I recently had a Twitter chat with a gentleman who advocates behaviour contracting with students. He thinks children should be involved in rule-making rather than having rules imposed upon them. At face value, the idea of inviting children to help us write the rules can seem enticing. It instinctively feels like a reasonable thing to do. However, I think the issue is far more complex and that, ultimately, students co-creating the school rules is really not a good idea. To explain why, I’m going to try to deconstruct some of the common reasons given for why it might work in order to explain why it won’t work.
Argument 1: We involve students in creating the rules in order to make them feel valued.
There is an immediate problem with this in that the primary purpose of a behaviour policy is to facilitate lots of good behaviour and reduce or eliminate poor behaviour. This may be the wrong time and place, then, to worry about making students feel valued. (It is always important that students don’t feel de-valued but that is a different construct.) A behaviour policy needs to be neutral, focusing on behaviour and not the relative ‘value’ of the human concerned.
But there is another problem. And to highlight it, I’ll turn to an anecdote from my own teaching experience. I worked in a school that required teachers to set up written behaviour contracts with each class. My lesson was period 5 on a Friday. By the time they came to me, one particular class had been contracting all week with every single teacher and they were now dab hands at it.
“Are we doing contracting, Miss? We’ve got a really good argument for what you should include.” They wanted me to write this into our contract:
Students who have done well all lesson (interestingly, I was allowed to set the criteria for what that meant) should be allowed to graffiti the teachers’ cars after the lesson on a Friday afternoon on their way home, providing they only used paint that will easily wash off. Poorly behaved students should have to do the car-washing so that teachers don’t have to.
Well, what was I to say to that? I have to admit, I was fascinated by their arguments. They said it would be motivational for students, that it would allow students to vent frustration at the end of the week to be in a better mindset on the Monday. They said that staff and students could laugh over the graffiti and that it would be a bonding experience. They had their arguments well prepared.
Thinking of my colleagues and my own beloved mini, I said no to their request.
“What’s the point in all this contracting if none of you teachers is actually going to let us have a say? It’s a sham.”
Good point. This was one of the more extreme examples but teachers had been refusing them things all week long. And that is the problem. It is disingenuous to pretend that you are going to allow students to have meaningful input when really you probably can’t. As teachers, we lose credibility when we promise things and don’t deliver, and losing credibility is not a great start to tackling behaviour. Students have crazy ideas because they’re creative human beings and that is great. But rules are a serious thing and this is not the time for complication or creativity.
Even if we use a restricted list of items for students to agree or disagree to sign up to, (picking five rules from a list of ten, for example), what do we do about the rules the students reject? Do they no longer count? What if they’re quite important?
And different lists of rules in different classrooms is particularly awful. I hope nobody is doing this any more. It is a ridiculously hard thing for any human to remember a different set of rules for each room they visit during the week. Children need to be remembering the content of their learning, not the fact that this is the classroom where they’re not allowed to tap on the desk or chew their pen.
Argument 2: We involve students in writing the rules so that they buy in to the behaviour policy because then they will be more likely to follow it.
Let’s just break that down and see how it looks in real life. If the assumption is true that students behave better if they co-create the rules, that would mean something like the following sequence would have to kick in (the order may be debatable):
- Student misbehaves
- Student self-regulates, realising their mistake in breaking a rule
- Student makes a conscious connection to the significance of having broken a rule which they personallyagreed to abide by in the past
- Student is so moved by this, they stop misbehaving
- Student misbehaves
- Teacher regulates, commenting on how the student has broken a rule they personally agreed to
- Student makes a conscious connection to the significance of having broken a rule which they personally agreed to abide by (rather than just answering back or sulking or pointing out all the other people who are doing it too, whatever ‘it’ is)
- Student is so moved by this, they stop misbehaving
In either scenario, and especially the first one, we’re asking a huge amount of a student who is struggling to manage their own behaviour.
We’re also misunderstanding why students misbehave in the first place. This, for me, is a fundamental point: students don’t break rules because they didn’t get to make the rules. They break them for a great many reasons, but that is not one of them. Proponents of argument 2 are trying to solve a problem without first understanding its true, messy, complicated causes. Instead, they rely on a dubious proxy that, if we give students some influence, they’ll buy in to our rules and self-regulate, as if students had the knowledge and skills (procedural knowledge) to do so all along but were just exercising their democratic right not to bother.
I once asked a group of students if it were more important to them that they made the rules or if it were more important to them that the rules worked (as in, increased good behaviour and reduced poor behaviour.) They liked the sound of the first one until they heard option 2. The students immediately and unanimously agreed that they just wanted something that worked.
It is only an anecdote and therefore not evidence but it may go some way to dispelling the idea that students eternally crave involvement in rule-making. They don’t in my experience. They crave what works. It keeps them safe from other students’ misbehaviour and more likely to manage their own. Students don’t like misbehaviour. They like safety. And that can include a safe refuge from their own personal propensity for silly, immature behaviour that lands them in trouble and makes them feel bad.
Argument 3: We involve students in writing rules so that we teach them something about democratic processes or concepts
Well, a look back at argument 1 shows us that the process often deceives students into thinking they have more say than they do, which doesn’t seem very democratic (although may well reflect reality!!).
The process of contracting in a classroom is also a poor model for what happens in real life (a contract for, say, a job or a mortgage) where companies and banks are broadly unlikely to change their terms for an individual. This sometimes happens but it is not routine.
The process of contracting with students in school does not accurately represent what happens when we vote democratically in real life either. UK citizens do not vote to pass laws; we have an entirely different process for that. To teach students about democracy and politics, we need to put the behaviour policy to one side and explore other curriculum opportunities, of which there are many.
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The three arguments above are not evidence-based. It may feel good to involve students in everything but feelings and instincts can be misleading. And we should not prioritise our own desire to feel liberal and progressive (I am a’trad’ teacher but a political lefty, by the way) if doing so doesn’t work for our students. The thorough review carried out by Tom Bennett is clear that students need systems that are designed by (adult) professionals and implemented fairly, rigorously, consistently and as neutrally as possible. Students do not need to participate in writing the rules.
And let’s not forget, adult professoinals dedicate themselves to studying behaviour; it is not an insult to children to say that the decision-making shouldn’t be left in their hands.
But some people still don’t like the idea of ‘strict’. Imposing a policy on students still feels a bit too draconian. (Let’s not get carried away – Draco was an ancient Greek who decided petty theft and idleness should be punishable by death. Nobody is saying that any more.)
But an appropriate, strict behaviour policy, calmly enforced, might actually be the very best way to love a child, especially a vulnerable one, that we have available to us. Children who misbehave often have a huge amount of responsibility in their lives. They may be raising siblings, raising themselves, caring for a parent. The most loving thing we can do for them when they come into school is to say, “it’s ok, we’ve got this.”
We can give students a carefully designed, safe, structured universe, using all of our knowledge of behaviour so that, just this once, the students don’t have to be responsible, in any way at all, for their own safety. They literally just turn up and follow our game-plan. And everyone else follows it too.
So if a student is coping with a difficult home life, or ADHD, ASD or any number of things that just make navigating daily life that bit harder, at least they have security at school. Rules are created and enforced, appropriately, by adults. All the time, every time. Rules don’t have to be different for different classes or year groups, or suddenly change when the school cohort changes in September. That kind of structure, for themselves and for other students, is an absolute gift to a vulnerable child.
On top of this, we can explicitly model brilliant ways of behaving and allow students to practise them. Behaving is about carrying oneself in a particular way; manners are cultural and contextual so they have to be modelled and practised and learned. We can show students how to challenge someone else’s opinion, how to ask for something they need, how to move along a corridor. We can then simply call them out for it when they don’t behave appropriately.
None of this is oppressive. These high expectations send a clear message that we trust that deep down each student is brilliant, and we’re not going to let them disappoint themselves no matter how hard they may sometimes try. We’re going to guide them, with trust, support, honesty and knowledge to becoming the great people we insist they will become.
13th October 13, 2018