Coaches' Corner: Keeping the Social Contract Alive

For Middle Level

Dear Coach Scott,
Last year, our school community was psyched about the Social Contract we created. We especially liked the idea that students would buy into following our guidelines because they helped create them, and we especially liked how the Contract would become the authority, not us. We celebrated its creation, posted it in every room and on the walls in many hallways, and talked a lot initially among ourselves about how important it would be to follow it and teach our students to follow it. Then, before anyone realized it, it seemed to fall off everyone's radar. By November, the posted signs were wilting, peeling off the walls, and looking pretty raggedy. We teachers found ourselves back in our old behavior management "habits." I personally found myself in several power struggles each day, exactly the type of thing I had hoped to avoid with the support of the Social Contract. How can we do a better job of keeping our Contract alive next year?

-Ruby in Rochester

Coach Scott Says,
First, acknowledge your success. You were able to get input from students and come to consensus on a set of school-wide guidelines, no small achievement. Next year, focus on keeping your Social Contract alive.

Build into this year's calendar some group reminders about the Social Contract.
Try some of these ideas:

Social Contract check-in during advisory
Run community-building meetings during advisory in early October and early November (and each month that follows) that include discussions about the status of the Social Contract. Possible questions: How well is the Contract being followed by teachers? By students? Which guidelines are working? Which ones are being ignored? How well are teachers keeping the rules front and center for students? How much student thinking is being done about following the Contract? When weaknesses are brought up, possible solutions can be brainstormed by students and staff. You may tryout some of the best of these ideas.

School-wide Social Contract Day
In the middle of October and again in November, designate a school-wide Social Contract Day to be honored by all teachers and students. On Social Contract Day, teachers intentionally use reinforcing language that invokes the Social Contract when they see students demonstrating behaviors that follow the Contract. The success is recognized aloud to the group: "We are following our guideline for respect right now because we are carrying on a 'blurt-free' whole-group conversation. Keep it up!" Teachers may challenge themselves to use this type of positive recognition at least twice in each class period. Students write down specific behaviors they'll exhibit during Social Contract Day to support each of the agreements in the Social Contract, and these are displayed.

Sample student statements:

  • I will include others by inviting someone new to sit with me at lunch today.
  • I will respect everyone and everything by listening to other students’ opinions without judging them.
  • I will learn as much as I can today by saving my socializing for “down time.”

At the end of each class period, teachers can lead a reflection session with students. Possible reflection questions:

  • What have you done so far today to follow the Social Contract? Be specific.
  • What have you seen others do today that honors the Social Contract? Explain.
  • What specific things will you do next period (or tomorrow) that fit the Social Contract?

Written Social Contract reflection
Teachers can assign a short weekly or monthly writing assignment in which students reflect on one of more of the Social Contract principles. One school does this each Friday as part of a weekly letter home to parents written by the students. Possible prompts:

  • What are three common examples of school behaviors that are in line with our Social Contract? Describe the behavior and explain how the behavior supports the Contract.
  • Which of the Social Contract’s guidelines is easiest for you to follow?
  • Which is most difficult? Explain.
  • Assess how well you are living according to our Social Contract. Support your answer with examples.
  • Assess how well the class is living according to our Social Contract. Provide detailed examples.

All-school celebration
In January, hold an all-school meeting that celebrates the Social Contract. Have students make and unveil banners that remind the audience of the Contract’s agreements. Let them create and act out short vignettes that dramatize realistic, everyday school behaviors that support it. Play Sing a Song, and have students make up songs that include lyrics tied to the rules. Alternatively, Heads or Tails works well. Before playing either game, ask for students to volunteer examples of behaviors during the game that support the Social Contract, and have them explain their thinking. After playing, have students pair up and hold a thirty-second conversation about how well they and the group did following the Contract during play. Allow a few groups to share their thoughts with the whole group. To close, set up a microphone so students can acknowledge each other based on things they see their classmates doing to live by the rules. (See Games for instructions to the activities mentioned above.)

Gain strength each year
Finally, remember that growth is incremental. It takes time to develop the teacher habit of invoking the Social Contract on a regular, consistent basis. It takes years to change the culture of a school! If your Contract remains “alive” next year for a few months longer than it did this year, but then begins to fade, resuscitate it, and redouble your commitment to it in year three!

Scott Tyink is an Origins Developmental Designs consultant.

Published April 2011