Managing Student Behavior with a Student Contract

middle schooler listening to teacher in class

Managing the behavior of middle schoolers is an arduous task. Many teachers report arguing, not paying attention in class, lying, fighting, general disrespect and skipping school as problems they face on a daily basis. As young adolescents discover their autonomy and figure out who they are going to be as adults, it’s normal for them to test rules and push authoritative boundaries. It is a natural process in discovering their own morality and understanding of society.  That doesn’t mean school should be chaos though.  It’s up to teachers to create a positive learning space by managing student behavior so that it doesn’t take away from that environment.

What is the Student’s Role?

A lot of information exists about how to manage discipline in the classroom.  Many articles and blogs focus on making sure parents are brought in when there is a problem or creating systems in which student behavior can be monitored and evaluated regularly.  Some education experts focus on the need for clear boundaries while others talk about observing students’ moods for potential problem spots that might erupt later.  A teacher is supposed to be firm, but flexible; hold their students accountable while still being understanding to their changing needs.

middle schooler signing contractBut what about the students? How do we teach them to manage their own behavior? Talking to a student after they have done something wrong can be very effective, but that conversation still carries the weight of an authoritative judgment on their actions. How can teachers create a learning environment in which students feel responsible for their own behavior?

Being Proactive with Managing Behavior

One effective method is through a student contract. Not a behavior contract used in response to already occurred problem, but a contract for students’ future behavior. A contract that promotes positive values and goals for how to treat one another.

At Arthur Morgan School, students sign a contract every year. The contract focuses on the concept of respect:

  1. Respect yourself
  2. Respect others
  3. Respect the environment

The contract goes on to include examples of what respect may or may not look like.  At the bottom is a place for their signature–not their parents’ or their teachers’ signatures, just theirs.

The students sign the contract during a start of the year ceremony in which returning students pass down the school’s norms and culture to newer students. They talk about how the contract inspires a safe community that allows students to be themselves and focus on learning. Through the ceremony the students affirm their commitment to building respectful community.

They don’t see the contract as a punishment, but instead as an ideal for which to strive.  Later in the school year when people are stressed and their behavior begins to slide, the contract is something they can refer back to for help.

The Contract in Action

Recently, the middle schoolers of AMS did just that. Students reflected in All School Meeting that their community was becoming disrespectful. People were treating one another poorly and a cycle of meanness incurred. The students wanted to fix it and needed a pathway to help them address people’s behavior without shaming them.

The student contract paved the way. In this  video, AMS’s ninth grade class talks about how referring back to the student contract helped the community move in a more positive direction.

The ninth graders articulate that the student contract created a common language amongst the students and helped them feel like they were part of solving the problem. It provided a framework in which everyone had the opportunity to examine their behavior and see if it met the ideals of respecting themselves, others, and their environment.

It also helped the students feel successful. As you can see from the video, the student feel good about the outcome and appreciate the student contract as part of their school culture.

-By Nicholas Maldonado