From Transformative Classroom Management. By John Shindler. ©2008
Reproduction is unlawful without permission
In this Chapter
· What are Social and Communal Bonds?
· What is a Social Contract?
· Steps in Implementing the Social Contact
This chapter explores the nature of social and communal bonds. It is the first of three chapters dealing with the practical and theoretical issues related to creating and maintaining an effective “social contract,” and provides a step-by-step process for developing a working classroom social contract in one’s class.
Many teachers today want what could be characterized as a “democratic classroom.” Others aspire to have classrooms that function as “learning communities.” This trend toward seeking classroom structures that endeavor to empower students, rather than simply control them is an encouraging development. The good news for these teachers is that over time and with effective leadership, any class can be a functional democratic society. And with a little more time, and a clear understanding of what it takes to empower students to value and commit to the common good of the group, any class can begin to take on the characteristics of a community. Both will require a great deal of awareness of what is standing in the way of one’s success, and a dedicated intention and commitment to doing what it takes to make it happen.
Social bonds or social contracts are explicit and implicit agreements made between individuals in any group to help clarify what they should expect from one another. The group can be as small as two people or as big as the population of a country or even a planet. For example we each enter into an agreement with our governments in which we pay some taxes, and we can expect some services in return. Likewise, when we walk down the street we have some confidence that others will refrain from harming us if we refrain from harming them. In both of these examples, the agreements are fairly clear; however, there are times when what it means to fulfill our part of the bargain or what behavior constitutes violating the social contract can be more ambiguous.
As we know from living in a modern society, laws do not guarantee that citizens treat each other fairly, or act as good democratic participants. In fact, laws are just the beginning of creating what could be called a well-functioning democratic society. This is also true in the classroom. Rules do not make a democratic classroom, no matter how well the teacher enforces them. A democracy is more. At the heart of a working democracy are well-defined, collectively owned, social bonds. Social bonds include both implicit and explicit agreements among the members of the collective that create mutual understanding and trust. The intentional development of a social contract (also called a behavioral covenant, or bill or rights), can help clarify those agreements. A well-functioning social contract promotes both a well-managed class and provides students with an invaluable education in democratic participation.
What are Communal Bonds?
Where social bonds answers such questions as, “What must I do to fulfill my part of the (social) contract?” communal bonds answer the question, “What can I do to make the collective better?” Societal bonds are at the root of what make most of our daily interactions smooth and reasonable. Communal bonds more often reflect friend and family relationships and are at the root of why we feel part of something greater than ourselves. It is difficult to have sustainable communal bonds without well-functioning social bonds in place. As you begin to develop your vision for your ideal classroom and management style, clarifying your intentions related to what kinds of bonds you want operating in your classroom is useful. Social bonds are essential for any 1 or 2-Style classroom to create a sense of safety, clarity, and efficiency. But to achieve more substantive levels of group cohesion, a high functioning 1-Style classroom, and what we refer to as transformative outcomes, we need to foster communal bonds among our students. In this chapter we will focus primarily on how we create the kind of well-functioning social bonds that are required for a successful democratic society and return to the idea of community later in Chapter 17.
What is a Classroom Social Contract?
At minimum a classroom social contract outlines what any member of the group needs to do to keep from infringing on the rights of the other members. A more empowering social contract will outline what members can do so that they and the class get better. The contract classroom exists as a set of rules, principles, boundaries, expectations and consequences that govern the interactions of all members of a class. It exists both as a concrete document and an abstract concept. It is preferable to write the concrete aspects of the contract as clearly, simply and positively as possible. The power of the contract will depend on one’s translation of the abstract aspects of the contract into practical, accessible operational ideas and behaviors.
Rules can exist as words on paper or a whiteboard and stay “just words,” never becoming meaningful. Until they become a concrete and material part of the students lived experience, they will have little influence on behavior. For those of us (especially the more practical-minded sensates, see Chapter 3) who tend to have great affection for rules and legalistic thinking, it is critical that we shift our focus from the rule as written law to rules as values implying a larger purpose.
In the same way, principles can remain mere abstractions and noble concepts that are never translate into actions. Those of us (especially the more abstract minded intuitives, see Chapter 3) need to continuously help our students understand how the concepts that seem so clear to us can be applied, and what they look like in practical behavior. Our discussion of expectations (in Chapter 6) should be useful in assisting you in formulating concrete strategies for translating your abstract desires into tangible behavioral expectations that are clear to students.
A social contract can begin as a document. While useful, the written document is not the contract. The social contract exists to the degree to which the stakeholders (teachers, students and assistants) understand it and commit to it. The knowledge component is foundational; one cannot commit to something that one does not know or understand. Likewise, if you do not commit to what you have ceremonially agreed to, you are not fulfilling your role, and consequently the social contract does not truly exist. Moreover, if the contract exists in your head, and not in your students’, it does not exist. Finally--and this point can not be emphasized too strongly--if the students view you as (externally) imposing the rules on them, the contract loses power as well as effectiveness. If the students see the ownership of the social contract as (internal) theirs, it will be powerful and effective. In other words, to the degree that it exists within the hearts and minds of students, and not as an imposition from the teacher, the contract exists.
Implementing a social contract involves a great deal more than explaining the classroom rules. The social contract functions to the degree that it is meaningful, internalized, and committed to by the students. It will be internalized and bought into much more if students feel a sense of ownership. For that reason it makes a sense to have students involved in creating the class rules, as well as the consequences of breaking rules. If you find yourself uncomfortable with the idea of students taking an active role in this process you might discuss the rationale behind your thinking with them, and if possible, involve them in problem-solving any necessary modifications as the contract evolves.
We need terms to express what we will refer to as the basic tenets of our contract. While on the one hand, what we call the basic tenets of our agreement are ultimately a matter of semantics, on the other hand, each of the assortment of possible options for these basic terms implies a somewhat different meaning. We should make a choice of terms that best represents the kind of thinking we want to define our contract. Here is a list of the most common terms and their common meanings:
It is certainly reasonable to consider using a combination of terms, such as Rules, Bill of Rights and/or Principles for the few global pillars of the contract, Procedures for the operational processes that we need to have in place to help the class function smoothly, and Expectations for the countless occasions where a shared understanding for “what to do, and how to act” need to be in place.
Step 2: Develop your list of basic tenets/expectations (or rules, principles, or boundaries, etc.)
No matter how organic, negotiated or flexible your vision of your social contract, you will need some concrete pillars to anchor the broader contract. These rules, bill of rights, expectations, policies, or boundaries should be reduced to writing and made visible to all members of the classroom society. Keeping in mind two suggestions will help you down the road. First, make the list as short as possible; three to five items are best. Too many rules are difficult to remember, and have the effect of making each item less powerful as more items are added. Second, they should be stated positively. Our unconscious minds can only understand positive messages. So if one has an item stated, “Do not talk when others are talking,” it sends a confusing message to the unconscious. Moreover, stating expectations negatively can have the effect of encouraging the negative behavior. Restating the rule into positive terms eases the unconscious conflict and clarifies the expectation. So a more effective alternate phrasing would be something such as, “Be attentive to those who are speaking and expect others to be attentive when you are speaking.”
Depending on the age of the students you will need to guide the process accordingly. If they are very young (grades K-3), you might want to use primarily questions. For example you might ask, “What kinds of things would you say are important for all students to do, if we are going to have a good class?” And then as you hear responses, you might pick those that are getting at the most important areas, and paraphrase them for the approval of the whole group. For example, a student might offer the idea, “We should not hit each other.” Let’s assume that the idea identified a useful principle. So to validate the student and achieve consensus one might respond by saying, “What do you all think? Should one of our four rules be ‘we keep our hands to ourselves and respect each other’s space? That rule would include not hitting, what do you think? Raise your hand if you want me to write that as one of our rules.” As you can observe, if we undertake the process in this fashion, we are able to maintain as much control of the outcome as we need to feel confident in the results of the process, but it is genuinely collaborative.
If our students are older (grades 4-12), we might begin by placing students in groups and then prompt them to generate two or three basic expectations for the class. If we have been using concept-building exercises previously, we can initiate the exercise in a familiar manner. In essence, we are asking our students to generate examples for the following concept – things that all students can do, that if we each did them, the class would function well and grow as a collective. They will need to be reminded that their ideas need to be stated positively. As the students come up with their ideas we can list them on the board or an overhead projector. We might take the opportunity to add items that we feel are critical and are not already on the list. Students are rarely offended if we think of things that they had forgotten. After all ideas have been recorded, the next step is to work with the students to find the 3-5 themes that emerge from the list. After the themes have been developed, we (with or without the help of the students, depending on your preference) can take each theme and synthesize it into a concise phrase. If we do it alone, the phrasing may be a little better, but if the students do it, it will likely lead to another elevation of their level of ownership for the process. One idea for including the students at this stage of the process is to give each group one of the themes and have them work with it until they come up with an acceptable phrase. In the end, a majority of the class must approve each phrase that is submitted.
As we will discuss in more detail in the next chapter, developing clear, logical and related consequences for contract violations is essential to the success of any social contract. Even though the two terms are used interchangeably by many, there is a significant difference between what constitutes a consequence and what constitutes a punishment. Logical and related consequences help students foster cause and effect relationships between their thoughts and actions and the outcomes of those thoughts and actions. These lessons lead to ever increasing levels of responsibility, and promote the student’s internal locus of control. Punishments lead to obedience at best, and more often to resentment and hostility. Few meaningful lessons are learned from punishments and their use degrades the quality of the contract. Punishments externalize the causality of the event as the student associates the interventions with pleasing and or displeasing the teacher rather than with the choices made.
Developing consequences as a class is an excellent way to promote higher levels of ownership and understanding. It will take time to help them understand the difference between punishments and consequences, but it is a useful distinction to make. In addition, it will help clarify the nature and purpose of the social contract. Using the exercise involving the student missing the bus in the following chapter would be a useful place to start. The degree to which you have students involved in the development process is up to you. However, keep in mind the trade-off. We want to maintain a sense of coherence and vision to the contract. That will come primarily from your ability to support ideas and outcomes that integrate well as a whole. One the other hand, more student involvement usually translates into more empowerment and buy-in.
If we want to support student involvement, we might want to use an inductive process to accomplish this. For instance, we might ask the students questions and brainstorm ideas for the common problems the class might face. It is best to be proactive rather than reactive when doing this. For example, consider a case where a student begins to abuse use of the pencil sharpener. If we raise the issue to the class as a whole after the event, the issue will be associated with the student, and our discussion will feel like public shaming to that student. If possible, we should anticipate the problem and have the discussion before the problem comes up. To be effective, consequences have to be well understood and in place before we can hold students accountable for them. Until then, we can use warnings. But use warnings as infrequently as possible. They weaken the cause-and-effect in the contract.
Take the case of the class where the students begin to request going to the restroom more often than we feel they should, and we determine that it is hurting the class as a result. We might take the opportunity to brainstorm a policy with the students on how to solve “our” problem. If we want to guide the process toward what we feel is a sound idea, we can begin by offering a plan for them to evaluate and approve. Or we can have students choose an idea from those that they generated themselves. But once the class has voted a policy into place, we can make an assumption about the level of understanding and ownership they will have toward that policy. So when that expectation is raised in whatever form, it will not come out of left field, or feel imposed.
With very young students, we will need to provide a greater amount of assistance in the consequence development process, but it can still be a useful exercise. The very young student can have difficulty recognizing an appropriate level of severity and can tend to think in terms of punishment. They will struggle with the notion that the consequences need to be logical and related. They will also abstract themselves from the possible misbehavior. They often struggle to conceive that they may be the ones violating the social contract. As a result, when we ask for ideas from this age student, we are often surprised at what they come up with. We might ask, “What should we do if someone comes back from recess late?” We might get a response such as “They should be spanked,” or, “They should have to stay after school.” Again, it may be wise to offer alternatives and have students select from among them. This will promote ownership while supporting an outcome everyone can better accept.
When a policy, rule or consequence is not working well, it represents an opportunity to improve the social contract, as well as provide the students with the opportunity to engage in a democratic decision-making exercise. Students of any age can successfully participate in a class meeting, if it is well organized. We will discuss class meetings and their benefits in more detail in Chapter 17, but they will have value to the extent that they are well structured, effectively led, and that students take them seriously. Here are some basic guidelines for an effective class meeting:
Students should feel free to suggest to you (privately is best) that the class is in need of a class meeting to resolve a pressing problem. You may not feel every request is worthy of a class meeting. But the more this process is generated by the students and results in an increased sense of justice and mutual respect, the more it will strengthen the social contract. For those who are inclined toward 1-Style management approach, a useful goal will be to make yourself redundant in the process as the students learn to take an ever-increasing degree of control over the process.
Step 4: Make the Social Contract as Conspicuous as Possible.
The initial process of creating the basic rules, expectations and consequences for contract violations should happen as soon as possible in the term. And once it is in place, the social contract has a birth. But it will fade in memory if it does not become a living document. It will need to evolve to meet the needs of its stakeholders, and grow as the collective grows in maturity, since any social contract will exist only in the collective understanding of the participants. This understanding begins with familiarity. One idea is to use phrases from your contract as banners within the class. For example, “This class is built on respect,” or, “Attitudes become actions.” Take advantage of the walls of your classroom. Student are bombarded by thousands of visual images each day, why not make the ones in your class empowering?
For grades two and up, one option is to send a copy of the contract home with each student and have each parent and the student sign it, denoting that they have read and understood it. This practice can have many benefits. First, it provides an opportunity for families to read your social contract, promoting their understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and their appreciation that your discipline system is proactive and positive. Second, it allows you to refer to the fact that the student signed the contract. This may be valuable when they feel tempted to distance themselves from their agreement.
To promote understanding of the written content of your social contract, it can be a very effective strategy to take time to discuss it, and then quiz the students on it. This may sound odd, but the investment of time will be paid back many times in improved behavior later. Why not expect the students to pass the social contract contents quiz, before they are able to enjoy the privilege of taking part in the other aspects of the class? It may be as simple as requiring that the students are able to list the class rules, and requiring a 100% score before they are allowed to use a specified piece of classroom equipment (e.g., a computer, gym equipment, lab materials, puzzles, library books). However, only use the idea of a quiz if you judge that the students need help buying into the social contract.
While the written word can be a powerful tool in promoting a social contract, a good number of very effective social contracts exist almost entirely on an implicit level--as shared understandings between the teacher and the students. This is possible because the majority of the means by which the social contract is communicated are by teacher-student interactions. Recall our discussion of classroom expectations in Chapter 6. Students will respond to the degree that an expectation is clear and associated positively. Therefore we need to promote our social contract with effective methods and avoid ineffective methods. Beginning with the most effective methods (as outlined in Chapter 6), let’s examine how each technique can be used to promote the strength of one’s social contract.
Purposeful Action: The most defining factor in the development and implementation of the social contract will be the degree to which the teacher is consistent, clear, and follows through. This idea will be explored in depth in Chapter 11.
Positive Recognitions: “I just want to recognize how respectful and supportive you each are to the person presenting. How does it feel to be in a class that is so respectful of one another?” Let the students know it when they are behaving in a way that is promoting the social contract and the common good.
Clarifying Statements: “We all have our full attention on Phang right now, and we are listening for some of the key details that he included in his story.” This is a powerful way to remind the student of the expectation without being negative or lecturing them.
Mantras: “In this class, we raise our hands before we speak,” or, “In this class, there are only hard working, intelligent students.” Mantras are words that can translate into actions eventually. Even if they are far from a realistic assessment at first, they will become actualized over time.
Clarifying Questions: “What is the consequence, if we do not finish our work during class?” or “What is the expectation when we are at the computer?” These help the students recall the aspect of the social contract without being told. They breed accountability and self-reflection.
Warnings: Use when an expectation, rule, policy or consequence is new and unfamiliar; after that they only weaken the cause-and-effect relationship that gives the social contract much of its power.
Negative recognitions, lectures, put-downs, punishments, personal praise, and public shaming all weaken the contract and undermine the relationship between the teacher and the students. This idea will be discussed further as we examine the use of punishments in the next chapter.
If a procedure needs to be improved, practice it (see Chapter 12). If the social contract requires a new set of skills, teach and model them (see Chapter 14, related to cooperative learning). To promote a practical understanding of the contract, make the implicit aspects more explicit. If your contract has words such as respect, responsibility, attention, attitude, cooperation, effort, encouragement, etc, (and it is desirable that it would), you must make those abstractions concrete and personal, or they will remain abstractions. So use practical behavior to help students inductively master the conceptual realities. As discussed above, positive recognitions of behavior are both concrete and personal. They teach concepts fast, if we help students recognize the connection. For example, after an activity we might say, “Our goal was to take care of our materials so that they would last; I see that they are still in all here and in great shape. That kind of responsible behavior tells me I can trust you and to go out and get more materials.” Or, “I notice that each of the members of this group have waited their turn to speak, that is a great example or respect.” We will want to use mantras, clarifying statements and clarifying questions in the same way.
How you deal with contract violations will have the most significant effect on the integrity of the social contract. When we observe behavior that is violates the agreement, we have three choices. Only one is helpful. The other two will quickly undermine the integrity of the contract. If we take action, follow through and hold the students accountable, the contract is shown to have efficacy and integrity. If we ignore the behavior, or if we “go negative” (e.g., become disappointed, shame the student, recognize the behavior publicly, etc.), it shows the contract to be weak and randomly applied. When it is inconsistently applied, it becomes about the teacher (the external locus of control) and less about the choice of the student (internal locus of control), and therefore loses power.
In Chapter 12, we will discuss how to lead the class’s efforts to function effectively on a technical level (listening, transitions, redirections, daily routines, etc.). These behaviors represent an opportunity for students to show respect for one another and a value their learning.
The roles of both the teacher and students within the social contract may appear obvious. However, you might be surprised at how much students vary in their view of their role in the contract and what they view as your role. So, depending on the style of leader you desire to be, you will need to remind the students what your role is, what it is not, what their role is and what it is not. Students will likely bring in a composite of the roles that they adopted from past classes and their home life. Likewise, they will assign you a role that mirrors what they have experienced from others. Again, don’t stay in thoughts of disappointment or insult. Be proactive. Continuously clarify the roles within the social contract. This will be an ongoing process. It will require public reminders such as, “I am not going to come and fix the problems in your groups. You will need to work out your disagreements on your own.” And private encounters, “Esteban, it is your responsibility to bring the necessary materials.” The social contract will work best if take a facilitator role. Avoid being the judge, the police, or and passive shopkeeper. The importance of this will be reinforced in the following chapters.
As the expectations become more familiar and concrete to students, one can begin to use language that tests the degree to which the expectations have been internalized. For instance, if the behavior related to what defines the concept a “ready” group has been internalized by students, one only need refer to the term. In this case, we might say, “I am looking for the groups that are ‘ready.’” If we observe groups demonstrating “ready group” behavior, we know that the students have it. If they do not, we know it is time to clarify the concept a bit further, and then assess the expectation later to see if it has been internalized. Again, clarifying questions are helpful in assisting the students from the learning stage to the performance stage. For example, instead of saying to the class, “Class please say hello to our Principal Mr. Maroufi.”, we might simply ask the class, “How do we greet a guest in our class?”
The social bonds among the members of the class will become stronger, if they are supported by communal bonds. Fundamentally, a basic social contract does not require the need for interdependence and/or a commitment on the part of the students to the common good, yet building those qualities into the logic of the overall contract will bring an added level of vitality to the classroom relationships. Applying the following three principles will go a long way in promoting the communal bonds in your class.
Each of these ideas is examined in more detail in Chapter 17.
No matter if your preference is for a more teacher-centered class (2-Style orientation) or a more student-centered class (1-Style orientation), your contract will become stronger to the degree that the ownership of it resides with the students rather than the teacher. If the students come to view the contract as something that you are imposing upon them, it will have a limited effect. However, if they view the contract as something that functions to make their class more effective and more emotionally safe, and they appreciate the feeling of responsibility that it promotes, it will grow in efficacy and integrity.
To help promote ownership of the contract, it is useful to gradually shift the focus of your language from the kinds of behavior expected to the value to one’s self and the group when that behavior is exhibited. Especially if you are interested in developing a 1-Style classroom, helping students appreciate the value of consideration, self-discipline, and personal responsibility are critical to promoting a living and internalized social contract, and will lead naturally into the development of communal bonds. We will discuss the pathway to a 1-Style classroom and how to build a community upon the foundation of the social contract in Chapter 17.
In the next chapter, we will explore the importance of developing logical and related consequences for social contract violations, and helpful guidelines for doing so. In Chapter 11, we discuss steps for effectively implementing the consequences of our social contract.
Curwin R & Mendler A (1986) Discipline
with Dignity. ASCD Press.