a lesson as the students sit on the carpet. One student (Peter) is not listening, touching and trying to engage the other students next to him/her.
Teacher intervention: For mild cases in which students simply appear to be antsy or distracted and have lost focus, 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 Peter a second to recognize that he is violating the contract, and then resume our lesson after we get active recognition the student understands and is ready to be more responsible (i.e., 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 Jose our undivided attention. Jose, 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 listing like Pumas right now?” Use a positive tone and avoid glaring at the student. As we discussed in chapter 8, avoid all negative recognitions such as “Peter, I need you stop talking and pay attention.” Occasionally they may feel necessary at the beginning of the year, but eliminate them from your language quickly and completely. You will be surprised that you will not miss them.
Lets assume this is the beginning of the year, and Peter is still learning how to be a functional part of a group. We may want to give him a break due to what we see to be a lack of understanding of the expectation (if it is not the beginning of the year, we may want to skip the warnings and more straight to the consequence). If the eye contact and clarifications did get the result we needed, we should then make a private and personal contact with the Peter. Subtly, and without drawing the attention of the other students, we need to get close to Peter and help him understand the expectation and the consequences. We might say, “Peter, what is the expectation when we are all on the carpet?” There is no need to include any negative language. Peter may need some help, but at some point, we need to hear him correctly state the expectation. At that point, 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 them (and again, not knowing is a defense that needs to be sincere and in any event can not be used long). Warnings and reminders send the message that, “I will assume that you did not understand what you did, and from now on, after this warning, you will.” If this is such a case, we might say to Peter. “So Peter, when I look back here later, what am I going to see? Peter repeats 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, Peter needs to state the consequence. At that point we can smile genuinely at Peter, and then shift our attention back to the group. We do not want to hover, or get caught up in anticipation of what Peter is going to do. We need to be in the moment, and let Peter make his choice.
In most cases, eye contact, and clarifying recognitions will do the trick. When that does not work, making a 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. So, if we look back and see Peter talking to his neighbor, we should not repeat the more subtle consequences such as eye contact. We asked Peter to act responsibly. He told us that he a) understood and b) was committed to fulfilling his responsibility. His behavior demonstrated that he made a choice to violate his agreement. So, the time for warnings, and group consequences is passed, and we need to deliver the next level of consequence. In this case, Peter has lost his opportunity to be part of the group. Therefore, we need to approach Peter, and privately, speaking softly and plainly, we need to tell him, in so many words, “Peter, I just observed you talking to your neighbor. What was the consequence that we agreed to when one of us does that? (Let Peter 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 Peter, those that are seeking attention may (usually unconsciously) conclude that misbehaving is a good way to get attention. Yet at some point, during the transition to the next activity, we will want to send the quick private message to Peter, “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 go. The agreed upon consequence is loss of opportunity to use the sharpener.
Student Behavior: During one period, a student (LeeAnn) makes a series of trips (3), to the pencil sharpener, during a time when the other students are expected to be concentrating on independent work. She also takes the opportunity to make distracting comments to some of her friends and other receptive students along the way.
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 need to simply implement the consequence. If we feel LeeAnn is in need of some help adjusting to the expectation, a personal reminder may help, however, reminders should be used sparingly as students get more mature and familiar with the social contract in your class. So let’s assume this is not early in the year, and LeeAnn should be clear about the expectation.
We need to approach LeeAnn and create a private interaction. We may choose to make eye contact with her to show seriousness and sincerity, or we may want to let her drop her gaze to the desk and speak to a spot on the desk. Culturally, eye contact can be problematic. It can make the students feel either threatened, or disrespectful to be forced to look us in the eye. Get to know what works with your students. Speaking in a soft tone, we need to help LeeAnn see the cause and effect between her choices and why we are talking to her right now. It is typically effective to ask her the question, “what is the expectation regarding sharpening pencils during class? Depending on her answer, we may need to help her recall when the expectation was discussed, and that she was present when the class agreed to the expectation and the consequence. We need to then simply state the consequence. We might say something such as, “What I saw was you making the choice to use the sharpener for entertainment, it distracted the other students and violated your agreement to them and our social contract. Therefore the consequence is the loss of the use of the sharpener for the rest of the week. I can loan you a pen today, if you give it back at the end of the period. And next week before, you get your to use the sharpener, I need you to assure me that you are going to take your commitment seriously.” We may also want to add a final thought to the effect, “I know that you are a great kid and I believe that you can do better.”
In this scenario, it will be important to help LeeAnn recognize that most of the interactions that we have with her are positive and most of the consequences in the class are too. So we may want to catch her doing something well, and offer a positive recognition. Both public and private positive recognitions will have power, as long as they are sincere. And as we will explore in the next chapter, we may have to admit that some of the responsibility for a student’s desire to use a trip to the pencil sharpener to meet their basic needs for fun and belonging rests with our choice of instructional strategy. Too much independent work is going to lead to such problems.
On the one hand, in the development of the social contract, the existence of bargaining can be a healthy thing. And as events arise where 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. Yet these are examples of pro-active, democratically developed changes.
On the other hand, 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, in the example above LeeAnn or Peter may try to talk their way out of accepting the agreed upon consequence. What if they responded, “Sorry teacher, I really am. I promise, I won’t do it again, really.” Part of us may be tempted to say, “OK, I can see you are repentant and basically a good kid. Just don’t do it again.” This seems harmless, but the result is a degradation of the contract, a loss of respect for us, and our role as leader, and a likelihood that the behavior will occur again. And when it does happen again, we will likely encounter an even greater intensity of bargaining and whining. This is because it has now worked once - the use of the strategy has been reinforced. On the other hand, if we hold fast and follow-through, we may feel at the time that the student is upset at us and ready to exhibit revenge behavior in the future. And they may in a small number of cases, but if we are fair and our consequences are pro-active, logical, and well understood, the likely result will be that the student returns with a higher level of respect for us, and that they will be less likely to bargain and/or make the same choice in the future.
The more consistent we are, the more clear and related the consequences are, and if we implement them 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,” we will get an ever decreasing amount of bargaining, whining and excuses, along with fewer contract violations. However, the possibility will always exist that a student says “No” to the contract. As we will discuss in more detail in chapter 20, examining conflict resolution and power struggles, the contract cannot maintain its integrity if there are those in the class that deliberately disrespect it. A student has the choice to say “No” to the contract (i.e., a reasonable request from us), but that choice leaves them outside the community until they choose to reaffirm their commitment to the collective, by way of their actions and living up to their agreement. We never have to fear a student saying no, if we keep in mind that all we can do is give students choices and encourage their success. We cannot make students choices for them.
A social contract is an effective tool for both the 1-style and 2-style teachers. 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. Yet, it will operate somewhat differently in each case. At the beginning of the year, both teachers will need to rely heavily on demonstrating consistency and follow-through. The 1-style teacher will have to make a greater commitment to student involvement in the development process, but in each case the teacher will need to take a strong leadership role early. Yet over time, the 2-style teachers’ classes will be defined by the degree to which he/she shows consistency and fairness in implementing the contract. In the 1-style classroom, as time goes on, the teacher needs to make a greater effort to help the students internalize the purpose underlying the contract and its principles. The ownership of the contract is shifted to the members of the class society as a collective, and away from the teacher as authority. The locus of control for the contract (i.e., responsible, healthy, considerate behavior) in the 2-style classroom will primarily rest with teacher. Throughout the term the student will see the teacher as the agent that keep the class functioning effectively. The locus of control in the 1-style classroom will shift overtime to the students.
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 – they do not want to be given a consequence from the teacher. 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 digressing in their own personal growth. While 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 when 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” in more detail in chapter 22, and more about creating a 1-style classroom in chapter 21.