Social Contracts

Are you a teacher who has wondered about the best way to create a classroom environment in which students felt safe to take risks in their learning?  Have you struggled with discipline issues? Have you wished that students could help to monitor each others’ behavior? Many teachers develop class rules at the beginning of the school year, but in my experience even when rules are co-created with students, they are not always effective. There may be too many rules for students to remember, or students might have multiple teachers who have different expectations. So what is a teacher to do? One solution is to develop a “social contract” for a specific group of students who work together frequently.

My introduction to the idea of a “social contract” came from a previous colleague (instructional coach) who was helping Innovation Institute teachers understand how to help students build healthy relationships with each other and encourage a trusting, empathetic environment in which students could more effectively collaborate. The social contract comes from the Flippen Group, which at the time had resources for the social contract online. However, this work now seems to be encompassed in their Capturing Kids’ Hearts professional training offerings (which look amazing). The social contract encourages students to manage their own (and each others’) behaviors by providing a shared understanding and clear structure for what is – and what is not – acceptable.

The social contract should be developed with a group that has newly formed, although it helps if the group has has had some time to get to know each other prior to creating the contract. How it works:

  • Seat students in small groups of 3-5. Students can be assigned roles such as time keeper, scribe, spokesperson, etc.
  • Introduce the idea of a “social contract”, and ask students why it might be helpful to have one.
  • Have students individually answer these questions on paper:
    1. How do you want to be treated by the teacher?
    2. How do you want to be treated by each other?
    3. How do you think the teacher wants to be treated?
    4. How will we handle violations of the contract?
  • After students have had individual ‘think time’, have them share their thoughts in their small groups.
  • Next, ask each question one at a time, and have each group share out to the class.
    • Encourage all ideas to be shared, and record every idea (as single words or short phrases) on a large piece of paper. Ideally, the social contract should be kept posted in the room.
    • If any ideas are repeated, use a check mark to indicate that it was stated more than once.
    • Students should be as specific as possible. For example, ‘respect each other’ is perhaps not specific enough. What do they mean exactly? What does respect look like? sound like?
    • Ask for clarification of any terms and/or ideas that may not be universally agreed upon or understood. However, as much as possible, the ideas shared should be written exactly as the student shared them.
  • Once all ideas are recorded, it is important to agree upon how to hold each other accountable. Students can call ‘foul’ on each other – or a teacher – if someone says or does something that is deemed to go against the social contract.
  • Everyone needs to sign the contract, including the teacher. 
  • When can someone call ‘foul’? Whenever they perceive that someone has said something or acted in a way that goes against the spirit of the social contract – either towards them or another classmate.
  • What happens when someone calls ‘foul’? A foul cannot be questioned or negotiated. If someone has ‘foul’ called on them, they cannot argue it. They must offer two ‘put ups’ to the person they have been deemed to have mistreated. The ‘put ups’ must be something positive about that person’s character – it cannot be about their appearance or anything superficial. Teachers may need to model genuine, quality ‘put ups’.

In my experience, students came to the realization that the answers to all four questions are very similar. Everyone really wants to be treated the same way. Although there will be many ideas recorded in the social contract, it starts to become apparent that everyone should follow the ‘golden rule’ – treat others the way you want to be treated. This is what makes the social contract easier to follow than a list of specific rules. ANY behavior or words that are deemed harmful in some way can be called out as a ‘foul’.

What could cause the social contract to fail?

  • Inconsistency. Teachers need to hold students accountable and encourage students to call foul on both students AND the teacher, if necessary.
  • Sarcasm. Teachers should be willing to be called out for using sarcasm.
  • Students have already been together for a long period of time. My team first implemented the social contract with students in their second year of a program. We were new teachers for these students, but they had already spent an entire school year together and had built a dynamic without us. It felt almost impossible to have students ‘buy in’ to the idea of a social contract.
  • Multiple teachers. All teachers must ‘buy in’ to the social contract. If your students have multiple teachers, ensure that they are involved. Ideally, they are a part of the process, but students could also share and explain with other teachers after it is created. All teachers should sign the contract.

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