Student contracts can solve classroom problems. When a child is floundering, try this. First, schedule a three-way meeting. Discuss problems in a kind, matter-of-fact way. Second, as a group, create a short list of goals. Instead of putting the onus on the child only, divide the responsibility between teacher, student, and parent. Third, set a time frame. Finally, ask each party to sign the contract.
Ms. Sneed Turns Up the Heat on Classroom Management
After three years in the classroom, our favorite fourth grade teacher felt relatively organized. And, to be honest, her classroom management was humming along pretty well too. She’d settled on a seating arrangement that worked with her teaching style. With the help of her mentor, she had also learned to set effective rules and develop behavior checklists.
Unfortunately, one thing still gave her trouble: underachievers. You know, kids who don’t do their work. This year, she vowed to try student contracts. Hopefully, they’d do the trick.
A Sample Scenario
Marty was not turning in his assignments. Additionally, he didn’t study for tests. Consequently, his grades dropped. His teacher, Ms. Sneed, tried a variety of techniques. When the trouble began, she spoke encouraging words and sent homework notices home. As she became more frustrated, Ms. Sneed scolded Marty and kept him in for recess. But things were not improving. What was a teacher to do?
Scheduling a Three-Way Conference
Ms. Sneed decided to call Marty’s parents. It was time to establish a student contract. Instead of meeting exclusively with his mom, she also invited Marty.
Facing Problems Head-On
When the conference began, Ms. Sneed didn’t beat around the bush. “Marty is not turning in assignments or studying for tests. His grades are dropping. Therefore, he needs help from his teacher and parents. Today we will get to the root of the problem and set up a student contract. Together, we will ensure his success for a short period of time. Hopefully Marty will establish new habits. Then we’ll pull back and let him take off on his own.”
Looking for Patterns
Next, Ms. Sneed explained which assignments Marty was missing in each subject. That helped. For this student, most missing work required writing.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Ms. Sneed asked Marty to explain why he avoided assignments that required writing in sentences and paragraphs. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know. I guess I just look at all of the blank space on the page that I have to fill in…”
“Does that feel overwhelming, Marty?” asked Ms. Sneed.
“Yeah, and so I just sit there. After a while, everyone else is done. And I haven’t even begun. When I get home from school, I want to play.”
“And when it’s homework time, he sits and looks at his paper. It sounds like the same thing that happens at school,” added Marty’s mom.
“Would you feel better if you were allowed to type your answers, Marty?” asked Ms. Sneed.
“No. I’m worse at typing than writing,” Marty responded.
“Hmm. What if we set a time limit? For example, we could say that you had 30 seconds to write the first word.”
Marty perked up. “You mean that I would be forced to write something right away? That might help. At least my paper wouldn’t be blank.”
“We could also set a time limit for each question. Maybe three minutes for a one-sentence answer and ten minutes for a paragraph answer. With those time limits, you should be able to finish your work at school.”
“You mean no homework?” asked Marty. The thought of that made Marty and his mom smile.
“I think we’re ready to get started on the contract,” said Ms. Sneed.
Creating Student Contracts
Establishing Teacher Responsibilities
“We’ll start the contract with my goals,” Ms. Sneed stated. She typed “Academic Contract for Marty Smith” at the top of a blank page. Then she added:
The teacher will:
- post assignments each day.
- provide study guides for tests.
- check Marty’s assignment notebook at the end of each day.
- monitor times for Marty to get started and complete questions.
“I already write the assignments on the board each day and give out study guides,” said Ms. Sneed. “The last two items on my list will happen only during the contract. These are added layers of support that will help ensure Marty’s success.”
Marty and his mom nodded their consent. Both were sitting up a little straighter. And what was that gleaming in their eyes? Yes, it was hope.
Listing Student Responsibilities
“Now we’ll add your goals to the student contract, Marty.” Four additional items were listed:
The student will:
- write all assignments in the assignment notebook each day.
- take the assignment notebook to his teacher to sign each afternoon.
- place all assignments and the assignment notebook in his backpack each afternoon.
- study for each test.
“These goals help Marty share responsibility with me in the classroom,” said Ms. Sneed. “I shouldn’t have to hunt him down each afternoon to sign the notebook. That’s Marty’s responsibility. Additionally, he’s responsible for getting everything into the backpack. Now let’s add one more layer of support from the parents.”
Spelling Out Parent Responsibilities
The parents will:
- check the assignment notebook each night.
- ensure that all assignments are completed each night.
- sign the assignment notebook to show that all work was completed.
- help the student study for each test.
“Do you feel that these goals are reasonable and doable?” Ms. Sneed looked at Marty and his mom. They both nodded. “Great!” smiled Ms. Sneed. “If we can all meet our goals, I think we can also guarantee Marty’s success. I anticipate that his grades are about to go up!” By this time, everyone was smiling.
Establishing Timelines for Student Contracts
“Now we need to establish a timeline. Hmm, I generally like to go four weeks. That’s a good amount of time to establish new habits. How do you feel about that?”
After some discussion, Marty, his mom, and his teacher agreed. Four weeks was a long time, but they could do it.
Ms. Sneed added the dates to the top of the page.
Signing Off on Student Contracts
At the bottom, she created blanks for each collaborator’s signature and typed their names below. After hitting “Print,” Ms. Sneed made three copies of the document. They all signed the student contracts, and each person received a copy.
“This is great,” said Ms. Sneed. “Tomorrow is a new start for you, Marty!”
Providing Support and Consistency
For four weeks, the team worked together. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes Marty still felt overwhelmed. But his teacher and mom were there to get him started and keep him going. Sometimes Ms. Sneed got busy with other students and forgot to time Marty. But she didn’t quit. The next day she tried extra hard to keep him on task. Sometimes Marty’s parents had busy evenings and forgot to sign his notebook. But Marty reminded them in the morning, and they finished whatever homework was left over.
Ms. Sneed likes to say, “A student contract is just like a diet. If you’re good most days, you’ll like the results.” And she’s right.
Continuing or Rewriting the Contract
After four weeks, Marty was ready to soar on his own. This is typical. In Ms. Sneed’s experience, contracts work. The support provided through student contracts offers guaranteed success. As expected, success makes the student feel good. Therefore, it’s a feeling he wants to keep. Most times, when the contract ends, the student will keep going on his own.
But what if the contract doesn’t work? Sometimes, kids need a longer time with support. And other times, the goals don’t yield desired results. In that case, Ms. Sneed sighs, calls the parents again, and sets up a new contract. As she likes to say: “Back to the drawing board.”
Why It’s Worth the Effort
Yep. Contracts are a pain. But it’s worth the effort. Why? As Ms. Sneed knows, helping kids succeed in school is of the utmost importance. However, setting kids up for continued success in school is even more important. Student contracts allow teachers to make a huge difference in the lives of their students.
If you haven’t tried student contracts – well, what are you waiting for? They’ll help you enjoy teaching even more.